When in 1997 the number of women MPs sitting in the House of Commons doubled over night, it was widely assumed that British politics had finally arrived at that destination reached long ago by our Scandinavian neighbours. Many assumed that the electoral success of female candidates would be just the start of a process that would inevitably lead to full equality in representation.
Ten years later, we know that this was probably more wishful thinking than objective analysis. While women’s share of parliamentary seats has slightly increased in the last two general elections, the figures have remained stuck at one in five. Now research is showing that any substantial improvement in the number of women entering parliament has been ruled out at the next election.
As the country marks the 90th anniversary of women first winning the right to vote and the 80th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act, it is becoming clear that women are still struggling to make inroads into Westminster. Based on the candidacies and retirements announced so far, we can safely predict that should the Conservatives manage to secure a working majority, the number of female parliamentarians is likely to drop to 1997 levels, with a number of prominent women Labour MPs facing the axe.
The picture does not look much better with Labour holding on to power. With things staying as they are, parliament will only have slightly more women than there currently are, around 21 percent or 138 female MPs in a house of 650. And even with an increased Labour majority of two percent, the Commons will continue to be a long way off from the 30 percent considered a ‘critical mass’.
This clearly makes for some uncomfortable reading, particularly since the issue of equality in representation has become a political battleground between the parties. After all, it was only in March that David Cameron publicly announced that he would aspire to one third of ministerial jobs going to women under a Conservative government. Given that after the next election only 14.5 per cent of all Conservative MPs are likely to be female, it is questionable that Cameron will actually have enough women to fill all the ministerial posts with women that he hoped for, should the Tories form the next government.
What is even more disconcerting, however, is the fact that we can predict the outcome so far in advance. Although the next general election is still a couple of years away, the way we elect our representatives makes any huge surprises almost impossible. The current first past the post system (FPTP) not only favours incumbent MPs, as it is usually the norm for sitting MPs to run again, it also allows parties to divide the country into winnable and non-winnable seats, making it possible to allocate less desirable seats to ‘newcomers’. This combination of a strong incumbency advantage and the relatively simple division into winnable and non-winnable constituencies possible under FPTP introduces a predictability that is not only undesirable in democratic terms but also unfavourable to women and other non-traditional candidates.
A different electoral system would not solve all the problems of equality in representation by itself. After all, parties still have to demonstrate their willingness to select female candidates and the electorate needs to be willing to back them. But as the first Scottish local elections held under the single transferable vote showed, even when all parties fail to get women on the ballot, there remains a very real potential for change. Although in 2007 fewer women were elected to become local councillors than in previous elections, the higher ratio of women elected once selected proved the point. It not only demonstrates that women are in fact electable, but that the distinction between winnable and non-winnable wards is less stringent, opening doors to new faces.
This election brought back some essential elements of democracy – true accountability and choice in all wards and not just the marginal few. All views and voices, not merely the loudest, are now heard in town halls across Scotland.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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