Across the UK and Europe, 2017 is the year of elections. So far we’ve had national elections in the Netherlands and France, while the UK has seen several by-elections, local and mayoral elections and now has an upcoming General Election.
Putting together content for the Cicero Elections Upcoming Elections page, I pulled together photos of the candidates across most of these elections, and one thing becomes very clear: the photos were nearly all of men.
For those working in the political bubble, we tend to pore over analysis of each party and its candidates’ fortunes. But so many elections so close together reveal a common theme not always within focus: politics is still largely a man’s game. Take for example the recent Mayoral election in the UK. Of the 49 candidates that stood for election across 8 different regions, only 9 were women. None of these women were elected. Additionally, only 29% of English councillors elected were female.
Does politics at a national level fare any better? At the time of dissolution, the previous Parliament had 453 male MPs and 196 female MPs, meaning men outnumber women by more than 2:1. The number of men in the Commons in April was nearly equal to the total number of female MPs ever (456). Given that the first female MP was elected in 1918, you’d be right to feel frustrated at this rate of progress. But with our second female Prime Minister – one that has declared diversity as a priority – fighting for another term, can we expect any better for the 2017 Parliament?
Women are standing for the Conservatives in 186 out of the 638 seats they are contesting, making up 29% of the total cohort. This is an increase on the 26% that stood in 2015, and means that the Conservatives are fielding a higher proportion of female candidates than they had as MPs in the last Parliament.
Labour has also approved its highest ever percentage of female candidates for a General Election. 41% of the party’s candidates are women, and 59% men. In 2015, 34% of Labour candidates were women, so while there is an increase in Labour candidates for this election, this is lower than the 44% of women MPs Labour had in the last Parliament.
The SNP has selected women in 20 out of 59 seats they are contesting (33%). However, this is down from 2015, when 38% of their candidates were female. Finally, the Lib Dems have 191 female candidates out of 630, equating to 30% and an increase from the 26% that were female in 2015.
So while it’s good news that the number of female candidates is – overall – on the increase, there also needs to be an increase in the number of women elected. This is partly impacted by where the parties choose to field candidates. In 2015, Labour elected a proportionally higher number of female MPs compared to the other parties, after fielding a higher proportion of female candidates in ‘winnable’ seats than the Conservatives did. In comparison, the Conservatives had a higher number of women standing for seats they were less likely to win.
This year, it’s encouraging to see both Labour and Conservatives selecting more women for retirement seats. In the 12 Conservative retirement seats, six (50%) have gone to women, likely resulting in a net gain of four Conservative women. In Labour’s 15 retirement seats (including Rochdale, where former Labour MP Simon Danczuk will stand as an independent) they have selected eleven women (73%). This could result in a net gain of eight Labour women, although bearing in mind Labour’s current polling, they may lose those seats with narrow majorities – particularly Wolverhampton South West and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland – meaning the number is more likely to be six. The Liberal Democrats are also making efforts to increase diversity, having lost 49 seats and all of their female MPs in the 2015 election. Sue McGuire has been selected in Southport, where John Pugh is standing down, and they have also selected women in many of their target seats.
However, look at the 30 top marginal constituencies, and the picture isn’t so positive. Of the 9 Labour held constituencies that the Conservatives will be aiming for, only two are being contested by female Conservative candidates. Labour aren’t doing any better: of the 12 Conservative held constituencies where Labour came a close second in 2015, only three are being contested by female candidates. And both of the seats where the Lib Dems narrowly lost out in 2015 – Cambridge and Eastbourne – are being contested by men. This may be a small sample but suggests a worrying trend: upping the numbers of female candidates is not enough if this is not spread across both winnable and less winnable seats.
The media also has a part to play. We are all familiar with the now infamous Daily Mail ‘Legs-it’ headline, where the paper chose to focus on the physical attributes of the two most powerful women in the country – Prime Minister Theresa May and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – rather than the substance of their significant meeting on Brexit. Coverage of this nature, although maybe not always to this extent, is still far too frequent.
Instead of this type of reporting, the media needs to do a better job at giving a broader range of women prominence in their serious coverage of the election. According to research by Dr Emily Harmer, at the Department of Communications and Media at the University of Liverpool, focus on Nicola Sturgeon accounted for around a third of appearances of women in the coverage of the 2015 election, with wives and partners of male party leaders given more exposure than most female candidates.
It’s not like politics is the only sector that remains male dominated. Neither is gender diversity the only issue with the current parliamentary make-up: ethnic minority MPs only made up 6.6% of the 2015 Parliament, and out LGBT MPs only 4.2%. If Parliament wants to truly represent the country then it has to proportionally represent the people that make up our country. Our views are shaped by our experiences, and as is often argued by those advocating greater diversity in business, as well as other areas such as the judiciary, diversity leads to better decision making. A diverse Parliament would ensure more informed policy making on all issues, and in the case of gender diversity, particularly in those areas more likely to impact on women such as sexual and domestic violence.
Overall, women’s representation in politics continues to fall well short of parity, and both parties and MPs that are elected this year must lead the way in demonstrating respect for women, their opinions and skills, and ensure that the culture within UK politics encourages female participation. After all, they are our lawmakers and have the opportunity to shape the country we live in.
Main image by Johnny Cyprus, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0