Elizabeth Peacock: Commons not representative of the nation

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THERE has been much debate on these pages in the past two weeks by your columnist Tom Richmond on the role of women within the Tory party and specifically the North.

Michael Gove and Baroness Warsi have taken David Cameron to task for having too many Old Etonians in his administration, and I heartily agree that too many Ministers or shadow ministers drawn from one section of society is unhealthy.

Regardless of party, the present composition of the House of Commons has become unrepresentative of the nation.

The Commons is short of businessmen, farmers and union representatives who were the stalwarts of the House in earlier years.

Traditionally we had agricultural workers, miners, shipbuilders, sheet metal workers and people who had built businesses.

Times have changed and we now need people with experience of new industries, electronics, specialised engineering from management or shop floor level.

Certainly, we do not want everyone at degree level – we need a mix of life experiences.

The House in the past had too many lawyers, but it now has too many people of whom it could be said they have never had a “proper job”.

Too many members have gone from school to university and then straight into political research at Westminster from which they jump to be party candidates and when elected move rapidly into government.

We do need old Etonians, but we also require people who have gone to the local academy and then onto apprenticeships or university. People with this background can apply common sense to the nation’s problems.

Our political parties will have to review their candidate selection process with these thoughts in mind, particularly in constituencies with potentially large majorities.

Maybe we would benefit from a review of the age at which people may stand for Parliament. Currently we can vote and become a member at 18 years of age and in theory go straight into government.

Scotland is going for 16 years of age for a vote in their independence referendum, which I am not sure about, but it is an option. In contrast, maybe we should not allow anyone under 25 to be a Parliamentary candidate? This could be controversial, but a debate would be useful.

The lack of women in the Commons remains a serious issue on which I have worked for 30 years. The hurdles to get and keep more women in the House do not get any easier. Selection as a candidate is often more difficult than being elected.

Getting those women who have been elected to stay in the House has become a problem. Many of “Blair’s Babes” from 1997 have disappeared and in the current Parliament four or five women who were successful at the last election have indicated that they will not stand again.

I do understand their problems, particularly if they are young with a growing family. It is difficult to manage a four way life – husband, children, constituency and Westminster.

However, some – like Elizabeth Truss, the Education Minister who grew up in Leeds – appear to be dealing with the difficulties. I know what a sterling job she did as candidate in Hemsworth.

We do, however, have other talent available here in Yorkshire, including the impressive Andrea Jenkyns, who is planning to replace Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood.

I am sure there must be other Yorkshirewomen who would like to try for Westminster and I am always happy to discuss my experiences with them on a non- political basis.

I remain surprised that Baroness Warsi of Dewsbury did not pick up the women’s issue as the former vice chairman of the Conservative Party. Maybe this is because she has not experienced the constituency pressures and the rigours of life in the Commons.

Tom Richmond’s observation that a new Conservative approach is needed in the North is true. A positive approach to party policy is required to attract the northerner.

I know David Cameron is conscious of this as I recently discussed the issue with him. I emphasised the need for a flexible policy for the North that reflects the needs and opinions of local people. I am sure we will see change.

I predict all parties will have to review the representation of their electors if they are to retain the support of a more sophisticated and demanding audience.

• Elizabeth Peacock was the Conservative MP for Batley and Spen from 1983 until 1997.