Inclusion is now a political dividing line. But progressive parties should practise – and not just preach

Each year, International Women’s Day is an important opportunity to mark progress on gender equality but also to challenge ourselves on making further strides. This year’s theme #InspireInclusion highlights the importance of women from all backgrounds occupying leadership and decision-making roles.

Generally, organisations across public, private and social sectors view achieving gender equality (and equality more broadly) as a fundamental business imperative which affects every aspect of what they do – leading to better products and services, more representative workforces and more effective governance. In short, organisations which reflect diversity in who they are and what they do make better decisions. Chrsitine Lagarde famously commented that it ‘might be a different world today if it had been Lehman Sisters, rather than Lehman Brothers’. Sadly, this week the government has once again positioned itself against this consensus with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt using his Budget to call on councils to cut diversity activity – essentially labelling any practical action towards achieving greater equality as both wasteful and irrelevant to organisational purpose.

Fawcett’s 2022 Sex and Power report highlights the stubborn nature of the gender imbalance in and around politics which is both familiar and depressing in equal measure. There are currently no women leaders of parties represented in Parliament, women still make up only one in three MPs, around 30 of whom are from a global majority background and only three who are disabled women. Representation in regional and local government isn’t much different. The representation of women councillors isn’t far off the representation among MPs at 36%. Mayor Brabin is the UK’s only woman Metro Mayor and still only one in five council leaders are women. In government, only 39% of Special Advisers in government were women – fewer in Number 10 at 33% and only 35% of permanent secretaries within the civil services are women.

At the Future Governance Forum (FGF), we are focused on the revival of progressive government in the UK. Last week, we published the first of our Into Power series looking back at two examples of handovers of power from conservative incumbents to progressive governments – to highlight possible lessons for the UK in 2024.

In both cases, personal leadership was key to a successful transition – reflecting their priorities as leaders. For both Joe Biden and Anthony Albanese, diversity was a core element of establishing a successful administration. Biden constructed the most diverse US administration ever, in terms of both gender and ethnicity. In Australia, Albanese’s transition achieved an unprecedented transparency in the search for the people required. Both demonstrated political leadership on the relevance of representation.

Politics isn’t alone in its lack of representation both in terms of gender balance, and diversity more broadly – but government shouldn’t be behind the curve, it should lead by example. National governance is compromised if it’s built on such a fundamental lack of representation of half the population. While the current government is increasingly turning its back on equity, diversity and inclusion, the public may have higher expectations – particularly of a new and progressive government. Progressive parties have an opportunity to express their values through how they govern, not just what they seek to do.

Labour has committed to leading a mission-driven government – making a clear statement about their vision for how they will seek to govern, and not just what they will seek to do. Women make up just over half of the Parliamentary Labour Party and 48% of the Shadow Cabinet. If Labour forms a new progressive government, will they mirror the vision illustrated by Joe Biden and pursue a government that looks like the UK?

A new progressive government has an opportunity to set themselves apart in every way – to strike a different tone, to set a new culture of how government is done and what government looks and sounds like in the corridors of power. Our case studies show that ultimately, leadership is what makes the difference. Either this matters to leaders or it doesn’t, it’s that simple. And if it’s a priority for the leader then the system will respond.