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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.