The Independent this morning splashed with a story about David Cameron’s concern that not enough women are being selected as Conservative candidates. It says that “less than a third” of new Conservative candidates at the next election are women and adds:
“With less than 18 months to go to the next election, 63 candidates have been chosen so far in Conservative-held or winnable seats, of whom just 19 are women, a proportion of 30 per cent. In 10 seats won by the party at the last election, eight men and two women have been selected for the Tories, a proportion which has infuriated Mr Cameron. Associations in a further 53 seats which the Tories have realistic hopes of capturing have chosen 36 men and 17 women.”
At present there are 48 female Conservative MPs compared with 256 male Conservative MPs. That is a much lower ratio than Labour – who have 86 females compared to 169 males. However the Lib Dems have a lower ratio of female MPs – just seven while they have 50 male MPs.
Why do the press focus on the shortage of Tory women MPs ignoring the relatively greater shortage among our coalition partners?
It is important for political parties to be welcoming and representative. They need to include within their ranks people from a range of backgrounds and to be able to demonstrate this to the electorate. However this challenge is much broader than the sex or colour of the candidate. The popular antipathy is to a political class which is perceived not only as remote from normal people but also as self serving.
An effective way of reconnecting with the public is through Open Primaries. Among the eight men mentioned in The Independent as chosen for Conservative-held seats is Cllr Ranil Jayawardena in North East Hampshire. That selection helps makes the Conservatives more representative in terms of ethnicity. However I suspect the reasons he was chosen had rather more to do with him being a local candidate, holding sound Conservative views and being highly capable.
For all the slurs thrown at the Conservatives for being sexist or racist or homophobic it is well to remember that the charge that has the most damaging impact is that the Conservatives only represent the rich. So candidate diversity should include those from a diverse range of occupations. In North Cornwall the Conservatives have chosen Cllr Scott Mann as their candidate for the next General Election. He is a postman. Should he have been spurned to make way for a woman or ethnic minority lobbyist from London?
Among the Labour candidates for the next election in Labour held seats is Vicky Foxcroft in Deptford. While she is a woman she is also a full time official for the Unite union. She has gone from being on a student union sabbatical to then working for various unions. She has never had a proper job. Does her selection really help make the Labour Party more representative?
Has Polly Billington ever run a whelk stall? She is Labour’s candidate for Thurrock having previously worked for the BBC and been a special advisor to Ed Miliband. The ranks of Labour MPs are pathetically short of those who have worked in private business. Why are they not being held to account for failing to address this gap?
Then there is the matter of ageism. What do political parties do to encourage those in their fifties to apply to stand for Parliament? Is there not a perception from some of them that there is no point offering their services as they would be regarded as too old. Sir Menzies Campbell warns today that it is foolish for political parties to rely too heavily on youth. Bringing on more middle aged people would also tend to mean more from outside the political class.
Those accusing the Conservative Party of prejudice often show prejudice themselves. Those who investigate the Conservative Party in an open minded way might find their assumptions disproved. They would find Conservative MPs motivated by patriotism and public service to their constituents who spend their weekends knocking on doors and attending community events. They would find a great mix of people involved in most constituency associations.
The Conservatives must be a Party for all the talents. By all means let CCHQ make positive efforts so everyone feels welcome to be involved, including offering themselves as candidates. But quotas and arbitrary restrictions – such as all women shortlists – are anathema to Conservatives. There should be less central direction of local parties rather than any more.