In the 1950s, you could have fit every female MP inside Labour's pink bus. Image: Getty.
Show Hide image

Whatever happens tomorrow, an equal parliament is some way off

We're set for 45 more female MPs after this election, but the UK is still a generation from parity

Gender inequality, along with the under-representation of ethnic minorities and the disabled, is the UK political system’s guilty little secret. 

There were more male MPs in the last parliament than all the female MPs there have ever been, put together. In the most recent world rankings for women in parliaments, the UK came 57th out of 190 countries. In the last parliament, only 23 per cent of MPs were women, compared to 51 per cent of the UK population .

As far as parties go, Labour has been leading the charge for an equal parliament since they stuffed the party with women elected from all-female shortlists during Tony Blair's 1997 landslide. As a result, they were largely responsible for the 60 new female MPs brought in that year. Since then, gains across the House have either been non-existent (the number fell by 2 in 2001) or have only just run into the double figures. Labour is still the only party to have used all-female shortlists for candidate selection, though the SNP voted at their spring conference to use them next time round. 

We’ve used the polls and our seat calculator to estimate how equal the Commons will be this time around. All signs point towards an impressive increase in female MPs – by far the biggest increase since 1997 – but with every swing towards the Tories, the number drops a little lower.

How many female MPs are we likely to gain?

We’ve plugged the numbers into three possible scenarios: our poll-of polls as of the beginning of this week (showing a dead heat of about 33 per cent each for Labour and the Tories, with the Tories slightly ahead on seats), a two-point swing to Labour from the Tories – from current polls, not 2010 – and vice versa. The projection based on today's polls predicts an increase of 45 on the last parliament's 148 female MPs. 

Labour is running a high number of women in very marginal seats, so a two-point swing to them would result in 16 more women in parliament than the current polls suggest. A two-point swing towards the Tories, meanwhile, would result in the loss of 8 female MPs from our 4 May scenario.

If the polls stay as they are, the upcoming election would bring up the female proportion to just under 29.7 per cent, while a Labour win would probably push the proportion above 30 per cent for the first time in the Commons’ history.

Overall, it’s unlikely than fewer than 35 more female MPs will join the House, so, worst-case scenario, we’re looking at a 28 per cent female parliament, up around a fifth on the 55th parliament. Based on this year’s rankings, this would push the UK up to around 37th place internationally.

How do the parties measure up?

At the moment, the Greens are predicted to keep their single seat in Brighton Pavilion, so they are come in first place with 100 per cent female MPs. This isn't that impressive in context, but they're also the closest to 50:50 in their candidates, with 39 per cent women. 

Labour is set to have a 43 per cent female party on current polls. This is despite the fact that only 26 per cent of the candidates they’re fielding in 2015 are women. Female candidates have been deployed in key, winnable seats, but this means their total is very volatile – the more marginals they win, the better their gender representation will be after the election. As it stands, 60 per cent of the women in parliament will be Labour MPs. 

Only 15 per cent of the Tories’ candidates are women, and on current polls the parliamentary party would be 19 per cent female.

The Liberal Democrats are set to lose a huge number of MPs, including all their female MPs, but a female candidate is replacing the incumbent in Hazel Grove, bringing their proportion to 4 per cent (down from 12 per cent last time round).

The SNP are fielding a high proportion of female candidates (36 per cent), but they’re running disproportionately in seats they are less likely to win, so 29 per cent of the party is set to be female – in-line with parliament’s proportion as a whole.

Ukip’s candidates are only 13 per cent female, making them the worst of the major parties. In fact, the party is fielding more candidates named Dave or Peter than it is women. 

Is this an increase we should be proud of?

Here we’ve tracked the number of female MPs after each election since the first women entered the commons, based on a projection of 193 this year:

Even the smallest likely increase (35 seats) would be double the up-tick we saw in 2010. However, it’s still only half what Labour managed in 1997, and, as taken as a percentage of the current number of women in parliament, isn’t nearly so impressive:

If we gained 30 female MPs at each election (based on election every five years), it would still take us until 2040 to surpass 51 per cent. Parity is at least thirty years away at this rate – a generation.

And besides, 30 a year is a very optimistic estimate: increases on this scale have only happened twice, through a combination of Labour’s all-female shortslists and an overall increase in Labour seats. The act legalising the use of all-women shortlists will also expire at the end of 2015, unless both Houses vote to keep it in place. 

The incumbency problem

The other issue is the number of male MPs refusing to budge from their seats. The Electoral Reform Society produced a similar set of projections a while ago (they predicted there’ll be 44 more female MPs this time around) and found that MPs who have been around for two terms or more are far more likely to be male than female.

Of the MPs elected in 2001 or before, only 15 per cent are women. Of those first elected in 1983, only 9 per cent are.

At this election, only around 180 seats are expected to change hands (28 per cent of the total). About 45 per cent of these new MPs will be women. It seems clear that if we elected to each of the 650 constituencies from scratch today, we’d be a lot closer to a 50 per cent female parliament.  But because so many seats are safely in the hands of a long-serving candidate, the number is actually far lower. Unless the electoral system changes, these incumbents will inevitably drag back on progress towards gender, disability or BME equality in the commons.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496