In the 1950s, you could have fit every female MP inside Labour's pink bus. Image: Getty.
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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 a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.