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.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.