Even if the election takes place on the Coalition'sschedule in 2015, it is quite likely that the LibDems will find themselves with a more male dominated party than their 1930s predecessors, when one out of ten Liberal MPs was a woman. The reasons why the LibDems are now likely to go backwards on gender, even if they recover some lost support in the polls, are reported in The Guardian by Allegra Stratton, based on Fabian Society and Fabian Women's Network research by myself and Seema Malhotra.
So why do LibDem women specifically face such a dramatic meltdown threat, compared to the party's male MPs? You can read our Fabian Review article below. This will appears in the gender equality special issue of the Fabian Review, published later this week.
The LibDems have only seven women MPs out of 57. Yet five of the LibDem women hold seats among the dozen most vulnerable for the party, while they hold none of the party's 20 safest seats. And the party leadership has failed to realise that its decision to support a cull in the number of MPs has effectively cut off any chance of progress at the next election.
Women MPs in the dozen most vulnerable LibDem seats
1. Lorely Burt (Solihull) 0.3%, 175 votes
2. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset) 0.6%, 269 votes
3. Norwich South 0.7%
4. Bradford East 0.9%
5. Tessa Munt (Wells), 1.4%, 800 votes
6. St Austell 2.8%
7 = Sarah Teather (Brent South) 3.0%, 1345 votes
7 = Somerton 3.0%
9 St Ives 3.7%
10 Manchester West 4.1%
11. Burnley 4.3%
12. Jo Swinson, 4.6% (East Dunbartonshire*), 2184 votes
Other LibDem women MPs
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green), 12.5%, 7875 votes
Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central), 12.7%, 4576 votes
[* Corrected: Constituency given as East Dunfermline earlier]
In an early election held on current boundaries with current MPs where the party lost only 12 seats - a much stronger result than anybody would predict from the polls - the LibDems would (on a universal swing) return with a Parliamentary Party of 43 men and 2 women - a drop from 12 per cent to just 4.5 per cent of the party’s MPs. In practice, it could even be worse. The two 'safer' seats held by LibDem women are both pretty vulnerable to political responses to the Tory-LibDem Coalition. Both were gained in 2005 from Labour, through appeals to students and voters disillusioned with Labour over Iraq and other left-of-centre issues. The LibDems expect to lose Cardiff Central in the Welsh Assembly election on May 5th.
The LibDems have fallen behind the Conservatives as well as Labour in the diversity of their Parliamentary representation.
Party leader Nick Clegg argues that this is an important issue, and has made high profile commitments to change this. He told the Speaker's Conference in 2009 that his party was woefully" unrepresentative, expressing confidence that the 2010 election would see the party make a major advance to begin to catch up. That proved over-optimistic: the party went backwards, losing 3 women MPs and gaining one, again partly due to the pattern of selecting women in more vulnerable prospects. But there is little sign that the party's internal debate has acknowledged how likely a further sharp reduction in female representation has now become, nor has the leadership apparently understood how the Coalition's policy of a smaller House has set their chances of progress back. The A-list style measures adopted at the LibDem Spring Conference may turn out to gradually do some good over time. The chance of their having any impact in 2015 is much reduced by the decision to shrink the Commons.
Our analysis of the numbers suggest that these modest reforms are far from enough to prevent the Liberal benches after the next election being more male dominated than in the 1930s.
Here's the Fabian Review piece:
Why LibDem women face meltdown threat
The marginalisation of women in the 2010 election campaign, the total absence of women from the coalition negotiations, and the low numbers of women in the new cabinet has meant that every party is now stressing their desire to speed up progress towards gender equality in politics.
It sounds like the race to the 50-50 party has finally begun. Yet with boundary reforms and seat reductions, the risk is the race will be lost before the next election, with all three parties losing momentum and Lib Dem women MPs facing political annihilation.
Labour has the strongest record and currently 32 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party are women. Prompted by the Lead for Women grass roots campaign, Ed Miliband declared his commitment to a 50/50 party of equal voice and power at every level. With 16 per cent of current Conservative MPs being women, their highest proportion ever, David Cameron can point to more progress than his predecessors but acknowledges the need to do more.
The Lib Dems, lagging behind in third place, hope to catch up. However, their election strategy for gender was disastrous – numbers of women MPs dropped from nine to seven. They also have no ethnic minority MPs. Having previously rejected positive action, including in 1998 when Baroness Williams called for an end to the Commons ‘Old Boys’ Network’ and warned “we will not get more women involved just by providing more training and education”, this year the party’s Spring Conference passed an a ‘priority candidates’ list – an A list. This will do no harm and perhaps some good. But the debate showed the party has not appreciated how great a risk there is that Lib Dem women will face meltdown at the next election, or how the coalition’s own reforms have cut off their real chance to make any progress by 2015.
