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 The resignation (later rescinded) of the Tory Westminster North candidate, Joanne Cash, who faced hostility from local activists after she became pregnant, highlighted unresolved tensions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

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.