Are women still getting short-changed on Question Time?

A bit of number-crunching reveals on average in 2013, only two of the five panellists on <em>Question Time</em> were women. It's time for the BBC to be bold.

Last month, Martin Robbins wrote a fascinating piece for the Guardian on the lack of scientists and science writers on Question Time. He found that between May 2010 and June 2013, one reality TV star clocked as many appearances as the entire scientific community. I wondered what other groups might have been overlooked by the programme and recalled that last year David Dimbleby had come out to defend it against accusations of sexism. Given there was nothing good on telly this weekend, I decided that the best use of my time would be to open a spreadsheet on Excel and embark on some nail-biting number crunching.

I looked at the number of women who had appeared on Question Time over the last three years. Things, it seems, are getting better, but very slowly. In 2010, on average, 1.7 women appeared on each panel. (Cue totally original jokes of what seven tenths of a person looks like.) This year, the figure surged to a mighty two full women. This compares to an average of 3.1 men, or 4.1 if you include Dimbleby. The ratio could be - and historically has been - worse, but it still means that more often than not, there are twice as many men as women sitting at the table. Very infrequently does the pendulum swing the other way. I counted only eight broadcasts over the last three years with more female than male panellists.

Women are poorly represented as "experts" on TV, but they are fighting back. The Women’s Room is a project seeking to connect broadcasters to knowledgeable female experts. Bookers can search for women with particular specialisms and contact them directly. The site’s co-founder, Caroline Criado-Perez has seen more women on panels over the last year but maintains, “the bigger battle, which we really seem to be winning, is that people are aware of it as a problem.” A war has been waged by who believe (and some people genuinely do believe) that guests are booked purely on ‘merit’ (a supposedly universally recognisable, identifiable panellist quality).

It would be nice to see Question Time go all out for the rest of the year and stop ‘playing it safe’ with the same tired old three men, two women formula. If Nigel Farage, who seems to have a permanent spot on the show, was occasionally replaced with an articulate and intelligent woman (rather than another figure of ridicule) would the Beeb really be inundated with complaints? It would be nice to occasionally see the status quo challenged by all female panels, or perhaps broadcasts that featured a ‘token man’.

Things have been getting better, but it’s time to be bold. Question Time, many agree, is in dire need of reinvention. Perhaps women are the answer.

Now read George Eaton on why Nigel Farage is on Question Time so much.

 

David Dimbleby, presenter of Question Time. Photograph: BBC / Mentorn / Des Willie

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.