It’s 100 years today since women were able to stand for Parliament, and the Women and Equalities Committee marked it with a hearing on the barriers to getting more female MPs. It has only been in the past few years that the total number of women ever elected into Parliament has passed the number of men currently sitting on the green benches, and 32 per cent of MPs are women. This puts the UK at 48 in the world rankings for gender representation in its Parliament, which isn’t great.
I was one of those giving evidence to the Committee this morning, using research I’ve conducted for my book, Why We Get The Wrong Politicians. The cost of standing for Parliament rules out large sections of society, and disproportionately affects women, given the gender pay gap and the ongoing expectation that they will be the main caregivers in their families. Culturally, women seem to be encouraged less to take the financial risks that men do in order to become MPs, and to spend any money that they have – or incur a big loss of earnings – on their family rather than career.
Philip Davies, who sits on the Committee, pointed out that gender balance might be masking another diversity problem which is that ‘Rupert’ the banker might be replaced by ‘Jemima’ the banker, and no working class candidates, whether male or female, were getting a look in. This is certainly the case, given the cost of standing.
The parties could help a great deal by having a properly-funded bursary system for their candidates, but this still wouldn’t affect the problem of who is actually coming forward to become a candidate in the first place.
Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society, Baroness Jenkin of the Conservative Women2Win group and Nan Sloane of Labour Women’s Network all argued that there simply wasn’t enough data on who is applying to be a parliamentary candidate, regardless of their success, or who is applying to be a local councillor, for instance. We know that local government is both an important feeder for Parliament and also disproportionately pale, male and stale: the Local Government Association’s Census of Local Authority Councillors in 2013 found that 67.3 per cent of councillors were male (down from 70.7 per cent in 2001) and a staggering 96 per cent were of white ethnic origin (down from, er, 97.3 per cent in 2001) The average age of a councillor was 60.2, while 46.6 per cent were retired and only 19.2 per cent were in full-time work.
So we know that those who make it into local government are largely not women – but we don’t know the gender balance of those who apply. Similarly, the parties do not publish data on the proportion of people applying to be parliamentary candidates who are women, though I understand that the Conservatives have struggled to get above 30 per cent for this very first rung of the political ladder.
Why does this matter? Some argue that a truly representative parliament may come at the expense of the quality of MPs. But the reason parties need to concentrate on the very early stages of their pipelines is that the best are currently being excluded merely because they are not rich enough or because they don’t ‘look’ like a politician. Even if we never have a Parliament that looks like the rest of the UK, we should certainly hope for one that does a better job of serving the country than the current one.