When meeting a new woman MP was no longer a rarity! Recollections of the impact of the May 1997 election on parliament

The outcome of the 1997 general election, 20 years ago this month, saw the number of female MPs double overnight. The new intake of female MPs included many women who would go on to become senior figures in the Labour Party, as well as the current Prime Minister Theresa May. Oonagh Gay, a former senior official at the House of Commons Library, recalls the impact that this change, together with New Labour’s wider ‘modernisation’ agenda, had on parliament.

On 1 May 1997 120 women MPs were elected; exactly double the number elected in 1992 and representing 18.2 per cent of all MPs. 71 of these MPs were new. For House of Commons Library staff suddenly it was no longer a rarity to meet a woman MP. Previously, it was possible to recognise each woman MP and name their constituency without much difficulty. Suddenly there was a host of younger, unfamiliar, female faces to process. 101 of those 120 women elected were Labour, reflecting the landslide majority achieved by their party, and the positive action policies which it had developed in the 1990s. To Commons Library staff, women MPs were new and demanding customers, anxious to meet their constituency responsibilities and to research policy alternatives. Due to a delay in allocating offices to ,embers, the Library’s Oriel Room staff were really busy with tours of the Members’ Library, especially in the first couple of weeks or so after the election, and so got to know the new women members quite well.

Among that intake were some women who were to become major figures. Labour’s new members included Anne Begg, Hazel Blears, Yvette Cooper, Maria Eagle, Caroline Flint, Patricia Hewitt, Beverley Hughes, Oona King, Joan Ryan, Angela Smith, Jacqui Smith, Gisela Stuart and Rosie Winterton. The smaller intake of female Conservative MPs included Eleanor Laing, Caroline Spelman and … Theresa May. Some already had a public presence; others were less established in their careers and from a wide variety of backgrounds. The impression was that they tended to be slightly older than their male counterparts and to have had more experience of elected office (in local government) and the public and voluntary sector. Suddenly, the Commons appeared a more welcoming, more diverse space. This was the first change of government for 18 years, and long-serving MPs were replaced by new faces and new accents.

The unprecedented numbers of women MPs coincided with a major change in the provision of information to members. The internet and emails came into their own during the 1997-2001 parliament. So it can be difficult to disentangle the two developments. Inevitably, the culture of the Commons changed as the provision of information by electronic means became widespread, and debates in the Chamber could be watched in MPs’ offices. Portcullis House opened in February 2001, providing a significant increase in office and committee room space, and creating a lasting change in the day to day operation of MPs, as they interacted with each other, and with staff, in its sunlit atrium. The number of senior Commons staff who were female began to increase too, although the first woman Commons Librarian, Jennifer Tanfield, had already been appointed back in 1993.

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More female candidates have been selected but the gender balance of the House of Commons is likely to be little changed after June 8

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%.

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2017 candidate selection: more centralised and more representative?

The unexpected snap general election has caused the political parties to select candidates much more quickly, and through a more centralised process, than usual. Drawing on early data, Evangelina Moisi, Agnes Magyar and Jennifer Hudson suggest that both Labour and the Conservatives have used this opportunity to increase the diversity of candidates – in particular, female candidates – before local selectorates. 

Less than three weeks ago, Theresa May appeared determined to serve as an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister until 2020, having ruled out a snap election five times in the previous ten months. On 18 April she announced her intention to call a general election, citing a recent and reluctant change of heart. While May claimed the election would give her a stronger hand in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, there is little doubt that with the polls giving the Conservatives a sizable lead over Labour in England – and perhaps more surprisingly – in Scotland and Wales, she played a strategic hand.

In this blog, we explore how the parties’ are approaching candidate selection under ‘snap election’ conditions. Whereas selection normally takes place over the months and years preceding a general election, with a deadline for candidates to deliver nominating papers on 11 May, the parties have adopted ‘emergency procedures’ resulting in a highly centralised selection process. The consequent shift in power to the national party at the expense of local selectorates has not been without controversy. But early data suggests that both the Labour and Conservatives are using this opportunity to increase the diversity of candidates – in particular, women candidates – before local selectorates. As the parties increasingly compete on diversity, a more centralised selection process may result in a more representative slate of candidates before the electorate.

