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Stand and Deliver

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The following is an article published in the May/June edition of Progress - for further details visit: http://www.progressives.org.uk/magazine/default.asp


After becoming leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron quickly identified the importance of appealing to women voters. At the 2005 General Election the Conservative vote fell amongst women voters of all ages, and it is estimated that if only women had voted in 2005, the Government’s majority would have been over 90 and if only men had voted it would have been reduced to 21.


Recent research for the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) showed the Conservatives lagging considerably behind Labour in the credibility of their policies in three areas important to women: balancing work and family life; support for parents and carers and improving women’s pensions (ICM). This, coupled with Electoral Commission evidence showing turnout amongst both men and women going up where a woman is standing for election, means that all parties now recognise the importance of women candidates.


However, it’s not just having a women candidate that is important - getting them elected matters too. The Conservatives have made some moves, but in a grudging piece-meal way. Although they supported the introduction of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 that made it legal for political parties to increase the number of women candidates - they have refused to adopt all women shortlists and continue to mainly choose women to stand in marginal rather than winnable seats.


Consequently, despite winning 33 more seats in the last General Election, Conservative female representation went up very little. In contrast Labour, whilst losing 47 seats, saw 26 new women elected - 65% of the new intake. This is the first time a party in parliament has had more new women MPs then new men MPs. 27% of Labour candidates were women leading to 28% of the Parliamentary Labour Party being women.


Of course 28% is still not good enough, and it’s vital that Labour continue to ensure a greater number of women than men are elected at each General Election. The Fawcett Society have calculated that even using all women shortlists it will take Labour 30 years to achieve parity.


The local elections are an early test of whether Cameron can feminise his party. Women’s representation in local government in England is higher than in parliament. In 2004 in England 29% of local authority councillors were women - Conservatives 27%, Labour 29% and the Liberal Democrats on 34%. In Wales and Scotland the proportions were 22%. All parties have failed to give much attention to representation of women at local level, with Labour only recently having brought in rules in some areas to ensure that at least one candidate in multi-member wards is female. 


Clearly it’s easier to manage family life with local politics than a career in Westminster, but the higher age profile of councillors - mid 50s - may also mean that more women become active when their families have left home at an age when it’s difficult to get selected for parliament. There’s also less competition for nominations, and in many areas parties are looking for candidates for seats rather than the other way round.


But with half of the new Conservative women MPs former councillors, and many of the Labour women MPs having had experience in local government, getting more women into local councils should help all parties increase the number of experienced women candidates ready to stand for parliament.


We can rejoice that women’s issues and women’s representation have become a political fighting ground for all parties. But as women in the Labour Party know, delivering on this agenda is not easy.  We will not give up on our battle for fairer representation and the new Conservative leader will have to do a lot more than just talk a good game to demonstrate that neither will he.


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