Snail pace progress for women at Westminster

Kirsty Davies says that the political parties have some explaining to do about their sidelining of women

In all the talk of coalition negotiations politics and potential deals over proportional representation, the issue of female representation at the Commons and in the new Westminster Government has been largely sidelined.  Given that 51 per cent of the UK population is female and only 22 per cent of MP’s are female, a systemic imbalance is being perpetuated which shows very little sign of improvement. Whilst it is true that female representation at Westminster rose from 126 to 142 as a result of the 2010 election this is an increase of a mere 2.5 per cent. At the present rate of progress it will take decades, if not longer before women are properly represented at Westminster. Research carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that:

“A snail could crawl the entire length of the Great Wall of China in 212 years, just slightly longer than the 200 years it will take for women to be equally represented in Parliament”.

In Wales we lost two female MPs from a derisory total of nine, Julie Morgan in Cardiff North and Betty Williams in Aberconwy. This means the total number of Welsh women MPs in Wales is now seven (out of 40) or  17.5 per cent.  Only 12 women have ever been elected in Wales since they gained the right to vote in 1918. It is mostly accepted now that a significant proportion of women need to be present in an organisation to affect change, commonly referred to as critical mass. This is anywhere between 25 and 30 per cent.  Westminster does not even meet this minimum requirement.

In January 2009 a study on the impact of the enhanced female representation on the political culture of the National Assembly, carried out by Swansea and Warwick University found that the number of women present in an organisation had an effect on the way politics is done and the policy issues that are prioritised. As it found:

“Most AMs felt that the presence of a high proportion of women AMs had an effect both on the policy agenda and on the style of interactions between politicians, both cross-party and within-party. There was a view that women tended to do politics differently from men, a difference that was sometimes described as more consensual than adversarial.”

The relatively high proportion of women in the National Assembly has resulted in a different kind of organisation, feminised in ways that have been largely popular. All the parties have indicated that they are in favour of this development, including the Welsh Conservatives and Welsh Liberal Democrats who do not have formal procedures in place to make sure that greater numbers of women are elected in the way that Welsh Labour and Plaid have historically.

Both Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour have indicated that they will cease the measures they have taken to ensure gender equality in previous elections. At the launch of the IWA’s publication Critical Mass – The Impact and Future of Female Representation in the National Assembly last Autumn, AMs Nick Bourne (Conservative), Kirsty Williams (Liberal Democrat), Carwyn Jones (Labour), and Jocelyn Davies (Plaid) all said their parties had no plans to move towards or to reinstate positive discrimination in their selection procedures.

The party positions on positive discrimination, retiring female Assembly members and the shifting political landscape all point towards a reduction in female representation at the Assembly at the next election in 2011.

All of the Welsh parties have informal mechanisms designed to encourage greater female participation. Are they working? In 2007, 27 per cent of Plaid candidates were women, Welsh Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came in only slightly higher at 28 per cent with Labour leading the way at 33 per cent. As important as the number of women selected is, where the selections occur is likely to be the deciding factor on how many women actually make it through to the Assembly.

Pictured in this article is Priti Patel who is one of the six female Asian women elected to Parliament.  This is the first time that any Asian woman has been elected to parliament.  The rise in female MP’s in the Conservative party has been the largest of all from 9 to 17 per cent but this still leaves them far behind what is needed.  In the 2010 Westminster election only 17.5 per cent of Plaid candidates were female, 33 per cent Green Party, 30 per cent Labour, 24 per cent Conservatives, and 21 per cent Liberal Democrats. There were 4,134 candidates overall out which 877 or 21.2 per cent were female.  Looking at these figures we can see why female representation at Westminster is only 22 per cent.  It will be interesting to see how many women will survive the jostling and negotiations around shared Cabinet positions. Do we risk a similar cabinet position in Wales after the next Assembly election?

The National Assembly has become a world leader in its representation of women. In the 2003 elections 50 per cent of members returned were women, building on 40 per cent in the first 1999 election. The achievement prompted First Minister Rhodri
 Morgan to declare:

“We understand that we are the only legislature in the world that is perfectly balanced between men and women. The people of Wales have every right to be proud of having set that new world record.”

Nan Sloane, Director of the Centre for Women and Democracy, described the slight gain in seats in Westminster as ‘derisory’. If nothing is done before the upcoming Assembly elections the gender balance we currently enjoy in Wales will go backwards. What message will this send the world about Wales?

Given the coalition challenge just presented to the three main parties at Westminster it would have served them well to have had experienced female politicians with a talent for consensus building. There is also a responsibility on parties and also on government to ensure that their gender make-up reflects the people it serves.

Some form of positive action is the only way this can be tackled effectively. We should acknowledge too, that another argument for proportional representation is that it encourages more participation by women. As Alice Delemare, Women’s Officer with the Electoral Reform Society, has put it:

“Internationally, it is countries with proportional voting systems that have in the main a higher proportion of women MPs.  Until Britain changes to PR we are unlikely to see a fairer gender balance in our parliament.”

Party members should be putting pressure on their parties to ensure that gender equality is not put on the back burner. Parties need to start explaining why they are selecting such low numbers of women for marginal seats.

Kirsty Davies is Deputy Director of the IWA.

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