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Women at Westminster: 191 down, 459 to go

There are more men in parliament today than there have been women throughout history. 

There are more men in the Commons today than there have been women elected throughout history. Despite years of steady progress, there are just 191 female MPs out of 650 seats.

But is this all about to change? In the fall out of the election, three female party leaders – Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon – kept their jobs, while Ukip’s Suzanna Evans briefly came to the fore, and Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall could end up taking the reins of the Labour party.  More than this, although still led by Cameron, his new Conservative-only Cabinet is comprised 42 per cent of women.

While the amount of MPs that are female remains at an embarrassingly low 29 per cent, women are now competing for the top jobs. As Katie Glass, journalist and frequent writer on gender, says, “The increase in female politicians and the fact Labour may end up being headed by a women says something about equality,” and the direction society and parliament is moving.

It is also hoped the change will spark further transformation. As Frances Scott, of the 50:50 campaign for an equal gender balance in parliament, explains “it is great to see women leading prominent parties, gaining positions in cabinet and having a greater profile in because its changing the perception of women in politics, and its great role modelling for young women.” She believes that “we can expect to see more women being inspired in to politics and more women being put forward for seats,” thereby pushing forward parity in the back benches and front benches.

Yet, all of this can be argued the other way around. Despite there being more women, they are still struggling to get in to the truly senior roles. If you look at the prominent conservatives, such as David Cameron, George Osborne – who just received a promotion post election win - and Boris, then the only really prominent female Tory is Teresa May. “A cynic would say that some of the candidates in the cabinet are not fully fledged members of the cabinet, and despite the 42 per cent figure we see, when you get down to cabinet members the public actually have awareness of, there are few women,” says Paul Hunter, head of research at the Smith Institute and author of report Who Governs Britain?

Meanwhile, Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon are helping lead the way for women in politics, but “they are all from minority parties,” says Hunter. “If you added up their vote you’d get to 10 per cent maybe, where as the main four in terms of votes – Liberal Democrats, Ukip, Tories and Labour – are all still led by men. It’s getting there but it is still a way off. If you really think about it, only the Tories under Margaret Thatcher have had a woman as leader. When it comes to the top job especially, its still very much male dominated.”

Considering Labour, the largest party that puts a priority on more women in politics, while Harriet Harman is deputising as leader at the moment, she has not been chosen and the party still has not had a women leader of the party that is permanent – just Harman and Margaret Beckett who have fielded the position. Still, for Labour, in terms of leadership, despite the 191 seats statistic, if it were Yvette or Kendall, it certainly would be a sign of a move towards equality and Labours aim of having half the cabinet as women is part of that push.

So, really, what we are seeing is that “in terms of roles in the cabinet and MPs we are moving there, but we’re inching there rather than seeing great strides and women getting the very top jobs,” says Hunter.

The parties, particularly the Labour party, should therefore follow through with what it says about women having a role in leading the party. Yet, this should be in the broadest sense of leading, not in terms of leader, because fundamentally that role goes to who is the most capable. The problem, however, is also one that “if you have more female MPs you will have a bigger talent pool to pick from,” says Hunter.

So, while parties are building up their representation of women at the top slowly, it is a tricky and reinforcing problem: “There is a catch-22 – we are not getting the female MPs in the first place. The feeding chain is missing,” says Phipps, who thinks more women in the front bench may lead to more women in the backbenchers, but to get the top jobs, women need more space on the backbenches in the first place.

This is why, for Scott, “191 out of 650 is a lot more of a telling figure than 42% of cabinet ministers, absolutely more telling. It’s great that we have these women on the front benches, there’s no disputing that. But we need more on the backbenches – many more. Women need to be participating all the way through politics and parliament. It’s a very different thing being a queen bee.”

Indeed, while its “fabulous we have female leaders, we’ve had a female leader before in Margaret Thatcher and that certainly didn’t signal gender equality so whilst its great to see women out there acting as role models and helping young men and women in school see that leadership is as much for women as it is for me, we’ve got a long way to go before we’ve got an equal parliament”, says Belinda Phipps, Chair of Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women's rights. This is partly because a lot of the seats are held by men who are in safe seats and so the turnover time is going to be extremely slow to get things evened out – despite the fact we look to have more female leaders at the moment.

A change, then, needs to come from all areas of politics, including the lower ranks. Thankfully, Labour’s 2015 intake was on about 42 per cent of female MPs – thanks mostly to all women shortlists - almost reaching parity with men, reflecting the changing attitudes of society towards women in politics. “But the main government – the Tories – is only 20 per cent women. It’s better than it has been but it’s certainly not even. Parties should have been leading the way in change. 80 per cent of conservative MPs are men, they’ve got to double the number of women.”

And 518 – 80 per cent - constituencies had two or fewer women standing including 102 constituencies in which no women candidates had been selected. There were no constituencies with no men standing and only 37 with 2 or fewer men.

But the election demonstrates something in the electorate:  “It suggests society has stopped (or at least chilled out on) giving women a hard time about this shit,” says Glass. And this should lead to the next generation having greater gender representation in politics, she thinks.

Indeed, as parties put more emphasis on this and given the electorate is comfortable with it, in five years time we may see a big jump in female MPs rather than the small gains we have seen so far, but “only if parties that are lacking in women – the Tories particularly – take action to address their circumstances,” says Scott.

And even with these small and slow gains, unspoken in this debate though is the power of those behind the scenes, says Dan Holden, who has studied gender representation at Westminster. “Substantive representation is great”, but until the ranks of advisers and spinners are less male-dominated, then we are not looking at the whole picture. 

That picture still has a way to go before Westminster looks like the country it governs.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.