Shortlists and Swagger: How can we increase the number of women in parliament?

By Laura Jones

As I wrote in my last blog, Britain continues to make only glacial progress in its number of female parliamentarians, something The Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris puts down to women’s perceived lack of ‘swagger’ – they don’t match local party members’ idea of how an MP should act and talk, and so highly qualified candidates put forward by Party HQ fail to make it to the final candidate list.

I mentioned that Parris’s claim is supported by a huge body of social psychological evidence dating as far back as the 1970s. But it equally wouldn’t have caused much of a ripple among feminist political scientists of the 1990s. By then it was pretty clear to them that the lack of women in British politics was a problem not of supply – ie a lack of qualified female candidates – but of demand. More and more female and BAME candidates were coming forward, being approved by the central party system, and then being rejected by local parties at the final hurdle. Their analysis was remarkably similar to Parris’s – local party selectors’ definition of what constituted a qualified candidate tended to favour style over substance, and thus swaggering men over female candidates.

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These prejudices affect all political parties, so what can we do about them? Since the 1990s the Labour Party has been trying to build a selection system that eliminates this bias by using all-women shortlists (AWSs) – allowing qualified female candidates to appear before the electorate on an equal footing. Other parties have resisted AWSs in favour of ‘merit’-based selection. But the problem is that when swagger is the main criterion, merit is all too often synonymous with ‘male’.

The lion’s share of women’s progress in parliament has been driven by these AWSs. Following their introduction in the 1997 election, the number of female MPs doubled overnight, due to a tripling of female Labour MPs, even as the number of Conservative women MPs dropped. When AWSs were temporarily scrapped in 2001, the number of female MPs also dropped for the first time in a generation. Looking further afield, 80 per cent of the countries with a greater percentage of female parliamentarians than the UK make use of some form of quota.

Female MPs

20 years on from the implementation of AWSs they remain controversial – 56 per cent of the British public oppose them – but a recent academic study by Mona Lena Krook and Mary Nugent at Rutgers University has systematically undermined many of the most common objections to them. They analysed the careers of MPs in every parliament since 1997 and found that, far from being inexperienced, women selected on AWSs had higher levels of political experience prior to being selected as candidates than other Labour MPs (male or female) in every year except 2010, and the highest levels of experience of any group in 2001 and 2005, supporting other research that women feel the need to accumulate more experience before they see themselves as valid political candidates.

Nor did they find any evidence to support Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that AWSs produce ‘people who haven’t really performed as politicians for the Labour Party’. Across a range of metrics, including writing questions, speaking in and attending debates, AWS candidates either outperformed or were indistinguishable from their parliamentary colleagues. They also found that BAME candidates were more likely to be selected in AWS versus ‘open’ seats. Taken together, they conclude that ‘quotas reduce barriers to women’s entry, opening up politics to qualified and committed women who otherwise might be overlooked.’

Getty Images. The Conservative Party has become a more inclusive place since David Davis's leadership campaign in 2005

Getty Images.
The Conservative Party has become a somewhat more inclusive place since David Davis’s leadership campaign in 2005

The Conservative party has also taken extensive steps to improve their candidate selection processes, providing training and mentoring programmes to female candidates, including via the Women2Win programme founded by Theresa May and Baroness Anne Jenkin, ensuring that local parties receive shortlists with qualified female candidates, and opening up participation in the final selection decision to the wider party. They understand the need to modernise the party if they are to appeal to a broader section of the electorate. Progress has been made – but only up to a point. In the 2017 election just 16 per cent of new candidates in Conservative marginal seats were female and just 2 of their 20 new MPs are women.

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This is a problem for all parties. In the 2015 election, 94 per cent of Labour candidates fielded in non-shortlist winnable seats were men, and although 41 per cent of 2017 Labour candidates were female, only 13 per cent of new candidates in marginals were. If women now represent 45 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party compared to 24 per cent in 1997, then this has rather more to do with the shrinking of Labour’s presence in the house than a numerical increase – there are just 18 more Labour women MPs now than there were then. Questions also remain about why the party has never had a female leader, and why all of Labour’s recently elected mayors and the majority of their top teams, largely drawn from local councils, are male. Nonetheless, the imbalance between the parties is such that an investigation by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, chaired by Conservative MP Maria Miller, concluded that the number of female MPs is ‘worryingly dependent on the electoral performance of one party’, and recommended that parliament act to ensure that 45 per cent of all parliamentary candidates are female.

Parliament has significant symbolic as well as real power to influence the lives of its citizens. Young women are the demographic least likely to vote, and we know that in countries where female MPs have a greater presence in parliament, women in general are more politically engaged and interested.

If Britain ever hopes to swagger its way to equal representation, then the academic evidence clearly suggests that the government would be wise to heed the recommendations of the Women and Equalities Select Committee and adopt electoral quotas for party candidate selection at elections. Otherwise the voters who produced the ‘youthquake’ at the 2017 election will be drawing their pension programming their first robotic carer by the time equality comes around.

Laura Jones is a Research Assistant at the Policy Institute.

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