Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Digested Read

Addressing Barriers to Women’s Representation in Party Candidate Selections

Sofia Collignon



| 7 mins read

Analysis reported in the Financial Times by journalist Michael Crick finds that, of 134 parliamentary selections by the Conservative Party, 70 per cent are men. In comparison, of the 206 reported Labour Party selections, selected men are 56 per cent. The current House of Commons composition sees the majority of Labour MPs being women (52 per cent) but only about one quarter of Conservative MPs.

In the 2019 election, Labour became the first party in UK history to present more women candidates than men to the public. In contrast, only 31 per cent of the Conservative Party’s candidates were women, an increase of just 1 per cent compared with 2017. Almost five years on, there seems to have been little progress.

The Financial Times article offers three reasons for the lack of gender diversity in the Conservative MP candidate pool: there are too few women who put themselves forward; a lack of good local candidates; and harassment, abuse and intimidation (HAI). All three imply that the problem lies with women. Accordingly, it follows that the ‘solution’ lies with women, who must work harder to get involved and put up with any HAI. But women do not need to ‘do more’. Instead, the Conservative Party leadership needs to get a grip on changing institutions that negatively affect the diversity of its candidates and MPs.

Political recruitment and the importance of local candidates

During David Cameron’s leadership, the Conservative Party established ‘Women2Win’ to encourage conservative women to stand as candidates. Given the efforts put in, the Conservative Party should by now have more women selected as parliamentary candidates. That said, previous research has shown that women still face structural disadvantage when seeking party selection. Party selectorates—key gatekeepers to political office—frequently recruit among men-dominated networks and look for characteristics historically associated with men in politics.

Locally, it should not be surprising that there is no lack of women in an individual constituency. Thus Crick’s argument that party preferences for strong local connections damage women’s chances falls short. If the focus on candidates with local ties diminishes the diversity of candidates, because the supply pool is already skewed in men’s favour, then parties must reflect on the prior causes of that skewedness. Simultaneously, the issue of women's representation in the UK is often framed as a zero sum game, posing non-local women against ‘local’ men. Expectations that local candidates will provide free labour to the local party before getting selected may indeed disadvantage women—local or not. It assumes an extra labour and time commitments that may not be feasible for many women (and men) with caring responsibilities.

Harassment, abuse and intimidation

The third explanation—the gendered effects of HAI—looks more compelling. There are consistent reports of the (gendered) political violence experienced by MPs, with retiring MPs citing this as reasoning for standing down. Conservative MP Nickie Aiken suggests that many potential women candidates are deterred because of growing safety concerns. The implication is that the threat of political violence discourages women from pursuing political careers, potentially exacerbating already present gender disparities within the Conservative Party.

Data from the Representative Audit of Britain survey shows that women candidates are more likely than men to experience HAI. The problem is getting worse: candidates in 2019 reported an 11 percentage points increase on HAI rates since 2017. Meanwhile, in 2017, almost half of women candidates reported experiencing some form of HAI whilst campaigning compared with 35 per cent of men. By 2019, a sizeable majority of women reported experiencing HAI, at 58 per cent. It is, then, unquestionable that the issue of HAI against women and men in politics should be treated seriously.

It is also important to identify any inter-party difference in HAI effect. Empirical evidence does show that, in 2017, candidates standing for the Conservatives and the Scottish National Party were especially targeted. By 2019, the abuse was equally focussed on Conservative and Labour candidates (65 and 66 per cent respectively). Importantly, it is amongst Labour candidates where the rise in HAI has been most stark, with a 26 percentage point increase between 2017 and 2019 reported. Based on this data, the impact of HAI should affect women at least equally across parties.

Feminising political party candidates: a call for action

Given the selection data available for the Conservatives, the party would be well advised to rectify the underrepresentation of women among its MPs. Relying mostly on rhetorical and promotion strategies has proven inadequate for over a generation. Where there is little progress at this coming election, the party will need to look anew to deconstruct the barriers preventing conservative women from becoming candidates.

Conservative Party antipathy to quotas is long-standing. But such institutional measures have been proven to be the most effective. It was Labour’s use of all-women shortlists at the 1997 general election that first revolutionised women’s representation in the House of Commons. Their legacy is such that the Labour Party has reached parity in their parliamentary party. Consequently, the party finds that the utilisation of gender quotas for the upcoming general election is no longer necessary. Arguably, it is time for the Conservative Party to take up the opportunities provided by legislation.

One immediate change—and one unfortunately rejected by the Conservatives since 2010—is to enact section 106 of the Equality Act 2010. This requires all political parties to publish regular data relating to protected characteristics on their selected candidates. Such data would provide the public with accurate data showing when and where different kinds of candidates are selected. This would thereby enable parties to introduce additional mechanisms if it became clear that their selected parliamentary candidates were not particularly diverse.

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    Sofia Collignon

    Sofia Collignon is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London.

    Articles by Sofia Collignon