The Times leads on a series of interesting reports noting that David Cameron is struggling to meet his commitment to move towards equal opportunities to women in the Conservative Party, headlined Women take a back seat in Cameron's Tory Party
The Cameron leadership has often given the impression it believes in pictures more than words, so it is ironic that this digging into their progress seems too have been triggered in part by photos of Sunday's Tory platform being an all-male affair. Alice Miles suggests that "The Tory party is still in its white, male comfort zone and that, in the end, is what that photograph represents".
A leading article says that the slow progress is "disappointing" and a "serious electoral liability". It is good that the Times makes this an issue not just about counting heads, but also power and seniority, noting that the Tory economic team is all male, and that the Cameron inner circle is heavily male dominated and rather narrow in its experiences.
The prominence and scale of The Times coverage signals an important cultural shift over the last decade. There will still be voices which decry the discussion as trendy political correctness and a distraction. But this discussion is now a mainstream one, not confined to the liberal-left. And it is about the representation of (just over) half of the population. (While ConservativeHome has reacted defensively, but only to stress that some progress is being made; the coverage will be taken seriously by a Conservative leadership which might well agree with a good deal of the critique).
Tory progress - but slow progress
David Cameron began from a low base: the Conservatives have 17 of the 125 women MPs. There are 98 Labour women and 10 LibDems. So 8.5% of Conservative MPs are women at present, compared to 16% of LibDems and 27.5% of Labour MPs.
As this graph of the history captures, the Conservatives have been slow to catch up to Labour's breakthrough in this area. In 2001, the Tory parliamentary intake consisted of 37 white men and 1 woman.
But the Conservatives are still not doing nearly enough to catch-up, despite paying much more attention to the issue.
As a result, it seems clear that a Conservative victory will see the number of women MPs overall fall. That is difficult for the party.
69 of the 331 prospective Conservative candidates are women. So the party hopes it would have 50 or more women MPs if it wins a majority in Parliament. If the Conservatives won a majority of one, the parliamentary party on current projections would be 15% women and 85% men. The proportion of women would probably fall below 15% if the Conservatives were to win a larger victory, as women are doing better in winning candidacies higher up the target seats list. (More accurate
projections will be possible just ahead of the campaign).
Particular efforts to have women replace late retiring MPs could yet raise it by a percentage point or two (though But the Times also reports that several current candidates are struggling to sustain the financial and time commitments demanded.
Clearly, David Cameron will struggle to meet his goal of having women make up one-third of his goverment as they are likely to be less than one-sixth of his Parliamentary Party.This would mark some progress on the Tory benches themselves. He will risk legitimate charges of tokenism if the pool of talent is not deep and broad enough in the first place.
The cross-party picture
The Times briefly mentions Fabian research into the current rounds of Parliamentary selections, which shows new selections of women candidates are running at similar rates across the parties
Labour has many more women MPs, but should not be complacent about this issue either. .
My research compared recent Parliamentary intakes to selections during this Parliament up to the start of November last year: I have made a submission to the Speakers' conference based on it.
Leaving out current MPs, women were winning new selection contests 24.9% of the time for Labour, 26.6% for the Conservatives and 25.8% of the time for the LibDems. So the picture in all parties is very similar: when a new candidacy comes up (ie one where the sitting MP is not standing again), there is a one in four chance of it going to a woman and a
three-quarters chance of it going to a man.
Each of the major parties are doing better than that in new selections in the seats which they are most likely to win. This partly reflects pressure from the top to try to make faster progress. If we just take seats where a sitting MP from that party is standing down, then the LibDems selected women in 5 out of 9 selections (55%), the Conservatives in 13 out of
332 (40.6%) but a lower proportion in their target seats, and Labour in 10 out of 26. (38.5%).
(Of course, the sample sizes are fairly small. The percentages for the overall candidate numbers are not going to shift a great deal now, but the number of MPs elected could change particularly with last minute retirements).
The other parties will remain behind Labour in the proportion of women in Parliament, because it made an earlier breakthrough and they have felt the need to compete and catch up. But Labour should now note that it is no longer selecting women at a higher rate than the other parties, even though it is the only party of the three using a positive action approach of all women shortlists.
It follows that women are now doing considerably worse in open selections in the Labour Party than in other parties. (Only one woman was selected in the first sixteen open contests to replace a sitting Labour MP, though that does not include the victory of Rushanara Ali in an open selection in Bethnal Green, the one gain Labour is confident of making). The causes of this are not simple: the stronger candidates have an incentive to contest the all-women shortlist seats.
But I think it is also a sign of the risk of complacency at all levels in the Labour party: the party believes that the shortlist mechanism has 'sorted' the issue, and is paying too little attention to pushing the cultural changes which shortlists were
supposed to catalyse. This has created a 'ceiling effect', where women may be even less likely to win open selections than they once were.
Why does this issue matter?
