Brandon Lewis is Chairman of the Conservative Party, and is MP for Great Yarmouth.
I started my political journey in 1998 in leafy Brentwood, the heart of Essex. There, I was an activist and then a councillor, long before I had considered becoming MP. I grew up in the party, seeing first-hand how many remarkable women contribute to our party at every level.
Yet time and again these outstanding female activists, committed to their community and to public service, did not put themselves forward for local council or parliament. It is the same today, and that needs to change.
While as Conservatives we have led the way in terms of gender equality: from the first woman to take her seat in Parliament, to the first, and second, female Prime Ministers, there is still a long way to go to ensure more women stand for office at every level of Government.
Last summer, I set an ambition to see women make up half of our party’s parliamentary candidates list. And in the year we mark the centenary of the first woman taking her seat in Parliament, the Conservative MP Nancy Astor, we are committed to having more women follow in her footsteps.
That is why this weekend we are hosting our first Conservative Women’s Conference in a generation. It is part of a programme of events we are holding across the country, encouraging women of all backgrounds to stand. The conference will be held with the Conservative Women’s Organisation, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year. It is the oldest women’s political organisation in the world and works tirelessly to provide support and focus for women in the Conservative Party as well as encouraging more women to be politically active and to get elected at all levels.
As a Party, we want to make sure that we have the very best candidates representing their communities, competing in a level playing field. So we have reviewed and updated our parliamentary assessment criteria and we are about to start some comprehensive research into what barriers people face when seeking public office, so we can make the process fairer, and better, for everyone.
My ambition for women to make up half of our parliamentary candidates list is not a quota or a shortlist, as neither would solve the underlying problem. Instead, achieving this ambition will mean local associations have the ability to choose from a wider pool of the best possible candidates. I am determined to create an environment where more first-rate Conservative women from all backgrounds want to enter politics because they believe it is a rewarding and fulfilling vocation.
We, of course, have fantastic female MPs, councillors and activists who contribute so much to public life. Many of them have benefitted from the incredible work of Women2Win and the Conservative Women’s organisation, both groups having transformed our politics by supporting women through every step of the candidate process. And with their help, we have made progress. Ten years ago, there were 17 women on the Conservative benches – today there are four times that number.
Yet, our research has shown us that on average, it takes women six to 12 months longer than their male counterparts to apply to be a candidate.
So, my focus over the past year, led by the work of my deputy Helen Whately, has been to change the political landscape by encouraging women to take the plunge and put themselves forward to represent the Conservative party.
Our plans to break down barriers for women are not a short-term project, focussed solely on outcomes. I want this vision to serve as a catalyst for change, encouraging all our Conservative Party activists, members and supporters to join me in asking women to get more involved in politics at every level. If all of us, men and women, take up this task, we can drive long-term change, and create a political culture where women are encouraged to take on bigger and better roles in public life.
If you know a woman who would make a phenomenal Conservative representative, why not ask her to stand?