Who runs Britain?

Will women’s representation in parliament increase after the forthcoming general election? Polly Trenow, a member of the Counting Women In Coalition group which publishes the report, asks what can be done.

Picture credit: Jason

In 1997 the UK was 20th in the international league table of women’s representation in parliament. Today it is 65th. Nothing radical has changed, and that is just the problem: across all walks of life progress on women’s representation is stagnating.

This has meant nations with gender higher up the agenda have overtaken us in the last twenty years – France, Belgium, Poland, Australia, Rwanda, Tunisia, and Trinidad and Tobago, to name but a few.

Last year the Sex and Power 2013 report made headlines, showing for the first time in one report just how dire representation of women was in all walks of life, from directors of charities to members of the cabinet.

This year, knowing that sadly little progress has been made in many of these areas, we focused on the forthcoming general elections. In particular we wanted to examine women being fielded in places where they have a chance of winning; in ‘safe seats’; where their party only has a small margin needed to win; and in seats where new candidates are filling the shoes of someone who is retiring.

The 2015 General Election presents the next big opportunity for all parties to make progress on getting more women into parliament, and fielding women in target and retirement seats is the most reliable way of achieving this.

To date the Labour Party are leading the way, with women comprising 53.5 per cent of those fielded in target and retirement seats. The Liberal Democrat Party comes next with 40.5 per cent and the Conservative Party is lagging behind on 34.5 per cent.

The Labour Party’s consistent use of positive action measures, including all women shortlists, has meant they lead the way in women’s representation. Now Ed Milliband has publicly committed to ensuring not only his MPs but also his cabinet is 50 per cent female. This can only serve to embarrass David Cameron who, before election, committed to having a 30 per cent female cabinet: a pledge he has failed to meet despite numerous reshuffles.

In Westminster, women make up only 22 per cent of the Cabinet, 23 per cent of Members of Parliament and 23 per cent of Members of the House of Lords, which is just not good enough. In fact the only place that has seen real progress in the last year is the European Parliament, which went from 33 per cent to 41 per cent in a year – an increase of 7.8 per cent.

The picture in the devolved regions is marginally better in some places but equally dire in others. Though both Scotland and Wales beat Westminster in terms of percentage of women MPs (35.1 per cent and 41.6 per cent respectively), this too represents stagnation (or decline in the case of Wales, which was the first national executive to achieve gender parity). With 19.4 per cent of female Assembly Members, Northern Ireland has the worst representation in the UK, but only by a margin. All nations have equally as atrocious levels of female local councillors.

What can be done?

Data monitoring – In terms of election monitoring, we need more data to understand the background from which prospective candidates apply and who is successful both at standing and winning. We need candidates to complete an anonymous monitoring form when they hand in their election papers. This will also help us examine who makes it through the selection process.

Positive action – Almost all of the countries who are climbing past us in the global league table of women’s representation use, or have used, some form of positive action including quotas. Whilst it is possible to make progress without positive action, given improvement in this area is stagnant perhaps it’s time we thought seriously about using quotas.

Local level representation – Political parties need to care about diversity of all levels of government including at a local level. There are many barriers that prevent women from becoming councillors, including the lack of flexible working and the difficulty of combining with a full time job or caring responsibilities. Opening this up would go a long way to improving the talent pool for all levels of politics. Once in local government, political parties need to ensure women can rise through the ranks to become council leaders by, for example, opening up council leader elections to whole local memberships.

Make women more visible – The public face of politics is still overwhelmingly male. But is it any wonder when there women are poorly represented in journalism? Only three out of 34 political editors are women and only one of the 19 national daily newspaper editors is a woman. Political parties need to ensure they put more women up to speak, and the media need to be accountable for seeking out women to write, report and speak about politics.

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