In this post Agnes Magyar and Jennifer Hudson show that although the main parties have selected more female candidates for the June 8 election than in 2015, the proportion selected in non-held marginal seats is little changed. Drawing on Chris Hanretty’s election forecast they suggest that there may be little or no improvement in the gender balance of the House of Commons. If the result matched Hanretty’s forecast (as of 12 May) 194 female MPs would be elected, three more than in 2015 but two fewer than the number when parliament was dissolved.
At the 2015 general election 191 female MPs were elected, resulting in a more gender balanced House of Commons than ever before. Yet, despite significant progress, women comprised just 30% of all MPs at the time of dissolution. In a blog last week, we argued – as have others – that the snap election and the centralised selection processes that took place, provided parties with the opportunity to address to further address the imbalance, should they choose to do so. Maria Miller, Chair of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee – noted: ‘We heard a lot of encouraging promises when we took evidence on this last year from leadership figures in the Conservatives, Labour Party, SNP and the Liberal Democrats, but we expressed concern that warm words had not yet resulted in concrete strategies to deliver more women candidates, particularly in winnable seats.’
The concern that parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats is not new and was highlighted by Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs following the 2010 general election. With candidates now selected, we look to see whether parties took advantage of the opportunity, and whether women candidates were selected in parties’ winnable seats.
Selecting women candidates in the snap election
Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have gone about increasing their numbers of female MPs in different ways. Labour introduced all-women shortlists (AWS) in 1997 – tripling their number of female MPs as a result and establishing a leading position among parties with respect to the number of female candidates elected to parliament. Gender quotas, highly controversial at that time, have not ceased to be subject to debate. Yet, by now all major parties have come to advocate, one way or another, a fairer balance between men and women in the Commons. Following years of reluctance the Liberal Democrats have now adopted AWS, following the return of an all-male group of MPs in 2015 after the loss of the majority of their seats. The Conservatives have rejected AWS, instead relying on Women2Win, an organisation founded by Theresa May and Baroness (Ann) Jenkin in 2005, to identify, motivate and train female parliamentary candidates.
One way to look at the parties’ progress in selecting women candidates is to look at new seats, i.e. seats they do not currently hold. As Table 1 shows, the number of female candidates nominated for new seats by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats has changed very little from 2015 to 2017. Women candidates make up between 28% and 37% of all new selections for each party across these two elections, but only the Lib Dems have increased the proportion of women selected, from 28% in 2015 to 30% in 2017. But with as many as 163 female incumbents re-standing between the three parties, the overall proportion of female candidates for Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems has risen from 29% to 33%.
The small increase in the proportion of women for the three main parties is promising, but our data shows that 84% of newly selected Conservative, 87% of Labour and 96% of Liberal Democrat female candidates are standing in ‘unwinnable’ seats with >10% majorities in 2015. This is a somewhat artificial cut point, even if a commonly applied one. Seats with <10% previous majorities are not necessarily winnable or even among the parties’ target seats in a given election, whilst in some circumstances seats with >10% majorities may be targeted. Indeed, in 2017 it has proved rather difficult to work out which seats each party is targeting.
Table 1 also shows that these numbers are not outstanding in comparison to the ratio of male candidates in marginal seats. Nor are they considerably different from what was seen in 2015. However, there are a number of factors which make the upcoming election less promising for women. 2017 saw fewer retirements than 2015 – 91 MPs standing down in 2015 and 35 in 2017. There are also now fewer constituencies with <10% previous majorities – 177 in 2015 and 128 in 2017. Larger majorities and incumbent advantage mean there are fewer seats that can easily be gained.
Yet, perhaps the greatest surprise is precisely that the proportions of female candidate standing in marginal and hopeless seats hardly changed from 2015. Given the frequently echoed calls for a better gender balance one would expect the ratio of hopeful selections to increase for women. But even if there are more female candidates, they appear to be in the wrong seats, which leaves very little hope that 2017 will be a critical year for women.
Table 1: Female candidates selected in 2015 and 2017
Prospects for a more gender balanced House of Commons
Using Chris Hanretty’s forecast (electionforecast.co.uk), Table 2 shows the estimated gender composition of the new Commons after June 8. The model makes predictions on a constituency-by-constituency basis, combining data provided by the British Election Study with publicly released national polls, historical election results and historical polling. The figures quoted here reflect the forecast as of 12 May.
Table 2. Forecast of the number of total and female MPs following the 2017 snap election
The most likely outcome, based on 1000 simulated elections, is a Commons with 194 female MPs. It also predicts that the Conservatives will have the most women MPs in parliament – 98 – ending Labour’s lead. If the election results match this forecast Labour will lose 74 MPs, including 26 women. However, Labour’s parliamentary party would remain the most gender balanced with nearly 50% women MPs.
Despite the slight increase in the proportion of female MPs for the three parties, the model suggests no considerable change in representation in the Commons with only a minor increase in the number of female MPs, from 191 in 2015. In fact, given that by-elections during the 2015 parliament in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, Sleaford and North Hykeham, Richmond Park, Tooting and Copeland saw male MPs replaced by women, ultimately leading to a total of 196 female MPs at the time of dissolution, 2017 could actually see a small step back.
In light of the clearly articulated commitment on the side of political parties to increasing the proportion of women in the House of Commons prior to and in the weeks of the selection processes, these findings may be surprising. Yet, it would be unfair to disregard the efforts parties made to effect change and call the selection a missed opportunity. Gender balance has become a priority, even if not of the highest prominence, for parties when selecting their candidates and that certainly means a step towards having a broader agenda for a better representation of women in the House of Commons.
These findings were presented by Dr Jennifer Hudson at the 18 May PSA Media Briefing. A recording of this event will be broadcast on BBC Parliament tonight at 9.50pm.
About the authors
Agnes Magyar is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, working on the Parliamentary Candidates UK project. She tweets @agneskmagyar.
Dr Jennifer Hudson is Senior Lecturer in Political Behaviour at UCL. She tweets @jhudson_ucl.