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Does 'new politics' mean more Oxbridge males?

By Felicity Spector

Updated on 13 May 2010

With women making up just 20 per cent of David Cameron's cabinet, and an overwhelming majority from Oxbridge, Felicity Spector asks whether the new coalition really is an end to "old politics".

Home Secretary Theresa May (Getty)

The "scandalous under-representation of women" must end, David Cameron declared as he promised to give a third of the jobs in his first government to women. Except that was two years ago.

And today? We are left with just four women in the new cabinet out of 29 entitled to attend. That is less than 20 per cent - far fewer than most other western democracies.

Women make up 53 per cent of the cabinet in Spain. In Germany it is 37 per cent, and 33 per cent in France. In the United States, 31 per cent. Italy, Greece and Belgium all have more cabinet women than Britain. And that is without mentioning countries like Sweden, with an impeccable record on equality.

The Fawcett Society, which has long campaigned to boost women's representation in politics, is furious: "Cameron and Clegg may herald a new era of coalition politics, but when it comes to giving women senior roles it seems clear the old school mentality of jobs for the boys remains."

It is also worth noting that this is the first cabinet with no openly gay members for 13 years. Baroness Warsi is the only non-white cabinet member, and as Tory party chairperson, she has the rather nebulous role of "minister without portfolio".

Somehow Theresa May is expected to combine the job of home secretary - hardly a part-time role - with that of women’s and equality minister. She is bound to have acres of time to devote to that.

It is not just a gender thing, it is class.

The new prime minister, deputy PM and chancellor are all former public schoolboys. Old Etonian David Cameron is joined by two others from his alma mater - Oliver Letwin and Sir George Young. Nick Clegg was educated at Westminster, as was Chris Huhne and Dominic Grieve.

In total 59 per cent of the cabinet were privately educated and 69 per cent went to Oxford or Cambridge. Just a few ministers stand out: Communities Secretary Eric Pickles went to a polytechnic, while Chief Whip Patrick McCloughlin was at agricultural college. Iain Duncan Smith went to Sandhurst.

The problem goes far wider than the cabinet, partly because many of the Tory and Lib Dem candidates who were considered rising stars failed to get elected.

It looks particularly glaring for the Lib Dems: their parliamentary party is now 100 per cent white, with just seven women.

And Labour are hardly exemplary either. Although Harriet Harman is biding her time as the party's acting leader, there are unlikely to be any women candidates in the forthcoming leadership contest.
The frontrunner, David Miliband, may not have been to private school (he went to a north west London comprehensive, as befits his impeccable left-wing credentials), but he was at Oxford University at the same time as David Cameron, and Education Secretary Michael Gove, not to mention the other leading contenders for Labour's top job.

The moral of the "new era of British politics"? If the old school tie doesn't get you there, the Oxbridge connection can't fail to help.

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