Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Politics for all?

Why women are still struggling to make inroads into Westminster

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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.

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Beatrice Barleon

is women’s officer at the Electoral Reform Society. For a more detailed outline of the methodology and the research, on which this article is based, visit the society’s website

3 comments

  • We should have more female – and black – MPs if the voters want them, but not all-female – or all-black – short lists which deny choice to voters and reduce democracy. The parties should not foist candidates upon the public to achieve artificial targets.
    Beatrice Barleon is right that the solution is to change the voting system to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies. This would encourage each party to nominate a diversity of candidates and allow voters to choose from among them. This would improve democracy and more female and black MPs would be elected naturally. One of the advantages of STV is that it makes it easier for the candidates, whom voters (not necessarily parties) really want, to be elected regardless of gender and race.

  • Very many MPs were first Councillors, therefore if we had a women-friendly system of electing councillors that would be a big part of the solution at the Westminster level.
    STV is a great tool but a bad master. Great for choice voting and for counting, but bad if it is only hooked to one scheme for its implementation, namely one which involves ever bigger wards so as to allow enough multi-members so as to ensure proportionality.
    Is there a way round the apparent impasse between those who look for small local wards and those who emphasisise proportionality plus big wards? There needs to be because ever bigger wards means counicllors become a class apart, ‘ordinary people’ with families will become disninclined to stand for counil if it means having to attend commuity events across half the city instead of just in our local patch/ward, and alss having to repsond to four or more times the letters, calls for help etc from constituents.
    There is a solution, it is called Participatory Weighted Voting and you can e-mail me for a copoy of the paper I distributed at the STV One year On conference in Edinburgh this summer.
    Basically it says
    a) keep small wards;
    b) everyone who gets over the quota of (say 5 percent of the vote) should be elected, thus not wasting all that creative civic engagement energy of many candidates who aren’t elected.
    c) STV to be used to ensure no wasted votes on candidates who get less than the quota;
    d) once councillors go up to City Hall and take part in Council debates, committess, etc they carry clout which is proportional to their vote – if you get 35 percent and I get 7 perecent I will have only one fith of your vliting power, but still the right of initiative, right to receive council papers by e-mail etc, right to speak on committees, etc — a sort of half way house to a more participatory democracy, only still organised enough for people to know where we all stand and not have to stay up half the night when the decsions are made by attrition!
    e) Pay would also be divvied up proportionally, which is a kind of jobshare arrangement, which is what – together with less overwork, could mean that many mothers, women, retired people, people with disabilities, who feel attracted to serving on the Council – not as a breed apart but more as Tribunes of the People.
    Whether some variant of this system could be applied to Westminster i don’t know, it would certainly involve a lot of rethinking traditional assumptions. But eyes on the prize! built in proportionality and retaining or moving to small wards which will be extremely significant from the point of view of getting or women and ethnic minorities elected.
    This splits the difference between old labour and old STV positions. it is the old VOTING/COUNTING mechanism of STV harnassed to a NEW MORE LOCAL and hence WOMAN-FRIENDLY ELECTORAL ARCHITECTURE, I reckon.

  • Anthony Tuffin willfully ignores the evidence from Scotland under the Single Transferable Vote. There are fewer women on councils under STV than under FPTP. Parties, Labour included, did not have sufficient faith in potential female candidates or they simply didn’t have a sufficient pool of women activists to draw on. No system alone will deliver. To think so in the face of evidence from Scotland, Ireland and Malta, is to invest almost religious faith in an electoral system. Which is a little odd. First we need shortlists and other measures to change the culture in parties and the country to one in which female representation is not exceptional but conventional. Then let the rest follow

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