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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.