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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".