On the Platform Blog yesterday Kate Jackson considered the limited number of female bloggers. Today Brooks Newmark MP considers what might be done to increase the number of women Conservative MPs.
Westminster is often seen as a Gentleman’s Club. I will freely admit that when I sat on the green benches during my first session of ‘Treasury Questions’ there was little evidence to correct that reputation. Just one Member on the Conservative benches was a woman, and yet I counted at least 12 women sitting opposite me.
There has been plenty of media coverage – most of it critical – about Labour’s initiatives for increasing their tally of Women MPs. But I can honestly say that nothing brings the issue home quite as well as sitting in the House of Commons and seeing such a glaring disparity staring back at you. This is one of the most serious issues that we face as a 21st Century party and, before we sling too much mud at Labour’s recruitment policies, we must examine our own with just a little more honesty and humility.
I am not alone in being an MP with a background in business. But how quickly we all seem to have forgotten what the world outside Westminster is like these days. In any professional or business meeting women are now pretty much fully represented, but at Westminster we have simply not caught up. The scale of the challenge would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious: I’ve recently read one report which claims that, if current trends continue, women will not be equally represented on the Tory benches until 2309.
So what has happened to the party which was the first to return a sitting woman MP? Nancy Astor took up her seat in 1919 and yet by 2005 there are only 17 Conservative women in Parliament. One problem has been in encouraging women to stand as Conservative candidates. This is partly because of the changing demographics of party membership which has led to what I believe is a truly frightening statistic: that only 1.6% of female Conservative party members are under 45. How can we attract more candidates when grass-roots membership of young women is so woefully lacking?
There are many issues which we need to think about when considering how to encourage more participation from younger people, and women in particular. But, focusing for the minute on Parliamentary candidates, one problem stands out. Although the percentage of women offering themselves as candidates seems to match those being accepted, the number who are offered ‘safe’ seats is disproportionately low. Women candidates contested 40% of the least winnable 30 seats, but only 10% of the most winnable seats at the last election.
Where does this leave us when we try to claim to be a modern and inclusive Party? Simply that we should admit to having a problem – and volunteer for rehab. That process could take one of several forms, some of which are, admittedly, more radical than others.
I would like to see us examine several options for change. The first would be to follow Theresa May’s proposal of an ‘A’ list split 50:50 between men and women for our safe or target seats. Alternatively, we could pair off constituencies so that one selects a man, the other a woman. Most radically of all, we could consider adopting all-women shortlists.
But before we are accused of social engineering or positive discrimination we must admit that there is more that could be done within the existing system to encourage women candidates. I would, for example, like to see some headhunting and mentoring of talented women candidates.
Conservative Central Office should reinstate a full-time Women’s Officer (a woman, of course) to coordinate women’s organisations, provide information and be proactive about attracting suitable women who might not have thought of standing for Parliament. Let us not forget that the Conservatives have more women local councillors than Labour. This is a huge pool of politically interested and experienced women that we should target.
Finally, and most importantly, we should continue the reforms of selection procedures which were begun by Theresa May in order to help ensure some consistency and accountability. I’m not suggesting needless interference in the autonomy of local associations. But it is clear that selection procedures which take account of the skills which women have to offer, and which are not based on outdated expectations, would benefit all of us. So perhaps the least controversial solution is to leave Associations with autonomy in candidate selection; but insist that they have a responsibility to present a balanced short-list to their members comprising of 50% women and 50% men.
Unfortunately, for the time being, there is still a self-perpetuating norm for Conservative candidates who are “white, male, professional, middle-aged and with a family”. Since it is one that I fit so well, I am conscious that perhaps I ought not to bite the hand that has fed me. That feeling is surely part of the problem. But I believe that breaking the stereotype once and for all can only strengthen our Party in the long-run. Change has never been more necessary than now, but there has never been a better time for it. What do you think…?