Mark Harper is co-chairman of Women2Win and is a former Chief Whip. He is MP for the Forest of Dean.
In his Ask a Tory Woman to Stand article on Tuesday, Paul Goodman said that ConservativeHome has no hard evidence that women are more backward than men in coming forward as Conservative candidates. However, Conservative Forums (which are the first step on the journey into politics, before participating in a Parliamentary Assessment Board), perhaps provide a good snapshot. The best attendance figures at these events are around one-third women, and one recent Forum attracted 49 men and only one woman. So why is this the case? Does it matter, and can the Conservative Party do anything about it?
Our Party membership is overwhelmingly male – 71 per cent according to the recent Queen Mary University of London study. Not all our Associations are welcoming to young people, to new people, or to women. In both the House of Commons and House of Lords only one in five Conservatives are women. And let’s be clear, this isn’t just about representation but also about appeal. In 2015, both men and women voted more for Conservative than Labour. By 2017, that was still true for men, indeed the lead over Labour widened. But for women, the opposite was true; Labour was ahead of us by some margin. If we’d been able to win more support from female voters the result of the election would have been very different.
As one of today’s male MPs, I am proud to be co-chairing Women2Win, the campaign group which for the past 12 years has led the effort to get more Conservative women MPs elected. Since the campaign’s launch in 2005 the number of Conservative women MPs has increased from 17 to 67. But that’s still only 21 per cent of Conservative MPs (compared to 45 per cent of Labour’s). This increase in the number of Conservative women MPs has been achieved by able women, competing with able men on a level playing field.
Of course the country and the Conservative Party need the very best talent available to us, male or female. And who could possibly suggest that 51 per cent of the population doesn’t have that talent? We also need the right candidates in the right seats. I firmly believe that Trudy Harrison was the only candidate who could have won (and held) Copeland. And Anne Milton‘s achievement of overturning a Lib Dem majority in 2005 and winning by over 17,000 in 2017 shows a good fit in Guildford. If Gillian Keegan, with 28 years of business experience, hadn’t had a chance encounter with Anne Jenkin four years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to her that politics would be a great second career.
Our people are our greatest asset. Parliament has many diverse, interesting and talented MPs. I hope that by these three MPs telling of their journeys to become MPs, perhaps other women will be motivated to start theirs. Indeed, ConservativeHome ought to consider extending this series so that our members and supporters can understand more of what motivates our MPs, of both genders and from all backgrounds, to go into public life.
So what can we do to improve the pipeline of Conservative women stepping forward to start the journey into public life? Unlike most men, they need to be asked. Often more than once.
The excellent #AskHerToStand campaign is beginning to reap rewards. Anyone who has campaigned to keep their bus stop open or retain a playground, runs a Girl Guide group or is a school governor, and is resilient and has what it takes to be an MP should find out more. Here at Women2Win they would receive a very warm welcome and support to demystify the process.
Colleagues who were in the House of Commons in 1992, when there was a total of 60 women MPs, confirm that today with 208 women MPs Parliament is a better workplace – more collegiate, more normal, less ‘blokey’. This is because women’s life experiences are different to men’s. Not superior, and not inferior, just different. Having them round the table leads to better decisions.
We all need to acknowledge that there is an urgent need to address the under-representation of women and minority groups in our Party and our Parliament. This is not political correctness. It is political common sense and politics would be the better for it. Women’s representation and diversity are not optional extras but are rather essential features of any institution claiming to represent the people of this country.