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26 October 2023

Where have all the Tory women gone?

The Conservative Party is struggling to promote female candidates for the next election.

By William Atkinson

Conservatives often pride themselves on being 3-0 up on Labour in providing female prime ministers. But in the same way that for every Margaret Thatcher there can be a Liz Truss, for every Tory shattering of that fabled glassed ceiling, the party also takes a juddering step back.

An example of this can be found in a report last week that only one in four of new Tory candidates – 17 – chosen to stand in an English constituency at the next general election were women. That fell to only 16 per cent in selection contests between June and September.

Although only around a quarter of current Conservative MPs are women, a rapid increase in the female share has been made in the past two decades. Thirty-two per cent of new Conservative MPs returned in 2019 were women. Eighty-seven female Tories were elected in total – up from 49 in 2010, and only 13 in 1997.

Since female Conservative MPs are currently retiring at a faster rate than men, this raises the prospect that the percentage of women on the Tory benches will fall after the next election, whatever the result. This would be a poor return for a party that does significantly worse with female voters than male.

It would also be at odds with the party’s own rhetoric. In an interview with ConservativeHome three weeks ago, Greg Hands, the party chairman, committed the party to a 50-50 target for male/female candidates, an objective previously supported by Boris Johnson. Fifty-one per cent of Labour MPs after 2019 were women.

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If this is an area, as Hands put it, about which he is “very worried”, how has Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) allowed this situation to arise? It is a consequence of a tendency that I have covered previously: an ongoing enthusiasm by Conservative associations in selecting candidates based on local ties.

In both 2017 and 2019, the sudden calling of elections meant CCHQ could assert a greater control over candidate selections. This time around, the much longer lead-up to the next election – which is widely expected next October or November – has meant greater freedom for local associations.

[See also: There’s now almost nothing that can save the Tories]

This, combined with boundary changes, falling membership and a hostility among some members to their Westminster leadership following the removal of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, has led to a general preference for “local champions” over special advisers, “displaced” MPs and other CCHQ favourites.

According to 2018 research, around seven out of ten Tory members are male, with a similar figure for local councillors. This means a tendency towards the selection of “favourite sons” – with the emphasis very much on the latter part of the formulation.  

There are obvious exceptions. Katie Lam in Weald of Kent, for example, as a former Cambridge Union president and special adviser to Suella Braverman, seems cut from a traditional cloth. But if the general trend remains opposite to Hands’s wishes, it raises an obvious question: what can the Conservative Party do about it?

Women already face a greater number of barriers towards becoming MPs than men. Whether it is in having greater difficulty imagining themselves as candidates or lacking the free time and money – some fruitless selection bids have cost around £20,000 – the barriers are already high. This is why organisations such as Women2Win and the Conservative Women’s Organisation have recently played a crucial role in providing both training and encouragement to potential female candidates. But getting more women on to the candidates’ list is pointless if associations aren’t selecting them.

Open efforts by CCHQ to increase the number of female candidates would prompt an obvious backlash. Bad memories of David Cameron’s A-list of diverse candidates still fester, even if it produced noted left-wingers Truss and Priti Patel. All-women shortlists would be shouted down.

But with the Tories staring at a 28-point gap with Labour among female voters, it’s obvious some form of action must be taken. One way is in ensuring more female candidates on the long-lists for seats. In Dorking and Horley, six of the final seven were female – as were all three of the final shortlist. This surreptitious approach has its merits. Members still get to choose a shortlist and final candidates from the names CCHQ provides. Yet several of the final six women had never previously stood to be an MP, prompting concerns among locals that they had been fast-tracked by the party.

If inexperienced potential candidates – female or male – are being given assistance by CCHQ, it will likely provoke the same ire among members as any more blatant attempt to take control of selections would. It speaks to a broader failure on the part of the party to develop its next generation of talent.

To close the female candidate gap, the Tories cannot rely on party skulduggery – or on more female MPs to cross the floor. The only solution is the long, hard work of building a pipeline of future MPs. Good thing that Hands might soon have some free time on his, erm…

[See also: The Tories still think voters are the problem, not them]

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