“The Conservatives don’t attract too few women,” Lord Ashcroft wrote earlier this year. “They attract too few of everyone.” This was in the context of research showing that, whatever you may have been told to the contrary, there’s little evidence to show that the Party has daunting problems with women voters. “In the 8,000-sample poll for Project Blueprint conducted last November,” he added, “the Tories were on 30 per cent among men, just one point above their share among women.” YouGov has made much the same finding. And according to polling carried out for this site, “only two per cent say Conservative attitudes to women are a big barrier.”
Let the last word on these findings, and others, go to this site’s proprietor: “At a stretch, [my polling] might suggest that at the margins women place more emphasis on public services, the cost of living and the relatability of leaders, while arguments about aspiration, competence and the macro economy work better with men. But it would be a stretch. When it comes to the policy priorities of men and women, their views of the parties, reaction to leaders, likelihood to vote Conservative and their reasons for doing so, there is little to choose between them.”
This is the context in which to start thinking about all-women shortlists for Conservative Parliamentary selections - floated yesterday by Nicky Morgan, the Womens’ Minister, and slapped down quickly by Tory high command. (It already has a reshuffle to come in which David Cameron will seek to realise his aspiration of having women as a third of Conservative Ministers by the time of the next election, and doesn’t want to gift the average Tory backbencher – who is a man – any reason for discontent that he might not have already.) A good question to ask of any proposed reform is: what’s the problem it’s trying to solve? There doesn’t seem to be one for the Conservatives with women voters as a whole.
However, that is not by any means the end of the matter. It can be claimed that it’s simply wrong that women are so under-represented on the Tory benches, making up a mere 16 per cent of the Parliamentary Party in the Commons. A counter-case is that quotas are a madness which the Conservatives must give a miss. Sadiq Khan recently came out for ethnic minority shortlists. The reverse apartheid point is too obvious to need much elaboration. (And imagine the outcry were a Tory to float all-white shortlists.)
But is the comparison a good one? Women, after all, are not a minority: they are half the population (in fact, slightly more than half). Another counter-case is that quotas are simply unconservative – and that’s an end of the matter. However, Andrew Gimson has pointed out on this site that the Tories have a history of denouncing all sorts of ideas as unconservative before suddenly adopting them, citing Disraeli’s widening of the franchise and Macmillan’s speeding-up of decolonisation. My own view is that floating all-women shortlists is a bit like acquiring the atom bomb. In other words, there is a case for saying that you might use it, but none for actually doing so.
For Downing Street or CCHQ or both to seek to impose all-women shortlists would be the equivalent of firing one of those bombs at Russia during the Cold War: for Russia, in this case, read Conservative MPs and the voluntary party. The Party would swiftly become the equivalent of a wasteland. The leadership would do better to take up some of the ideas floated by Anne Jenkin and Brooks Newmark – such as more open primaries (which are not to be confused with caucus meetings), better preparation of local Associations, and wider use of women Ministers.
The proportion of women Tory MPs is low, but its rate of increase was high, at least after the last election – rising from 17 to 49: “a significant increase”, as Jenkin and Newmark put it. In seats the Party is set to win next year, women aren’t doing so badly. The last two selections for such constituencies in our Seats and Candidates blog record Lucy Frazer as holding on to her nomination in South-East Cambridgeshire and Nusrat Ghani winning out in Wealden. The Party a good story to tell about the Party’s history and women. “It was the Conservatives who elected the first woman party leader,” as the poster above says. There’s no reason why the future shouldn’t be as rosy as the past.