New Fabian Society/Fabian Women’s Network research shows that the Lib Dems would need to take urgent steps to avoid a collapse in gender balance, which would leave the party’s Commons benches in 2015 even more male-dominated than the Liberal benches of the 1930s.
The meltdown threat arises from a toxic triple cocktail:
1) Firstly, political unpopularity. Having lost more than half of their support since the general election, the Lib Dems are preparing a defensive campaign, hoping to regain support and defend Lib Dem held seats. Even selecting many more women candidates to take on Tory and Labour MPs is unlikely to return as many MPs next time around.
2) Secondly, coalition populism. The Lib Dems have inadvertently scored an own goal on gender by supporting a smaller House of Commons. Shrinking the House to 600 will see the smallest new intake in any post-war election, slowing down progress since new intakes have a better gender balance than the whole House. Typically, around 60 to 80 MPs stand down at the end of a Parliament while up to 590 defend their seats. This time, many retirees will be replaced not by new hopefuls but MPs seeking a new berth after constituency mergers. The Lib Dems would have expected to select six or seven new candidates to replace retiring MPs; this will probably now fall to two or three – even if all current seats were deemed winnable.
3) Thirdly, the legacy of past selection patterns. Five of the Lib Dem women MPs are amongst the party's dozen most vulnerable seats. They are proportionately more electorally vulnerable than their male counterparts. The two 'safer' seats held by women – in Cardiff West and Haringey – are pretty risky prospects too. The party's twenty safest seats are all held by men. This long-standing pattern is not unique to this Parliament. Three Lib Dem women (a third of those standing again) and five men (a tenth) lost in May 2010. The causes are complex: chance, informal hierarchies of power, the sociology of political recruitment and electoral geography. Professional women Lib Dems have tended to fight southern marginals; there is only one woman among 11 Scots Lib Dem MPs, again holding the most vulnerable seat.
Lib Dem party strategists would be over the moon if they held four out of five seats at the next election. If an early election were held (under current boundaries) that would mean a parliamentary party of 43 men and two women, a drop from 13 per cent to 4.5 per cent of the party’s MPs – half their presence in the 1930s. But if the current polls were even half right, not a single Lib Dem woman MP would survive.
The problem could get even worse if any Lib Dem women lose out in the boundaries scramble. The leadership will need to work out how to pragmatically protect them and perhaps encourage another retirement or two. Or might the party even, exceptionally, consider dropping its opposition to all women shortlists for the two or three constituencies where it will replace a sitting MP? More likely, it may seek to achieve a similar result by ensuring there are strong women in the field, and informal pressure highlighting the gender gap problem.
But such tinkering will merely limit the damage unless the Lib Dems respond to new boundaries by reopening every selection, with the aim that women candidates should contest a quarter of the party’s 20 most defendable seats, rather than none of them. This might mean Sir Ming Campbell or Charles Kennedy swapping their safe seats with a colleague to defend a marginal. If this seems too difficult or painful, the party should admit it’s willing to run the risk of only electing men in 2015.
The smaller Commons will also slow down Labour and Tory progress, though both parties hope to gain seats. Labour should adopt an all women shortlist in any winnable seat being defended by a woman MP from another party, within the current strategy to select women in 50 per cent of all winnable seats. The message would be that voting Labour could not reduce the number of women in parliament. No other party could claim this.
Some may worry about the impact on voter choice. This seems a weak argument. There were already 11 constituencies in 2010 where all three major parties selected a woman. And who spoke up about voter choice, or even noticed, the 267 constituencies where all three major party candidates were men? Political equality is a pre-requisite for, not just a consequence of, social equality. The gender challenge at the next election will test the commitment of the three parties to fairness in an unprecedented way.
Sunder Katwala is General Secretary of the Fabian Society, and Seema Malhotra is Director of the Fabian Women’s Network
The gender research builds on earlier Fabian evidence to the Speaker's Conference, which sought to identify how each of the parties might overcome the barriers to achieving 'fair chances and no unfair barriers' to prospective candidates.
The LibDem MPs are also all white. I am not sure that the party has fully taken on board the evidence that a significant part of their problem here is that the pattern of selections suggests a strong attachment to an 'ethnic faces for ethnic voters' approach to non-white candidates. This means that they consisently select non-white candidates heavily only in inner city areas such as East London and Birmingham where the party's prospects are relatively weak. So the LibDems have now fallen a good way behind the Conservatives as well as Labour here, in part because it has been consistently less likely to also select non-white candidates for winnable seats where there is not a large ethnic minority population. The new priority list may possibly have some positive effect here, though it depends on generating more support at all levels of the party for breaking this pattern.