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Women's Representation Will Go Backwards In 2020 Unless Political Parties Take Action

10/01/2017 10:23
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455 - an unremarkable number but that's how many men sit in the House of Commons today. It's also the total number of women MPs we have EVER had in the close to 100 years since women first began being elected to parliament. That one fact sums up where we are and where we have been on women's representation in parliament. Progress has been slow. Prior to 1987 women had never been more than 5% of MPs. Currently 30% of MPs are women, up from 22% in 2010.

Internationally we rank 48th in the world and we are moving down the league table not up because other countries overtake us. Significant progress was made at the last election so the temptation is to sit back and expect that progress to continue. However, a report from the Women and Equalities Select Committee published today demonstrates very clearly that progress simply isn't inevitable. In fact, the likelihood is that we will go backwards on women's representation in 2020 unless the political parties take some action now to address it.

100 years after the first votes for women and the first woman elected to parliament we risk marking those anniversaries by turning the clock back rather than speeding up the pace of change towards equality. What an indictment of us and the state of our politics in 2017.

There are two main reasons for this. The Boundary Commission's proposals to reduce the number of seats from 650 to 600 will disproportionately impact women. Fawcett has calculated of the seats most at risk, 37% are represented by women, higher than the 30% of seats currently held by women. So on the current boundary proposals alone, women's representation will be reduced. But this 37% figure masks the increased competition for seats that will arise during the reduction from 650 seats to 600. With the same number of MPs chasing almost 10% fewer seats, assuming there is no increase in retirements, it is possible that women could be more than 37% of those pushed out of Parliament as senior and influential male MPs scramble to retain their seats. Who will have the sharpest elbows? Evidence from candidate selection shows that women face structural difficulties men do not - for example men won 17 out of 18 of Labour's last open contests before 2015 and a process of reselection of candidates that does not protect women's representation is unlikely to improve it. This means that in practice we could see more female MPs at risk than the headline 37% figure.

But perhaps more significantly, if Labour does badly at the next election then the chances are that women's representation will fare badly too. This is simply because 43% of Labour MPs are women. Labour uses All Women Shortlists and has for some time. The Lib Dems and SNP are just beginning to. The Conservative party continues to resist, preferring other positive action methods. The Fawcett Society has written to the leaders of all the main political parties in Westminster to ask them to guarantee that current rates of progress on women's representation will be maintained and that we will not go backwards. This requires them to address their own selection procedures and ensure that more women are selected in winnable seats. Significantly, the Select Committee calls for a quota of 45% women candidates to be imposed on political parties if we do not make significant progress on the number of women MPs after 2020. Looking at parliaments around the world, of those which have more than 30% women's representation, 80% use some form of quota.

The fact is that cultural and systemic barriers remain for women in our politics. Unless we address those barriers our politicians will not be representative of the people they serve and our politics will be all the worse for it.

Sam Smethers is chief executive of the Fawcett Society

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