The 2015 General Election is one of the most unpredictable electoral contests in British political history. Amidst all the post-election scenario discussions, though, lies one political certainty – the overwhelming majority of the MPs elected to the House of Commons on 7 May will be men.
Five years ago, the prospects for women’s representation at Westminster were promising. The main political parties were publicly competing over the issue, with Labour continuing its commitment to the use of gender quotas (in the form of all-women shortlists), and David Cameron pushing for change in Conservative Party candidate selection procedures. The Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation had put the issue of women’s under-representation higher up the political agenda, and the aftermath of the expenses scandal meant that were plenty of vacant seats. But, despite this favourable window of opportunity, the 2010 General Election results were disappointing – the percentage of women in the House of Commons increased only slightly, rising from just under 20% to 22%. Indeed, the number of male MPs elected in 2010 alone outnumbers the total number of female MPs ever elected to the House of Commons.
In the 2015 GE campaign, however, the issue of women’s political representation has arguably not been as prominent as it was in 2010. Much has been made, though, of the ‘missing millions’ of women voters, notably in the Labour Party’s efforts to target women through their ‘pink bus’ tour of marginal constituencies. Yet, while the research evidence suggests that women may be less interested in formal politics than men, there is little convincing evidence of a significant gender gap in voting turnout in recent British General Elections. Meanwhile, women politicians have played a prominent role in the leaders’ debates, but have continued to face sexist media coverage –including the now infamous photo-shopped image of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’, according to the Daily Mail) in a tartan bikini riding a wrecking ball à la Miley Cyrus.
Despite these trends, recent predictions suggest that the numbers of women MPs may improve in the 2015 GE, potentially rising to almost 30 per cent (a figure which is still well short of equal representation). This predicted rise is largely due to the Labour Party – indeed, the one prediction that we can make with certainty about the 2015 GE is that Labour will once again have the highest number of women MPs, due to the use of all-women shortlists in retirement and key target seats. Another party to watch will be the SNP – 36% of its candidates are female, a significant increase from 2010, and a potential step change for a party that has traditionally been seen to have a ‘problem’ with women. SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made powerful statements about women’s representation, including appointing a gender-equal cabinet, publicly supporting the Scottish cross-party campaign Women 50:50, and backing the ability to set all-women shortlists and other gender balancing measures at SNP party conference.
Regardless of whether we reach the 30% threshold after 7 May, there is clearly still a significant distance to travel before equal representation at Westminster becomes a realistic prospect. Recent analyses have suggested that the way forward is electoral reform, that switching to a system of proportional representation would lead to increases in women’s numerical representation. But, the significant body of research on women and politics suggests otherwise – PR electoral systems may facilitate, but certainly do not guarantee increases in women’s political presence.
What the global evidence does point to is a more immediate solution – the use of gender quotas. Indeed, the comparative and international evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that well-designed and properly implemented quotas are one of the most effective ways of ensuring significant increases in women’s representation. Yet, in the UK, quota debates have been marginal (in that they have largely taken place within the parties, and until now, only with any effect within Labour), and parochial and non-scientific (in that they have refused to engage with or follow the global evidence). While Labour continues to prop up the overall numbers, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats continue to raise the possibility of introducing gender quotas, only to not follow through. Repeated calls have been made for the UK to consider legislative quotas – and certainly the UK evidence suggests that without system-wide statutory quotas, women’s representation remains contingent upon party will or individual champions. But if we do reach 30% women in the House of Commons after 7 May, there is a risk that this may engender a sense of complacency among parties, that these debates and wider reform agendas may lose momentum, and that gains made in 2015 may stall or fall in subsequent elections.