‘Snap election’ selection procedures

Conservatives

Under normal procedures, local Conservative associations can select from a choice as large as 20 candidates, but CCHQ’s approach has been to shadow their by-election selection procedure, presenting local selectorates with a shortlist of three candidates. This procedure has been imposed for every marginal, target, and retirement seat (where an incumbent has stood down). In non-target seats, the candidate is chosen by CCHQ. Current MPs wishing to stand again require a majority from association members. The move to handing local associations fixed shortlists gives Theresa May greater influence over what the new parliament might look like, but has left many local members reeling, leading the journalist and former Conservative candidate Iain Dale to call for greater transparency in Conservative selection procedures.

Labour

Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), which includes which includes leader Jeremy Corbyn, deputy leader Tom Watson, and union representatives such as Jim Kennedy of Unite, set out a plan to complete selection within two weeks of the Commons vote. Sitting MPs were given until 20th April to confirm whether they would stand again. After a brief debate, it was announced that returning MPs would automatically be re-selected and without facing a ‘trigger ballot’ where local members would have the opportunity to ‘deselect’ them. Selection in the party’s retirement seats was determined exclusively by the NEC. Applications for the party’s open seats were made available, but this time candidates for these seats were selected by both the NEC as well as regional boards.

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LGBT candidates in UK elections: how much has changed?

On March 6 the Constitution Unit hosted a panel discussion on LGBT candidates in UK elections, exploring the UK parliament’s evolution to including more openly LGBT politicians than any other state legislature. The panel, chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, consisted of Professor Andrew Reynolds and four of the UK’s most prominent LGBT politicians: Angela Eagle, Baroness (Liz) Barker, Nick Herbert and Joanna Cherry. Evangelina Moisi reports.

Introducing the seminar on LGBT candidates in UK elections, Professor Andrew Reynolds posed a question to the audience: why do people care about the sexual orientation of candidates and elected officials any more? Over the past few decades, the UK has undergone major transformations in its treatment of LGBT citizens, including abolishing Section 28 in 2003 and legalising gay marriage in 2013. The UK parliament has also become the most inclusive parliament for LGBT representation in the world, with 39 ‘out’ LGBT MPs. Despite this political (r)evolution Reynolds suggested that not everything is settled: homophobia and transphobia are still significant in today’s society and present challenges for both adults and children in navigating their everyday lives.

This seminar provided the opportunity to understand the perspectives and narratives of those who have lived through this experience. Reynolds underscored that as ‘out’ LGBT politicians the members of the panel have all overcome significant hurdles to transform political life, values, and the laws of today.

Professor Andrew Reynolds

Opening the seminar, Reynolds presented highlights from some of his research, noting that the number of LGBT parliamentarians is still a tiny slice of the world’s representation. Only 0.4% of the 46,000 parliamentarians around the world identify as LGBT. However, the parties with significant representation in the House of Commons are among the most LGBT inclusive in the world – the Conservatives and Labour have 17 and 14 LGBT MPs respectively, whilst the SNP’s 8 (out of 54 MPs) makes them the ‘gayest’ parliamentary group in the world. Reynolds further elaborated that right-of-centre parties have actually overtaken left-of-centre parties in terms of LGBT MPs, in the UK and around the world. Gay rights have become less of a partisan issue, with conservatives becoming socially liberal but remaining economically conservative.

At the 2015 UK general election 154 LGBT candidates standing in England, Scotland, and Wales, enabling Reynolds to explore whether being an LGBT candidate was still an electoral liability. His research found that LGBT candidates did not perform worse than their straight colleagues and, perhaps surprisingly, gay candidates performed better in rural areas (a 2% boost). He also found that LGBT candidates did only slightly worse in areas with high Muslim populations. At the party level, LGBT Labour candidates performed better than their straight counterparts whereas LGBT Conservative candidates performed much better than their straight counterparts in winnable Conservative seats.

On a final note, Reynolds discussed Chris Smith’s ‘coming-out’ in 1984. Whilst the moment was greeted with a media backlash at the time, Smith is now the Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge and has returned to the highest echelons of British society as a gay, HIV-positive man. Reynolds emphasised that such dramatic changes in political life have been driven by the likes of Smith and the LGBT politicians present on the panel.

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Monitor 65: Testing constitutional times

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has included the High Court and Supreme Court rulings in the Article 50 case, the unveiling of Theresa May’s Brexit plan and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

monitor-65-coverPolitics remains fast-moving. Its unexpected turns have raised fundamental questions about the constitutional order, in the UK and beyond – including the rightful place of voters, elected legislators, governments and judges in political decision-making – as well as the media’s role in questioning those decisions.

