The run-up to the 2015 General Election was dominated by coverage of ‘dangerous women’ shaking up the status quo in British politics – ranging from the ‘scarlet sisterhood’ of female party leaders to the now infamous photo-shopped ‘wrecking ball’ image of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. In the end, a record high of 191 women MPs (29%) were elected to the House of Commons on 7 May, an increase of 48 women from the immediate post-2010 election results. With the resignations of Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, five of Britain’s main political parties are now led by women – including interim party leaders Harriet Harman (Labour), Sal Brinton (Lib Dem)…and (briefly) Suzanne Evans (UKIP) until Nigel Farage’s recent ‘un-resignation’.
Yet, while these gains are to be welcomed, women’s presence at Westminster remains a long way from parity. The 2015 election results put the UK in only 37th place worldwide for women’s representation, lagging well behind several of its European comparators, as well as many African and Latin American countries – including the world leader, Rwanda (which has 64% women in its Chamber of Deputies). Those countries that have overtaken the UK on women’s representation have done so largely through the use of ‘fast track’ equality measures – 16 of the top 20 countries for women’s representation worldwide use some form of gender quotas (ranging from voluntary party quotas to statutory legal ones). The global evidence, then, is clear – without active intervention, gains in women’s representation at Westminster will likely continue to be slow and incremental.
How did the parties do? All three of the largest parties in the new House of Commons – the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP – have seen increases in the number and proportion of women MPs elected in 2015, though there are still significant disparities between the parties (see Table 1). Labour continues to lead the way on women’s representation at Westminster, with 99 women MPs (43%), due in large part to the party’s use of all-women shortlists in winnable seats. The Conservatives, meanwhile, will see more women MPs on their benches than in 2010 – rising from 49 to 68 – but these women are still only 21% of their parliamentary party. And women are 20 of the 56-strong SNP group in the House of Commons (36%), a huge increase from 2010 when the party had only one woman MP, Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan). After an electoral wipeout, there are no Liberal Democrat women MPs remaining, nor does the DUP have any women MPs. The one Green MP elected is a woman (Caroline Lucas), and, in Wales, Plaid Cymru elected its first woman MP (Liz Saville Roberts). The remaining two women MPs were elected in Northern Ireland: Margaret Ritchie (SDLP), and Sylvia Hermon (Independent).
Focusing on the Scottish results, the overall increase in women’s representation was dramatic – women are now 20 of 59 Scottish MPs (34%), a net gain of 7 women from 2010. These results are all the more significant given that Scotland has historically had a relatively poor record with regards to women’s representation in the House of Commons compared with the UK overall figures (see Figure 1). All 20 of these women come from the SNP, including 20-year old Mhairi Black (Paisley and Renfrewshire South), the youngest member of parliament since 1832. The remaining three non-SNP seats in Scotland were won by men: Ian Murray (Labour; Edinburgh South); Alistair Carmichael (Liberal Democrat; Orkney and Shetland); and David Mundell, the new Secretary of State for Scotland (Conservative; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale).
Our analysis of Scottish candidate selection figures (read more on the genderpol blog and the ERS Scotland website) found that only 27% of candidates for the six main parties across Scotland – the SNP, Scottish Labour, Conservatives, Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and UKIP – were women (see Table 2). 13 of Scotland’s 59 seats had no women candidates standing at all (beyond Scotland, an additional 89 constituency contests across the UK were men-only). The rise in the number of Scottish women MPs elected, then, is the result of the SNP electoral surge – the party selected 21 women out of 59 candidates in 2015 (36%), and all but one of these women were elected (SNP candidate Emma Harper lost to the lone Scottish Conservative MP, David Mundell).
The increase in the proportion of SNP women candidates and MPs reflects a significant step-change in a party that has traditionally been seen to have a ‘problem’ with women. Much of this change has been driven from the top, with First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon making powerful statements on women’s representation, including her appointment of a 50/50 cabinet, and her support for the Scottish cross-party civil-society lobby group Women 50:50. But there are also significant changes within the party coming from the bottom-up, including a huge growth in membership and the entrance of grassroots activists – including women from groups like Women for Independence – into parliamentary politics. Indeed, the number of SNP MPs who are Women for Independence members and supporters now outnumbers the number of Liberal Democrat MPs at Westminster.
In terms of the overall numbers, however, SNP women are only 10% of all women MPs in the House of Commons. The majority of women MPs (51%) in the House of Commons come from the Labour Party, while Conservative women are just over a third of women MPs at Westminster (36%). While only 34% of Labour candidates were women across the UK, the party’s use of gender quotas (in the form of all-women shortlists) in key retirement and target seats meant that high numbers of women were elected. In Scotland however, the party’s proportion of women candidates was lower than UK-wide figures (27%) and the party only used AWS in two selection contests: Glenrothes (a retirement seat), and Argyll and Bute. Ultimately, only one (male) Scottish Labour MP was elected (in a seat with no women standing). The Conservatives, meanwhile, ran only 26% women candidates UK-wide, and were much less likely to run these women in winnable seats than the Labour Party.
Do the 2015 elections represent a breakthrough for women in British politics? When the parliament does reconvene, it will look significantly different – with substantially more women on the benches, and also a record number of black and minority ethnic MPs. It is also worth noting that the 2015 election returned the highest number of ‘out’ LGBT MPs. Seven of David Cameron’s 22-member Cabinet are women (32%), though men continue to occupy the majority of the most senior cabinet roles. But beyond the numbers, the outlook for women is mixed, with the Conservative government’s election commitment of £12bn in welfare cuts looming on the horizon, and women continuing to bear the brunt of austerity measures. Several advocates pushing for women’s representation in the House of Commons have also lost their seats, including (but not limited to): Jo Swinson (Lib Dem), Chair of the Liberal Democrat Campaign for Gender Balance; Anne Begg (Labour), the Vice-Chair of the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation; and Mary McLeod (Conservative), Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament.
Despite the gains made for women in 2015, then, there is little room for complacency. There is still a significant distance to travel before we reach equal representation at Westminster, and further progress is unlikely without greater commitment by all of the parties. In Scotland, the attention will now turn to next year’s Scottish Parliament elections, where the numbers of women have dropped over time. While the SNP has led on women’s representation in the 2015 GE, the party continues to lag behind Labour in terms of women’s representation at Holyrood (women are currently 27% of SNP MSPs, compared to Labour’s 47%). There are promising signs here for 2016, including the SNP Party Conference’s recent backing of the ability to set all-women shortlists –the key now for the party will be effective implementation of these measures. But the prospect of equal representation at Holyrood and Westminster cannot rest solely on political will and individual party champions. Repeated calls have been made for the need for legislative quotas, led by the cross-party campaign group Women 50:50 in Scotland. It is time for Scotland and the UK to heed these calls in order to ensure real change.