A woman’s place is in the House

The woeful under-representation of women in parliament is likely to continue.

Unfairer sex

Recently, both Labour and the Conservatives have been reminded how hazardous an issue women's representation at Westminster remains. The resignation (later rescinded) of the Tory Westminster North candidate, Joanne Cash, who faced hostility from local activists after she became pregnant, highlighted unresolved tensions within the party over David Cameron's modernising agenda. Meanwhile, Labour faced accusations of cronyism after ruling there would not be an all-women shortlist in Birmingham Erdington - the seat Harriet Harman's husband, Jack Dromey, hopes to win.

Regardless of which party wins the election, the woeful under-representation of women in parliament is likely to continue. Research by the New Statesman found that women make up 28.1 per cent of Labour's 363 prospective parliamentary candidates, compared to 24.6 per cent of Tory and 22.5 per cent of Liberal Democrat candidates (see graph). Should the Tories achieve the 7 per cent swing required for a majority of one, the number of Tory women MPs would rise from a dismal 19 to 60, but the number of female MPs would remain at its current level of 126, or 19.5 per cent of the total.

After the election, the Lib Dems are likely to introduce all-women shortlists. Even Cameron, much to the consternation of the Tory grass roots, has floated the possibility of using them in seats that become vacant before the election. Fourteen years after they were introduced, shortlists remain the only reliable way to up women's representation.

Government health warning

Campaigners for electoral reform have long argued that safe seats are bad for democracy. Now they can add that they are also bad for your health. A study by the London School of Economics has found that hospitals in safe seats are much more likely to be closed than those in marginal ones.
The government was alerted to the political dangers of closing down local hospitals by the doctor-turned-independent MP Richard Taylor, whose campaign to keep Kidderminster Hospital open helped him to unseat a Labour minister in Wyre Forest in 2001. Re-elected in 2005, Taylor is expected to hold the seat at the upcoming election.

Beggar my neighbour

A pact between Labour and the UK Independence Party (Ukip) might sound unworkable, but the Labour MP David Drew seems to be hoping to broker one, after addressing a Ukip fundraising dinner. Drew, who is defending a majority of just 350 in Stroud, is keen to persuade Ukip, which won 1,089 votes in 2005, not to field a candidate in the seat. As one of the few Eurosceptics on the Labour benches, he is admired by senior Ukip figures including the former leader Nigel Farage. Farage, who was guest of honour at the dinner, stopped short of endorsing Drew, but said: "Westminster would be a worse place without him."

Salmond fishing

With members of all parties concerned that the first televised leaders' debates are in danger of being "negotiated to death", a new complication has emerged. Sky is reported to be sympathetic to Alex Salmond's request to cross-examine each of the three main party leaders after the main debate. The other parties have argued that Scotland's First Minister should not be included as he is not in the running for prime minister. But if Sky allows Salmond to participate, the BBC, which is legally obliged to treat all parties fairly, could follow suit.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN