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.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.