Here, Brexit remains the dominant preoccupation. The previous issue of Monitor reported how ‘ministers have repeatedly insisted that they are in charge of the Brexit negotiations and that to reveal their hand to parliament in advance would weaken their negotiating position’. A lot has changed since then.

Following rulings by the High Court on 3 November, and Supreme Court on 24 January, ministers had to accept that they require parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50; at the time of writing, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill has now passed through the Commons and awaits scrutiny in the Lords (see page 3). Even before the bill’s introduction, the government had conceded (in December) that its Brexit plan would be published prior to triggering Article 50, and (in January) that this would include a white paper – commitments necessary in order to see off potential Commons defeats. With help from the courts, parliament has rediscovered some of its teeth.

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We need to talk about our democracy

me 2015 (large)Meg-RussellRecent days have seen ferocious attacks against the roles of both judges and parliamentarians in our democratic system. Alan Renwick and Meg Russell write that this assault is just the latest in a series of signs that the quality of our democracy is under threat. In light of this they argue for concerted efforts to defend that democracy: by pushing back hard against immediate challenges to the rule of law, resisting the lures of populism, and listening to those tempted by populist and anti-political rhetoric.

Thursday’s High Court ruling on Article 50 (assuming it is confirmed by the Supreme Court), means no more than that the government cannot legally begin formal Brexit negotiations without parliament’s consent. The judges did not question the validity of the referendum result or try to block the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – they just clarified the law. Parliament – as demonstrated by many MPs’ reactions – will almost certainly feel politically bound to respect the referendum outcome and authorise the Article 50 trigger.

Yet, as is now well known, the judgement has unleashed a wave of vitriol from parts of the press, from some politicians, and even from certain government ministers. The Daily Mail labelled the judges who delivered the ruling as ‘enemies of the people’. The Telegraph presented the issue as one of ‘judges vs the people’. Nigel Farage talks of a ‘great Brexit betrayal’. The Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, referred to the case as ‘a clear attempt to frustrate the will of the British people’. Hearing such reactions, many ordinary citizens are understandably outraged by what they perceive as the scheming duplicity of an arrogant governing elite.

This gross overreaction is deeply worrying and potentially dangerous. We tend to presume that the democratic system in the UK is rock solid. Yet the democracy indices produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Freedom House have charted declining democratic quality in recent years in many long-standing democratic countries, including Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In the United States, commentators and senior political scientists are greatly troubled by how Donald Trump’s behaviour and rhetoric of rigged elections could weaken the foundations of the democratic system. Democracy faces similar challenges here in the UK too. In light of this, we need to cool the passions and encourage a national conversation about what democracy is and what sustains it.

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Monitor 64: Brexit and the transformation of British politics

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period of major political and constitutional upheaval following the EU referendum result on 23 June. Unsurprisingly Brexit and its implications feature prominently. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

The months since the previous issue of Monitor was published on 9 June have been the most dramatic in post-war UK political history. The unexpected victory for Leave in the referendum on the UK’s EU membership sent shockwaves throughout the political system.

Within three weeks of that vote, David Cameron had left Downing Street and been replaced as Prime Minister by Theresa May. Three quarters of Labour MPs had voted no confidence in their leader, Jeremonitor-octobermy Corbyn – and yet he sat tight, in open defiance of the traditional norms of parliamentary democracy. UKIP and the Green Party had both also entered leadership contests. Nicola Sturgeon had declared that a second referendum on Scottish independence was now ‘highly likely’.

Much of this issue of Monitor deals with the aftermath of the Brexit vote, including its implications for Westminster (see pages 2–3), Whitehall (page 6), the devolved administrations (page 10–11) and the EU (page 13). We also explore ongoing debates regarding the conduct of the referendum itself (pages 7–8). This introduction draws out five major constitutional themes.

First, the referendum and its aftermath demonstrate that popular sovereignty, not parliamentary sovereignty, is now the central principle of the UK constitution. The doctrine that parliament is the ultimate sovereign power in the UK (or, at least, in England – Scottish nationalists discern a different heritage north of the border) was asserted by the nineteenth-century constitutional theorist A. V. Dicey. The emergence of referendums since the 1970s had eroded that principle. The referendum in June, however, was the first in which the popular vote went against the clear will of the majority in the House of Commons. That most MPs feel bound to accept that decision shows where ultimate power in UK politics actually lies. There has been great debate over the summer as to whether parliamentary approval is needed to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin formal talks on Brexit (see page 12). But this has been something of a sideshow: even if the courts deem that parliament’s consent is needed, it is all but certain to be granted.

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