Why the Lib Dems could have almost no female MPs after the next election

Five of the Lib Dems' seven female MPs hold seats among the party's 12 most vulnerable and none hold any of the 20 safest.

The Rennard story has prompted much comment on the dramatic under-representation of women in the Lib Dems. Just 12.5 per cent (seven) of the party's 56 MPs are female, compared with 31 per cent of Labour MPs (the only party to use all-women shortlists) and 16 per cent of Tories. Aware of this problem, the Lib Dems will debate proposals at their spring conference next month to introduce "job-share candidates" in order to improve female representation. But barring a significant improvement in their poll ratings, the likelihood is that the diminished parliamentary party that returns to the Commons after 2015 will be even more male-dominated. 

Back in 2011, research by the Fabian Society showed that five of the Lib Dems' seven female MPs, including Sarah Teather, Jo Swinson and Tessa Munt, hold seats among the party's 12 most vulnerable, while none hold any of the 20 safest.

In addition, the two 'safer' seats held by Lib Dem women - Cardiff Central and Hornsey & Wood Green - are vulnerable to a Labour challenge. As Sunder Katwala noted, "both were gained in 2005 from Labour, through appeals to students and voters disillusioned with Labour over Iraq and other left-of-centre issues." Ed Miliband's repositioning of Labour and the Lib Dems' support for £9,000 tuition fees and spending cuts means they will likely struggle in such left-leaning constituencies in 2015. And with even the most optimistic Lib Dem not forecasting any gains at the next election, those women who lose their seats are unlikely to be replaced. The party has been encouraging its MPs to stand for re-election in the hope that they will benefit from an incumbency factor but this strategy has the unintentional effect of perpetuating the male dominance of the parliamentary party. 

Here are those Fabian stats in full. 

Women MPs in the 12 most vulnerable Lib Dem seats

1. Lorely Burt (Solihull) 0.3%, 175 votes
2. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset) 0.6%, 269 votes
3. Norwich South 0.7%
4. Bradford East 0.9%
5. Tessa Munt (Wells), 1.4%, 800 votes
6. St Austell 2.8%
7 = Sarah Teather (Brent South) 3.0%, 1,345 votes
7 = Somerton 3.0%
9 St Ives 3.7%
10 Manchester West 4.1%
11. Burnley 4.3%
12. Jo Swinson, 4.6% (East Dunbartonshire), 2,184 votes

Other Lib Dem women MPs

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green), 12.5%, 7,875 votes
Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central), 12.7%, 4,576 votes

 

Sarah Teather, the MP for Brent East, is one of just seven female Liberal Democrat MPs. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Against neverendums

At present, we are experiencing a fetishisation of referendums. But we must remember that Britain is a representative democracy.

Imagine a Britain where the death penalty was restored, where immigration quotas were determined on ethnicity and where some communities were forcibly repatriated to countries that they never called home. This is not some dystopia led by a British Donald Trump. It is what the UK could have looked like had the proponents of direct democracy – referendums – had their way.

Britain is a representative democracy. We elect 650 MPs and we entrust them with the power to make and scrutinise legislation on our behalf. This simple method of central government (we also have devolved institutions) has done much to ensure our stability where more fragile democracies, or illiberal ones, have succumbed to disorder or fascism.

At present, we are experiencing a fetishisation of referendums: we argue this having supported the Scottish referendum in 2014, for which the SNP had an unequivocal mandate. Yet, broadly, referendums are not a uniquely democratic way to arrive at a decision of national moment but a crude majoritarian tool. The deliberative nature of a parliament, with its built-in checks and balances, safeguards it against blindness to the interests of minority groups and views and allows compromises to evolve. Referendums can too easily allow the dominant moral panic of the time to be translated into immediate action. Had they been called on the progressive social advances of the 20th century, we would now be a far less open and tolerant society.

Referendums can also undermine the basis of representative democracy. Our parliament works, on the whole, because we trust its supreme authority to make decisions. As one concedes that there are some issues that are only legitimately settled by a referendum, the question immediately arises: which ones? If the UK’s continued membership of the European Union falls into this category, why not the Budget? If the Alternative Vote does, why not the issue of military intervention in Iraq or Libya? Yet the ultimate threat to our form of democracy is not referendums but those who have instigated them. The EU referendum on 23 June was dreamed up by the Prime Minister for no better reason than that he was pressured by recalcitrant right-wingers in the Tory party, as well as the UK Independence Party and the press.

Referendums seldom settle difficult questions, as events in Scotland have demonstrated. There, a “once in a generation” vote turned out to be no such thing: rarely does a week pass without Nicola Sturgeon making vague threats about a “second” independence referendum. Moreover, Ukip’s Nigel Farage is already talking about the need for a second EU referendum before the first has even happened.

When confused voters say that they want an objective list of the pros and cons of Brexit before they can make up their minds, what they mean is that they want their representatives to regain the courage to make difficult decisions on their behalf. Britain needs a frank reminder that politics is complicated and its practitioners are often skilled and conscientious.

It would be a folly to leave the EU but it was a folly enough to call this referendum during a period of multiple crises in Europe. It is time to speak up for representative democracy.

The rise of the nativist right

Had 31,000 Austrians voted differently, Europe would now have its first far-right president since 1945. The narrow defeat of the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer is emblematic of the xenophobic nativism that has spread across the continent. Mr Hofer’s softly spoken, telegenic manner belied his extreme views. He has declared that “Islam has no place in Austria”, wears a blue cornflower (the historic symbol of pan-Germanism) and is an honorary member of the student fraternity Marko-Germania zu Pinkafeld, which rejects the “fiction of an ‘Austrian nation’”.

Yet far from being an outlier, Hofer has many allies. Marine Le Pen’s Front National, Frauke Petry of Alternative für Deutschland and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom all rallied to his cause. In Hungary, Poland and Finland, the far right holds office.

The rise of these atavistic forces is an indictment of Europe’s mainstream, most notably its becalmed centre-left. As in the 1930s, nationalists have skilfully exploited cultural and economic alienation. History provides ample warning of the consequences of allowing such extremists into power. It is a lesson that Europe should not be forced to learn again. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad