Gender Equality and MPs – is our performance as bad as it looks?

I am very unhappy with the number of female Lib Dem MPs. 7 out of 57 is not good enough and we need to improve. The leadership programme which assists those from underrepresented groups to become candidates will hopefully help.

7/57 = 12.3%. So, less than an eighth of our MPs are women. The Conservatives have 48/307 = 15.6%, Labour 81/258 = 31.4%. Activists from the two other parties have pointed this out to me on numerous occasions. They are right to. It is embarrassing. We definitely need more female candidates. In 2010 we only had 134 (21.3%). The Conservatives had 149 (23.7%), Labour 191 (30.3%).

But I looked more deeply into the 2010 general election data and discovered some interesting things.

Firstly, when you look at the total vote for each party, and then look at total votes for males and females for each party, Labour do best with 32.4% of their vote going to women. But second best are Lib Dems with 22%. The Conservatives, despite fielding more women and ultimately getting more female MPs proportionally than the Lib Dems only had 19.8% of their votes go to women.

I wondered why this was so I took all the votes for women for each of the parties and worked out what the average vote for females vs males was:

Conservative males: 17,811
Conservative females: 14,204

Labour males: 13,248
Labour females: 14,583

Lib Dem males: 10,739
Lib Dem females: 11,201

It would seem that Conservative women tend to be in seats that are more difficult for them to win on average than those for their male counterparts.

Finally a “what if” exercise. The other two parties have many more MPs than us. When it comes to improving female representation the marginal seats are endlessly discussed. But I just looked at the top 100 seats in terms votes won by each party. How many women were candidates?

Labour: 27/100
Lib Dem: 25/100 (although of course we only won 57 of them)
Conservatives: 9/100

We are only just behind Labour, even with their years of women only shortlists. The Conservatives are way behind. If for some strange reason their vote had dropped to a level where they only got 100 MPs they would have had 9 female MPs. Incidentally, if they had only 57 MPs like us they would have had only 5.

At the very least I would suggest this analysis shows things are more mixed than the “Lib Dems are worst at trying to balance gender for MPs” accusation you regularly hear. It would appear our old friend First Past the Post is exacerbating the problem.

That 22% of our votes went to female candidates but only resulted in around 12% of our MPs being female is typical of a majoritarian electoral system. Perhaps if we had a fairer one, the representation of women and ethnic minorities would be further advanced than it currently is for all parties.

NOTE: Thanks to Pippa Norris for providing the electoral data.

* Mark Thompson blogs here

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  • Very interesting analysis. I think it is well known that proportional representation would increase the number of female MPs (yet another reason why it is a good thing) but, sadly, there won’t be any progress on that soon so we have deal with the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be.

    In reality, that means a slow grind to increase our female MP representation although we would undoubtedly do much better in any elections to the House of Lords (so lets hope that gets through soon!). I think the vast majority of the party is behind the current approach of offering active support to women and other unrepresented groups but we need to keep pushing (and those seats lucky enought to have a retiring Lib Dem MP need to think about the wider issues as well as their local area).

    One other oddity is that despite the very low number of women MPs, if you look at the electoral data, we do better amongst women than men. Indeed, at the last general election, our best demographic was young women and our worst was old men….

  • Thank you, Mark – thought-provoking as always! I remember making precisely this point from the floor of Conference years ago in an intervention against one of the regular proposals for all-women shortlists.

  • There are only two things that have made a significant difference to the number of women MPs since the beginning of mass democracy in the UK: 1. Allowing them to stand 2. All women shortlists.

  • david thorpe 31st Jan '12 - 12:49pm

    there were women in almost all of the highest profile target seats in the country, plus a number of existing women mps lost their seats, its not a question of them lacking opportunity.
    I think there is a lesson for the lib dems to learn from the figures for the tories, more women vote tory than to men, and prehaps when a female tory is the candidate then women who might have considered us or another party will vote tory……

  • But Jo, we did select women in held seats and many other winnable seats. Now admittedly, we could have done with more, but the big problem was we then didn’t win the seats in which they were selected. No change in the way we select candidates is going to alter that.

