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Glacial Progress for Women

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The following was published on the website of Progress.


Less than a quarter of the MPs in the new parliament will be women. More than 90 years after we got the vote and 80 years after universal suffrage, women’s political representation remains poor and progress towards equality has again been glacial.


The Conservatives will no doubt trumpet the increase in their female MPs, but this only looks good compared with just how bad they were before. Out of their 306 seats there are 48 Tory women, just 16%, which is up from 9% in the last parliament. The Liberal Democrats have gone backwards, down to 7 women from 9, which is a decrease from 16% to 12%.


But Labour has achieved an increase from 27% to 31% by using the All Women Shortlists (AWS) in 50% of retiring MP’s seats. However, because the total of Labour MPs is less the actual number is down from 94 to 81. There are also 6 women from the smaller parties.


So we have the highest ever number of women elected, but still it will only comprise 22% of the House of Commons. That’s 142 women today compared with 126 (19.5%) before the general election.


Women’s representation does well when their political party does well. Proportionally more women are selected in marginal seats, so when the party wins votes the numbers of women MPs climbs significantly, when the party’s votes declines the number of women MPs declines at a greater rate. As Liberal Democrat women in the last parliament were in marginal seats the loss of three women was not unexpected. In total they lost 13 seats so women comprise nearly 25% of those seats whilst being only 16% of their parliamentary party. They did make 8 gains, but only one of those had a female candidate.


Although the Liberal Democrats did worst in this election, it is the Conservative Party that has most let women down. Around 25% of their new intake comprise women, which significantly increases their overall proportion. But the election was an opportunity missed. With so many long standing Tory MPs retiring in safe seats they could have chosen many more women as candidates. Instead new male MPs in their thirties and forties will remain in place for many years, thus making it harder to maintain and increase female representation.


The Labour Party strategy of insisting on 50% selection of women in previously held Labour seats has proven its worth. We have seen the proportion of women on our parliamentary benches increase over the past twenty years. In 2005 a record breaking 65% of new Labour MPs were female. This time it’s down to 50% - still double what the Conservatives achieved.


Using international comparisons we remain well down the league table of women’s representation in parliament. We find ourselves with neighbours also on 22%, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and Latvia. We are well below Rwanda, the only parliament with more than 50% women, Uganda 31% and Vietnam with nearly 26%.


The Speakers Conference on Parliamentary Representation had 71 recommendations to improve our poor situation. All the political party leaders need to stand by the commitments that they have given, and those elected to this House of Commons need to show we’re serious about ensuring that women’s representation reflects our society.  

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