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After the Next Election

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Written for The House magazine.  


At a recent formal dinner I was introducing myself to other guests as one of the local MPs. “You don’t look like an MP” one of them said. “Female?” I enquired - it’s not that long since there were more MPs called John than women in the House.

According to the International Parliamentary Union, the UK ranks 47th in the league table of legislatures (numbers of women in lower chambers). Number 1 is Rwanda, 2nd Sweden, Mozambique is 14th, the US is joint 57th and France 63rd.  There are currently 119 women MPs, 18% of sitting Members. It is sobering to learn that there have only ever been 253 women MPs. Since women first had the right to stand for parliament in 1918 less than 6% of those elected have been female. To say progress has been slow is to state the obvious.


The first female MP was elected in 1918, a member of Sinn Fein she did not attend Parliament.  In 1919 Nancy Astor was elected to the seat held by her husband until his death. In her maiden speech on the effects on families of alcohol abuse she said “I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves.”  


The number of women MPs reached 24 in the 1945 General Election and remained mainly in the 20s until 1983. The 1987 General Election saw a jump to 41 and a further jump to 60 was achieved in 1992. But it is the 1997 General Election which will be remembered as the poll that swept in many new female MPs, doubling the number to 120.


The increase was due to the election of 101 Labour women - the Conservatives had 7 fewer women than in 1992. Two factors were significant. Labour’s landslide saw many more Labour MPs of both genders elected than expected and, for the first time, the use of all women shortlists. As women are more likely to be selected in marginal seats than in solid winnable seats, historically the number of women MPs in each party increased when their party did well. The use of all women shortlists for 1997 crucially changed this practice for Labour and ensured 36 women were selected in safer seats.



The sight of all these women MPs was widely welcomed across political parties and by the public - the Daily Mail called it a cause for celebration! However the mechanism that had played a significant part was less celebrated. The Labour Party had already abandoned the measure after a legal challenge and few seemed in a hurry to use it again. Indeed there was a wide spread view that having got so many women MPs in place there would be no need for all women shortlists in the future.


Westminster Women (1998), containing interviews with women MPs about their experiences, quotes Hazel Blears MP, “the things that militate against women being chosen are so deep rooted that you had to kick start it.” There was general agreement that 120 women out of 659 MPs provided a critical mass ensuring progress would continue.  But Hazel was right - the ‘things’ proved to be so deep rooted that of the replacements for the 36 retiring Labour MPs in 2001 only 4 women were chosen. 6 women stood down and a further 3 were defeated. Labour had gone backwards.


After 2001 the Government wasted no time in bringing in legislation to allow political parties to discriminate in favour of women. The opposition parties supported the legislation although they have so far refused to use all women shortlists. The Labour Party decided to re-introduce this system as the most effective method of increasing the number of women MPs. As 2001 demonstrated, without positive discrimination the position of women will worsen. With the current system the Fawcett Society has estimated that it will take Labour about 30 years to achieve parity in representation - even if all safe retirement seats were held for women it would still take until 2025.


At the time of writing around 30 Labour MPs in England and Wales have indicated that they will not be standing at the next election, of those seats 19 have so far been designated for women. Of the open lists 2 have already selected women. If Labour wins all those seats there will be a net gain overall of 13 women. Scotland, with fewer constituencies following the boundary review, provides little opportunity for new candidates. Interestingly there are already more men selected for retirement seats than the 4 women who were elected in 2001.


There are problems in estimating the number of Labour women MPs after the next General Election as marginal seats may be harder to hold with a change of candidate. However, the legacy of the all women shortlists in 1997 means more women MPs are likely to retain their seats than in the past.  Only 3 out of the 20 most marginal are held by women - but there are 8 women in the next 20. Labour’s approach means it is almost certain that the Parliamentary Labour Party will have a higher proportion of female MPs than previously.



Should Labour lose seats the spotlight will be on the opposition parties to achieve an increase in the total of women MPs. While the Tories increased their numbers between 92 and 97 they dropped back sharply in 2001.  The Fawcett Society have estimated that using their current selection methods it will take 100 years for the Liberal Democrats to achieve parity and a staggering 300 years for the Tories.


There is evidence that having a women candidate is of benefit to political parties. The Electoral Commission’s recent report, Gender and Participation, found that women now cast their vote as regularly, or more often, than men. In seats where a woman MP was elected in 2001, turnout among women was 4% higher than men. Surely this should offer some incentives to all political parties to select more women?


Some may ask if it really matters whether an MP is male or female? To me it's a matter of fairness - the House of Commons should broadly reflect the population it seeks to represent in gender and ethnicity. Dr Sarah Childs, who has researched the impact of the women elected in 1997, states unequivocally that women engaged in politics can make a difference.  Her book, New Labour’s Women MPs (2004), argues that women have been successful in putting women's concerns onto the political agenda - for instance, childcare, 'gendered' budgets and violence against women.


While there are clearly more than enough good women for available seats, significantly more men seek selection than women. Partly this may reflect real barriers to selection for women such as greater caring responsibilities and the financial cost of seeking selection. However, when professions such as law and medicine now have more than 50% of their entrants as women, why is politics not the choice of more women? The failure of all parties to select talented women candidates over the years no doubt plays its part. Labour is now working to change that, but Westminster will remain unrepresentative as long as the other parties fail to join in.




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