  • Ed Maxfield 31st Jan '12 - 1:46pm

    Anders, it is important not to read too much into a single election. The Lib Dems lost a significant number of seats in 2010 where the incumbent was retiring and we failed to win target seats where both male and female candidates were standing. If we had had all women short lists in 1997, say, we may well have gained a dozen or more women MPs. All women shortlists worked particularly well for Labour in 97 because the introduction coincided with the party gaining a very large number of seats.

    As Jo says, the leadership academy might help because the other ‘no brainer’ in this debate is that if we are serious about electing more women (with or without all women shortlists) we have to invest extra resources in those seats with women candidates even if that means sacrificing possible gains elsewhere.

  • Simon Titley 31st Jan '12 - 2:50pm

    @Jo and Ed – It’s important not to dismiss the evidence. Everyone agrees that there aren’t enough Lib Dem women MPs. The question is why, and that requires a rational analysis, without which we risk a false prescription.

    For example, when this topic has come up previously, we sometimes hear accusations that the problem is sexism in local parties, when the figures suggest otherwise. Women on the approved list actually do proportionately well at winning selection contests – and at gaining them in winnable seats.

    The problem is basically one of supply. Not enough women are coming forward for approval in the first place. There are various possible reasons why this may be so. The pool of committed women activists may be too small (in which case the problem is in membership recruitment and mobilisation). Many women may find it difficult to combine candidature with childcare responsibilities (in which case the answer may be to stop demanding a Stakhanovite level of leaflet delivery from PPCs). Fewer women may have the confidence to put themselves forward (in which case we need to consider confidence-building measures). More women may find the whole idea of politics off-putting altogether (in which case we need to examine fundamentally the style of democratic politics). It could be some or all of these reasons, and there may be other reasons besides.

    So yes, all-women shortlists would help correct the imbalance, but they would not tackle the underlying causes of the problem.

  • Malcolm Todd 31st Jan '12 - 2:55pm

    @MarkG “at the last general election, our best demographic was young women”

    That wouldn’t be anything to do with our high levels of support amongst students, would it?

  • Completely agree with Ed’s last point – I personally think that this is about resources. I also don’t think Jo is being fair to characterise Mark as ‘finding excuses’ and being ‘irrelevant’ though; he is a) clearly backing strong action against an acknowledged problem and b) didn’t actually say whether or not he was for or against all-women short-lists (though other commentators subsequently have).

    As far as I can tell, Mark’s point seems more to be that it is not *all bad*, the electoral system is another factor, and whilst there is more to do, perhaps consistent detraction from some (very) modest achievements isn’t always helpful…

  • Ed Maxfield 31st Jan '12 - 3:05pm

    Simon, I dont dispute that currently fewer women apply to be candidates than men. There are doubtless many different causes behind the lack of women MPs and we can chase solutions to each of them down various alleys til the end of time. The evidence, though, shows that the only thing that has ever made an actual, significant difference to the number of women in parliament is the adoption of all women shortlists by the Labour Party ahead of the 1997 general election.

    If there are five men for every two women prepared to apply for a seat a shortage of supply matters not one jot if the shortlist is restricted to women only.

    And perhaps the act of radically increasing the number of women in parliament would be the thing that would prompt more women to seek to stand.

  • I have to disagree with the posters who suggest that electoral systems don’t have an impact. All the evidence both from the UK and abroad suggests that they clearly do.

    Jo is right to say that it is isn’t the simple magic of the type of electoral system – however, proportional systems make it much easier for women (and minorities to thrive) because (a) they make it easier for parties to introduce measures to ensure balance (zipped lists, requirements to have certain proportion of women, ethnic minorities etc) without restricting choice and (b) it allows voters to also vote for balanced tickets. A great example of how that positively works for the Lib Dems is the list for the next GLA elections.

  • @Malcolm – of course, which is why the tuition fees debacle has been disproportionately damaging. But that doesn’t explain why young women favour us more than young men. (My personal explanation is that women are less class driven than men or maybe just more sensible….)

