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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Rules matter: why the current Labour crisis is not (only) about ideology

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The Labour Party’s current crisis is often characterised as an ideological dispute between the Parliamentary Labour Party and a membership that is significantly more left-wing. But, as Javier Sajuria demonstrates, it is hard to stand this up. The ideological distance between Labour members and MPs is in fact smaller than that between Conservative members and MPs. To explain why many are now suggesting that Labour is on the verge of splitting it is necessary to look at party rules as well as ideology.

The situation within the Labour Party has been described by many as a dispute between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the membership. The en masse resignations from the shadow cabinet, followed by a vote of no confidence from 81 per cent of MPs, shows that Jeremy Corbyn has lost the trust of his peers (or perhaps he never really managed to obtain it in the first place). Labour activists, particularly those grouped around the Corbyn-supporting Momentum, accuse the PLP of betraying the party and lining up with the right-wing. On the other hand, MPs respond by pointing out that voters, and not members, elected them and that they have a mandate to protect the party from oblivion.

Regardless of how relevant it might seem under the current situation, the ideological distance between members and party elites is not a new interest for political scientists. John May’s curvilinear disparity law explains that more active members are usually more ideologically extreme than MPs and voters. As Meg Russell states in her book Building New Labour, there is a limit to how much a leader (or in this case party elites) can steer a party’s position to the left or right. Therefore, we could expect that a widening gap between members and the MPs may result in a difficult situation for the party, or even an eventual split. With that in mind, I set out to investigate – in a very preliminary way – if this ideological gap can explain Labour’s crisis, and if not, what are the alternative theories.

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Britain’s new political class: All change in the House?

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Researchers on the Parliamentary Candidates UK project have spent the past two years collecting data on the social background of candidates standing at the 2015 general election, as well as building a retrospective dataset going back to 1945. Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson discusses the project, the questions it raises and what the data tell us about the composition of the new parliament.

For the past two years, the Parliamentary Candidates UK project has collected data on the social background of candidates standing in the 2015 general election as well as building retrospective dataset for candidates since 1945. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the aim of the project is to provide a comprehensive, electronic, publicly available dataset on who is selected and who is elected. To this end, we will publish our dataset for 2015 Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and Green candidates later this month, with the retrospective data published over the course of 2016.

But the project was always more than just a data collection exercise: fundamentally, it is a project that seeks to know who stands for parliament at Westminster, who gets elected and whether socio-demographic characteristics influence electoral outcomes or career trajectories.

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