The Rennard affair has focused attention on the dramatic under-representation of women in the Lib Dems. Just 12.2 per cent (seven) of the party’s 57 MPs are female, compared with 31 per cent of Labour MPs (the only party to use all-women shortlists) and 16 per cent of Tories. But some in the party fear the situation could be even worse after 2015.
Of the Lib Dems’ seven female MPs (not one of whom is in the cabinet), five hold seats among the party’s 12 most marginal, including deputy leadership hopeful Lorely Burt, Jo Swinson and Tessa Munt, while none hold any of the 20 safest. The two safer seats held by Lib Dem women – Cardiff Central and Hornsey & Wood Green – are both vulnerable to a Labour challenge having been gained in 2005 on the back of the party’s opposition to the Iraq war and top-up fees. Here they are listed in order of marginality.
1. Lorely Burt (Solihull) 0.3%, 175 votes
2. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset) 0.6%, 269 votes
3. Tessa Munt (Wells) 1.4%, 800 votes
4. Sarah Teather (Brent Central) 3.0%, 1,345 vote
5. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) 4.6%, 2,184 votes
6. Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central), 12.7%, 4,576 votes
7. Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green) 12.5%, 7,875 votes
Of these seven, two (Brooke and Teather) are standing down. Brooke has been replaced as the party’s Mid Dorset candidate by Vikki Slade and Teather has been replaced by Ibrahim Taguri.
One point in the party’s favour is that it has selected women in two other seats where incumbents are retiring (Julie Pörksen for Alan Beith in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Lisa Smart for Andrew Stunell in Hazel Grove), both of which are winnable (the party has a majority of 2,690 in the former and 6,371 in the latter, with the Tories in second place in each).
Whether the Lib Dems manage to at least maintain their current level of female representation will depend on how successful they are at defending their seats against mainly Conservative opponents. With Swinson, Willott and Featherstone all at risk from Labour, they will have to hope that the split in the Tory vote (owing to UKIP) allows Burt, Brooke and Wells to preserve their tiny majorities. But it is plausible that the Lib Dems could be left with as few as two or three female MPs after the election.