Supporting the principle of an equal Parliament isn’t enough: a feminist Prime Minister could make a real difference
Rosie Campbell (Professor of politics at Birbeck, University of London) and Sarah Childs (Professor of politics and gender at University of Bristol)
WE’s demand is straightforward: equal representation of women in Parliament.
Why would women accept anything less than equality in any political institution? Women’s under-representation in the House of Commons relative to their percentage in the population suggests that something is skewing the outcome.
More men are today sitting on the green benches than women have ever sat in the House – 459 compared to 450. Fewer than one-third of MPs are women. A Parliament of 650 MPs only needs to identify 325 women capable of being MPs out of a population of millions. It should not be beyond the wit of man…
Theresa May’s commitment to women’s representation in her own party has been impressive. In 2005 she co-founded, with Baroness Jenkin, Women2Win, a Tory “ginger group” (a sub-group that presses for action). Aiming to increase the number of female Conservative parliamentary candidates, it provides training and mentoring, and acts as a reminder that the Tories’ 'women problem' is far from resolved.
In fact the number of Conservative women MPs increased from 17 at the 2005 election to 48 in 2010 and 68 in 2015 (increases to 9%, 16% and 20% of the parliamentary party). By contrast, in 2015 Labour had more than 40% women MPs and the SNP 36%, while the Liberal Democrats lost all of theirs.
Source: Rallings and Thrasher, British Electoral Facts 1832-2006; House of Commons Library Research Papers 10/36 General Election 2010 and CBP-7186 General Election 2016
As this chart shows, women remain outnumbered by men. In some elections fewer women MPs returned. It is not just a matter of time. At the 1997 general election, which saw the number of women MPs double overnight, Labour had used a party quota, All Women Shortlists. The result: of the 120 women MPs, 101 were Labour.
All of the main parties say they want more women MPs; all have rhetorical and promotional strategies that address the “supply side” by supporting female candidates. Yet parties determine the final number of women MPs – voters are usually indifferent about a candidate’s gender. This is where 'demand side' interventions are critical. May was an advocate of her party’s A list for the 2010 election – a 50:50 male/female list of top candidates – but the policy was dropped.
The recent Good Parliament Report sets out 43 recommendations to make Parliament more representative and inclusive by transforming how the House works, and is seen, so that people from diverse backgrounds feel they could become an MP.
Recommendations include ensuring that House rules, structures, wording and culture are diversity sensitive; that parental and caring leave are provided for, and that House Business is scheduled in advance. More radical still would be a review of the House’s sitting hours, or the introduction of 'division time' so that MPs would vote at 5pm or 6pm.
Parliament should also regularly debate parties’ progress on candidate selection, and parties should publish their women-MP targets. In the immediate future there should be a cross-party agreement about the 2020 Parliament: all parties should increase, or at the very least maintain, their percentage of women MPs.
What should be asked of Theresa May? Political leadership. She can set the tone, raising people’s expectations.
And she can make a direct impact:
- She can initiate Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which requires parties to provide data about candidates, making them accountable for their selection processes.
We really do need to talk about quotas. The Good Parliament recommended having statutory sex/gender quotas for the 2025 general election if, three months before the 2020 election, parliamentary parties have not selected at least 50% women in their “vacant” and “target” seats. There may be resistance to quotas, but the global evidence is telling. Among countries that do and don’t use sex/gender quotas there is a 10% point difference. Of those countries with over 30% women MPs, more than 80% use quotas.
Theresa May has not been backward in making demands of her party on women’s political representation in the past – it is time now that the UK’s new Prime Minister leads all of the parties and puts in place legislation that guarantees women’s equal participation in Parliament.