The Lib Dem problem with women

New research indicates that the Liberal Democrats could end up with zero female MPs after the next e

If current poll ratings continue, the Liberal Democrats could end up with no female MPs at all after the next election, according to research by the Fabian Society.

The party already has the smallest number of female MPs of any of the parties, with just seven women out of its 57 MPs (12 per cent). The next Fabian Society report shows that these seven include five in the party's ten most vulnerable seats.

There are no women at all in the party's safest seats (those where it holds the largest majorities). The research notes that the combined majority held by all seven of the party's female MPs put together (17,224 votes) is only just bigger than Nick Clegg's majority of 15,284 in Sheffield Hallam.

Sunder Katwala and Seema Melhotra, the authors of the report, say:

If the current polls were even half right, not a single Lib Dem woman MP would survive. An early election where they held four out of five seats (a result they would bite your arm off for) could mean 43 men and two women.

How has this happened? The party has long opposed positive discrimination on the grounds that it is illiberal – a rather self-defeating argument, given that it trails behind the other parties in equal representation. However, Clegg last year made noises about the party being "too male and too pale".

It has now created a "leadership programme" to get more female and ethnic-minority candidates to become MPs, which has produced a list of 50 candidates who will get strong support to stand in safer seats. The programme stops shorts of all-women shortlists, supposedly because the structure of the party is such that central office cannot impose decisions on local parties. However, it will be stipulated that if one candidate from the programme is asked to stand, the local party must also choose another candidate from the programme.

This should go some way towards upping the number of candidates from under-represented groups, though past example (Labour under Tony Blair and the Conservatives under David Cameron) show that aggressive action is needed to up the number of MPs from these groups. It is not enough to introduce all-female shortlists (which the party has stopped short of doing anyway) – they also need to stand in winnable seats. Given the battering the Lib Dems are taking in the polls, there are not many of these.

Katwala and Melhotra suggest all-women shortlists in the two or three constituencies that are certain to return Lib Dem victories, or even that party stalwarts such as Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy give up their safe seats. This seems unrealistic: given that the Liberal Democrats fear annihilation at the next polls, it is unlikely they will take the risk of eliminating their few recognisable faces.

So it's a bleak picture. The reduction in the number of MPs is also likely to be a retrograde step, as new intakes are typically more equal in their gender split – primarily as a result of positive discrimination. The marginalisation of women in the 2010 election campaign showed that there are serious steps left to take across parliament.

The Lib Dems may feel they have bigger fish to fry, but they would be advised to tackle this problem head-on. Electing zero female MPs may be the final nail in the coffin of their claim to be "progressive".

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era