Only a fifth of MPs over 50 are female. Are they being airbrushed out of Parliament?

It's not an age issue; it's a gender one.

Inspired by Harriet Harman's warning that older women are being "airbrushed off our screens", I pulled together a dataset of MPs ages to see if Parliament does much better. Technically speaking, it doesn't; but diving deeper into the figures, we can see that it's not about age at all – it's about gender all the way.

The statistic seized on by Harman is that "less than one fifth of TV presenters over the age of 50 are female". In Parliament, that stat is slightly better – but only just. 22 per cent of MPs over the age of 50 are female.

Pretty bad, right? Well, yes. But when speaking of TV presenters, Harman says:

The figures provided by broadcasters show clearly that once female presenters hit 50, their days on-screen are numbered. There is a combination of ageism and sexism that hits women on TV that doesn’t apply to men in the same way.

And that isn't true in parliament. The reason only 22 per cent of MPs over 50 are female is that only 22 per cent of MPs are female, full stop.Although that's been rising steadily, it leaves us with a long way to go before we reach equality – or even just acceptability.

But while MPs are less likely to be female, of the women who have made it into the House, age is less of an obstacle than you might think. Look at the stats a different way: 58.76 per cent of male MPs are over 50, and 56.55 per cent of female MPs are.

It's relatively easy to reason why this might be. Firstly, we can point to the fact that the average age upon election of MPs elected since 2010 is 43 – and that's true of men and women. (Women are actually, on average, slightly older upon election than men.) The youngest MP in the house, Labour's Pamela Nash, is 28, and was just 25 when she was elected; but the vast majority are significantly older. Of all of the MPs still in the house today, just 19 were under 30 when they were elected – the youngest was Charles Kennedy, only 23 when he won in 1983.

Age, then, isn't really a burden in getting in to parliament. In fact, over 100 MPs were older than 50 when they were elected, and almost 400 of them are older than 50 now.

And if age isn't that much of a burden to getting elected, it doesn't seem to be a burden to getting re-elected, either. That's harder for me to check, because my dataset doesn't include former MPs, but the high incumbency rate and sheer number of really quite old MPs indicates that it's the case.

So there aren't enough older female MPs. But that's got literally nothing to do with age, and everything to do with the fact that there simply aren't enough women in Parliament.

(As a postscript, it would be nice to know for sure that Harman had checked for the same spurious correlation in the TV figures. It certainly seems likely that, in that area, the problem is with older women being "airbrushed off", but there's always the chance that it just reflects a broader sexism)

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.