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15 October 2014

Most of Britain’s parties could be led by women within the next two years

Two-thirds of our political parties in Westminster could be led by women in the near future.

By Kevin Meagher

The issue of female representation in Westminster usually focuses on the need to encourage more women to stand as MPs, but peering down the opposite end of the telescope reveals something quite interesting. It is now plausible that most of Britain’s political parties could be led by women within the next couple of years.

In terms of the main parties, Home Secretary, Theresa May, is positioned as a strong contender for the Conservative leadership if David Cameron resigns after losing next year’s election. Likewise, her shadow, Yvette Cooper, is generally expected to go for the Labour leadership if Ed Miliband loses.

It is now confirmed that Nicola Sturgeon will succeed Alex Salmond as leader of the Scottish National Party next month, becoming Scotland’s First Minister in the process. The Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cmyru, are already led by a woman, Leanne Wood.

The Green party, meanwhile, is on its second successive female leader, with Natalie Bennett following Caroline Lucas back in 2012. Even the George Galloway-founded Respect party has previously been led by a woman, Salma Yaqoob.

Across the Irish Sea, the trend is, if anything, more pronounced. Westminster’s first-ever woman MP back in 1918 was Sinn Fein’s Constance Markievicz and the Irish republican movement has always produced prominent women figures. In fact, If Gerry Adams decides to spend more time baking cakes and Martin McGuinness retires to his fly-fishing, a likely replacement leader comes in the form of Mary-Lou McDonald, currently Sinn Fein’s vice-president.

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The nationalist SDLP has already had a female leader, Margaret Ritchie, but in a striking development, the bookies now have Arlene Foster as favourite to take over from Peter Robinson at the Democratic Unionists, when a vacancy arises. Hardly noted for their progressiveness in such matters, this is nothing short of ground-breaking.

Especially as the deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party, Naomi Long, beat Robinson for his East Belfast seat in 2010. And as their first Westminster MP, she is expected to eventually succeed her own leader, David Ford.

Part of this trend is certainly down to political devolution within the UK creating new, more varied leadership opportunities and a different style of locally-rooted, practical politics. Sturgeon, Wood and Foster are, respectively, members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, rather than Westminster MPs. Likewise, Yaqoob was a Birmingham city councillor when she led Respect. While McDonald is actually a member of Dáil Éireann.

So although fewer than a quarter of MPs are women, two-thirds of the thirteen parties currently represented in the House of Commons already have, or could plausibly have, women leaders during the next parliament (May, Cooper, Sturgeon, Wood, Bennett, McDonald, Foster and Long). What a paradox, then, if the first place where numerical gender equality is achieved in our political system is actually in the leadership of our political parties.