  • jenny barnes 31st Jan '12 - 3:39pm

    Have you ever listened to, for example, PMQs? A very large number of MPs are white, male, public school educated, and treat the house of commons like a school debating society. You wouldn’t think what’s discussed there actually matters, the way they behave. Women in that environment have considerable difficulty in just being heard. Personally I dislike shouting, being interrupted when speaking and general discourtesy. I’m probably not typical of all women, but I imagine there are plenty like me who are put off by the environment, for all we have political interests, ideas, etc.

  • I wasn’t quite trying to frame a drop in the number of women MPs as any kind of achievement! [I was going for the top target seats gender balance…] On everything else, I totally agree – particularly your last paragraph.

  • Tony Dawson 31st Jan '12 - 6:14pm

    This was one of the most interesting of the ideosyncratic geeky postings that sometimes appear on here.

    I was particularly interested by the stats on the ‘100 top seats’ (in terms of votes cast) female candidacy:

    “Labour: 27/100
    Lib Dem: 25/100 (although of course we only won 57 of them)
    Conservatives: 9/100”

    Being a successful Lib Dem candidate in a parliamentary election requires a number of things in different proportions depending on the history of the seat concerned: A strong candidate with appeal to the electorate; a candidate willing to neglect his/her own health and family sometimes to as ludicrous extent; a strong local team; support from the centre. Not all of these factors has always been present when we have had female candidates in ‘winnable seats’in recent elections. Particularly the second and fourth. The second is understandable, women are generally (though not exclusively) more sensible in these matters in my experience. The fourth is not so obvious.

    The job of being an MP is a varied one, and simply being a gender-balanced set of lobby fodder is not good enough for the people of Britain. Labour’s all women shortlists produced a greater gender balance. It also threw up some totally useless MPs. Beeing ‘new’ they tended to have a higher profile so I am not sure as to whether or not there are an equivalent number (pro rata) of useless male Labour MPs.

    Labour candidates tend to be ‘carried’ by their party’s national campaign and Union money. Lib Dems do not have that luxury. So the catastrophic failure to gain AV has another side-effect: it seriously reduces the number and types of Lib Dem candidates who are likely to win. This is likely to have a significant effect upon ‘sensible’ female candidates’ chances of success.

  • Tony Dawson,

    “It (AWS) also threw up some totally useless MPs.”

    Absolutely. It inevitably will do, because the women who succeed via that route are dependent on the party elite for their selection. The so-called “Blair babes” were classic lobby fodder. They supported every dreadful thing the Labour government did, including Cheney’s Iraq war. Politicians with independence of spirit tend to be those who build up local powerbases – the Mike Hancocks and Bob Russells of this world. Did Blair’s token women reduce the confrontational character of politics in this country? Did they improve male behaviour in the House of Commons? I think not. They read from the script and did what they were told. AWS is wrong in principle and strengthens elites in practice.


    “(and those seats lucky enought to have a retiring Lib Dem MP”

    Oh help. We are notoriously poor at defending seats with new candidates. And I fear that will be even more the case after five years of propping up a Tory government – and with the larger, gerry-mandered constituencies that we traded for the AV referendum.

  • I really hope the Lib Dems do not go down the lines of all women shortlists, whilst there is no doubt that there is work to be done to move towards getting a level of equality on the target seat lists, candidates selection should be about ability to be the best possible candidate, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, or disability, and I strongly believe it would do more harm than good, to put forwards poorer candidates for the sake of having representative statistics.

    I’m all for giving unrepresented groups the assistance they need to get them there, but ruling out good strong candidates because of the gender they were born, is just wrong, the first measure is to get an equality in those wanting to be candidates and the rest should look after itself.

  • “a candidate willing to neglect his/her own health and family sometimes to as ludicrous extent”

    And therein lies the problem. Neglecting ones family is not a virtue and should be frowned upon by men as well as women.

    I would suggest the job itself is a barrier because of how it is currently constituted. I wonder whether there are those with the skills, aptitude and passion for politics who are simply put off even trying. I mean who wants to sit on an uncomfortable bench until 10 at night listening to Citizen Smith arguing with Alan B’stard when neither has had a meaningful job but did very well at PPE so must have all the answers…..

    We could of course make the whole thing more appealing to those who wish to keep some type of family life including fathers. Perhaps making our parliament hold more family friendly hours, allow electronic voting and more constituency time. Running to the chamber to vote on a division when you’ve taken no part in, and often have little interest in, the debate itself is a waste of time that could be spent working for their constituents.

