Despite claims of a flood of female MPs in the upcoming election, it looks like little will change
In the last parliament, less than three in ten elected MPs were women. Of the 650 seats in Westminster, only 191 were filled by women. As in previous parliaments, Labour has the largest proportion of female MPs, almost double that of the Conservative party (see chart below).
While Jeremy Corbyn has said the right things when it comes to female representation and guaranteed at least 50 per cent female cabinet, there’s been a fair bit of trouble with abuse and harassment directed towards women by his supporters. On the other side of the benches, the Prime Minister has so far ignored the women and equalities select committee recommendation to require 45 per cent of constituencies to field female candidates, while claims (such as this and this) of an incoming surge of female Conservative MPs sadly look to be unfounded. All the while the UK is slipping down the global league table for female representation. In 1999, we were 25th. Now we have fallen to 47th.
Proportion of female MPs by party, as of the 2015 general election
Notes: Data is shown for all parties who won 5 seats or more at the 2015 general election
Source: Author’s analysis of the British Election Study (Version 2.21 2015 BES Constituency Results with Census and Candidate Data)
So what will the 2017 election bring? Well, it’s unlikely to get us to the point where the gender split of MPs reflects the gender split of the nation (of which 50.7 per cent of us are female). Why? The first clue is that less than three in ten parliamentary candidates are female. Despite the efforts of most parties to address the lack of women in Parliament, it is clear that we have not managed to achieve gender parity among candidates – let alone for elected MPs. Again, Labour have the highest proportion of female candidates followed by the SNP, with the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Plaid Cymru all trailing behind. But even Labour, the party that seems to do best for gender equality, doesn’t seem to be able to break the halfway mark.
The only way that the relatively low proportion of female candidates would translate into gender parity in parliament is if women were disproportionally standing in winnable seats. Current polling tells us this isn’t the case. If the latest seat predictions hold up, our next Parliament will be little better than the last one in terms of female representation. Seat predictions indicate the proportion of female MPs will inch up to 30.8 per cent after the election, from 29.4 per cent following the 2015 election. This is a rise of just 1.4 percentage points – a net increase of just 9 seats, leaving just 200 of Westminster’s 650 parliamentary seats occupied by women. It’s a move in the right direction – but a very, very small one.
The story by party – with Labour having a much higher proportion of female MPs – is likely to remain unchanged. The current predictions have Labour retaining a proportion of female MPs that is more than double that of the Conservatives (46.8 compared to 22.3 per cent respectively). The massive difference in these proportions means that, despite having a much larger overall number of predicted seats, the Conservatives will have a smaller number of female MPs than Labour (83 compared to Labour’s 95, against a predicted overall seat count of 373 for the Tories and 203 for Labour).
But it’s not just about party lines. The proportion of female MPs by nation within the UK has varied considerably and will continue to. At present female representation is highest in Scotland (33.9 per cent female) and lowest in Northern Ireland, where a tiny 11.1 per cent of MPs were female. The polls forecast an increase of one female MP in the upcoming election, taking its representation to 17 per cent. Yet this still means that only 3 of its 18 MPs are predicted to be women – a laughably small number of female MPs for a nation of nearly 1 million women.
And a last thought: it seems that poor gender representation isn’t just an issue for Parliament. As Carys Roberts of the Institute for Public Policy Research recently found that ‘Women make up just 33 per cent of local councillors in England, 27 per cent in Wales and 24 per cent in Scotland. The picture is worse when we focus on local leadership: just 15 per cent of local authority leaders in England are women.’ Poor gender representation in local government is set to become an even bigger problem as devolution increasingly moves power back from Westminster to councils.
So as female representation lags behind in Westminster and within councils, what can we do?
- Get involved with 50:50 Parliament, the campaign to bring equality to Westminster
- Know someone who has ambitions of public service? Talk to them, encourage them and maybe even #AskHerToStand
- If you’re a member of a political party, get involved with their women’s groups
- Get involved with the Fawcett Society. They are the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights, and they’re great!
Data on MPs (including gender) as of the 2015 election and voting outcomes of the 2015 election from the British Election Study
This analysis was originally prepared for the Fawcett Society, and appeared in the Times (12 May, pay wall) and the i news. Please note that though the original analysis was prepared for the Fawcett Society, this blog post is not for or on behalf of them.
The IPPR report quoted is Gender balance of power: Women’s representation in regional and local government in the UK and Germany, by Carys Roberts (published May 2017). Population statistics quoted in the text for the UK and Northern Ireland are from the Office of National Statistics and Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency respectively.
Want to know more about the data?
I share data! If you’d like to access or use the full dataset that sits behind this analysis, or you have questions on the methods I’ve used, please get in touch on sendtogiselle [at] gmail [dot] com