I think common arguments about "positive discrimination" simply miss the point. Unless people want to argue that men and women do not have broadly equal talents, or that women are simply much less interested in or suited to politics, then we would anticipate a fair political system seeing men and women coming through in broadly equal numbers.
My goal is not "Parliament as a microcosm of society" but "equal chances and no unfair barriers" for all candidates.
It might not be that each intake of new MPs is always 50-50. Perhaps sometimes it would be 60-40 one way, and at other times 40-60 the other. If there is a systematic bias over time in one direction, that is cause for concern and evidence of barriers to fair chances.
Can anybody seriously claim that there is not currently systemic
discrimination in favour of men in our political system when it comes to getting into Parliament?
The systemic "gender penalty" does not prevent some women making it. All of the evidence is that it remains much easier for mediocre men to make it than average and above-average women, despite some ingrained prejudices suggesting the
My research into recent and current rounds of Parliamentary selections suggests that much of the debate is too pessimistic about progress on black and Asian candidates being selected (where I present evidence suggesting that the Labour party has overturned the historic 'ethnic penalty' in candidate selection), and too complacent about the chances of women being selected, where the 'gender penalty' remains stubborn, despite some progress being made. That is
certainly true in the Labour Party; it is a good description of where the Conservatives are now getting too. (The LibDem situation is reversed: the party has an all-white parliamentary party and that looks set to be the case again next year, but the party has now sped up its progress in terms of women winning good seats).
I think there are probably two reasons for this mismatch of perceptions and the data.
Firstly, the famous pictures of the Labour 1997 intake showed unprecedented progress for women. Secondly, because one party (Labour) has used a specific measure - all women shortlists - there has been a debate about "something" having "been done" for women, and some sense of grievance that this has not been extended. Both perhaps sent the message 'job done'.
The data challenges this common framing of the debate. In fact - and counter-intuitively - there has been much more rapid progress in breaking down the "ethnic penalty" than there has been in breaking down the "gender penalty". So the really interesting emerging question (and under-explored by academics) is why the ethnic penalty has been easier to break down, in Britain at least. This challenges a lot of assumptions in previous studies, which is that measures like minority shortlists would be the only way to achieve this.
I suggest three possible reasons, though a good deal more digging into this issue is required.
1. Cultural changes
There was some suggestion of a 'competitive grievance' politics: that women were being prioritised and ethnic minority candidates were going to the back of the queue. But it was not as zero-sum as some suggested. In fact, the shift in the image of who could make it to Parliament may well have helped to accelerate the chances of BME candidates, alongside other generational shifts for emerging black and Asian candidates.
2. Time and Money
But why have those cultural changes not helped women candidates as much as they have BME candidates?
My own hypothesis is that the image and 'stereotype' of 'what does an MP look like' may well have been an important barrier 20 years ago. I think it is less important now than the impact of economic and time factors. Overall, women candidates are considerably more likely to have caring responsibilities. This affects the overall group of aspiring women more than it does BME candidates overall; while the economic factors have a strong class impact, but again somewhat more impact overall on women than men.
A small but revealing ConservativeHome survey found would-be Tory candidates spent an average of around £20,000 trying to get selected,
and over £34,000 if lost income was accounted for too.
ConservativeHome suggests financial support for less well-off candidates, and has won support from The Economist for this idea.
Each party needs to do more to scrutinise these biases in their selection systems. The time demands - campaigning across the country to show keenness - demand a professional job, and make little allowance for family commitments. So women, working-class candidates of all races, and those outside the elite do not get a fair shot.
Ultimately, it is much easier to give fair chances to groups who make up 8% of the population than to candidates who make up 50% of the population. The demand for cultural change or the power which current elite and over-represented groups need to cede is much less.
To generalise a little too much, I would suggest that the ethnic penalty has been tackled in large part by black and Asian Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates and lawyers who fit the current mould of politics finding they can compete and win on equal terms, in parties which are keen to show that non-white candidates get a fair shot. That is progress - why should they be denied the chances which other lawyers and graduates of leading universities have had to join the political class, and become Tory MPs too?
But it is not deep progress, which requires tackling gender, class, ethnic and disability barriers to fair chances in a more integrated way.
I think that future Parliamentary intakes which were 50% female would probably bring about greater changes to the Westminster culture, on which Labour's class of 1997 has made only an incremental and gradual impact to date.
The Conservative Party has made an unprecedented breakthrough in selecting two Asian women in safe seats. But this has not prevented it selecting two sibling members of the Rees-Mogg family, children of the former Times editor and ex-Tory candidate, and an admirably gender balanced pair of Rees-Moggs at that. (Of course, Rees-Moggs have every right to be considered on merit too, but this is intended to illustrate that the party establishment has not ceded its place at the
Finally, if Labour does badly at the next election, there remains a strong case that the number of women in Parliament will fall, while the number of non-white MPs could stall, or (more probably) increase by a small amount. This strengthens the importance of efforts across all of the parties and not (as was the case until very recently) in just one party. Diversity in Parliament of all kinds should not be at the mercy of the political pendulum.