    And of course encouraging MP’s to stop acting like a bunch of ex public schoolboy’s would help…

  • The stuff about family life is nonsense. For a start, many jobs require irregular shift work, periods overseas, real and present physical danger etc etc. With the exception of MPs for some of the most remote constiuencies where travel must be particularly onerous, MPs can have fantastic family lives if they are organised and not too greedy. If MPs were so time poor, they wouldn’t spend so much time involved in earning money for themselves with directorships etc.

    Lets pair some neighbouring constituencies and run some AWS and AMS.

  • Richard Swales 1st Feb '12 - 7:38am

    The trouble is, who is going to be allowed to tell the members in a particular constituency that they can only choose from men or only choose from women, and on what basis should they pick those constituencies?
    It seems easier to have AWS/AMS in a top-down party like the Tories or Labour than in the Lib Dems.

    The statistics that show the percentage of women candidates in the top 100 seats by party are interesting. A lot of those will be incumbents of course. What results do you get if you strip those out?

    It would also be more scientific to use the notional votes known at the time of selection rather than the actual results from after the selection.

  • Cllr Steve Bradley 1st Feb '12 - 12:23pm

    As a party we appear to have a tendency to over-intellectualise a problem which statistics suggest has a very simple solution.

    PCA figures show that of all party members who seek approval to stand as candidates, c. 30% are female. Of those, c. 30% are then successfully selected as PPCs, and of those c. 30% are then successfully elected. In otherwords, the rate at which females step forward to start the process and the rate at which they actually get elected for us is all in proportion.

    This all suggests that the way to improve our gender balance is to ensure we have more female candidates deciding to come forward and start the process in the first place. But people tend to ignore this and instead believe that special treatment for those already on the conveyor belt towards selection/election is the way forward. It may be as a short-term one-off snap-shot in time – but unless we are encouraging more female members to want to stand in the first place, it will be ultimately doomed to failure.

    In short – on these matters we need to worry a bit less about our own individual beliefs and prejudices and focus a bit more instead on the data and facts. As that is the only way we’ll actually deliver meaningful change.

  • Cllr Steve Bradley 1st Feb '12 - 1:34pm

    Mark G – I’d be interested to hear how you think the GLA list selection is an example of zipping working for women candidates/gender balance ?

    Given that the mechanism wasn’t needed at all in that list – and that the zipping rules have actually been ignored through not ensuring there are at least two of each gender in the Top 5 positions ? How can deliberately not implementing and ignoring a rule be considered a success for that particular rule, rather than an inherent failure of it ?

  • Ruth Bright 2nd Feb '12 - 8:40am

    Simon McGrath – I am puzzled that you say there is no evidence of discrimination in the party. Back in October I believe you were one of the many who commented constructively on my LDV article about my experiences of discrimination as a PPC. For example there is no concept of maternity leave as a PPC. With my first baby I took just two days off. As Caron Lindsay has helpfully reminded us on her blog it is illegal for an employer to ask a new mother to work within a fortnight of having a baby.

    Simon Titley – agree totally that the Stakhanovite tendency makes life difficult for all candidates with “a life” – male or female.

  • Not sure Simon is right; I have witnessed gender based discrimination. Ruth and Simon are utterly correct that the very nature of our political engagement “makes life difficult for all candidates with ‘a life’ – male or female.”

  • Jennie Rigg 2nd Feb '12 - 4:15pm

    Steve Way and Ruth Bright have nailed it, in my view. Why would anyone with any sense spend 40 grand of their own money to be a leaflet deliverer foir several years, at the end of which you get a job which involves ridiculous hours, too much travel, no maternity leave and derision if you care about your family (look how Cleggy got treated for wanting to do the school run) etc. etc. etc.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the ones with no sense too. But the requirements of the job must put off vast numbers of genuinely talented and useful people; and saying that other professions have onerous conditions too is really beside the point. Oil rig workers (for example) don’t run the country.

    Yes, you can make a difference to your own life and the lives of others, and yes you get power. But for many people, male and female and genderqueer alike, the pros do not outweigh the cons.

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