This May will be a boost for female representation – but there’s a catch

The current electoral system is a huge barrier to seat access for female MPs

 

With less than a quarter of MPs currently women, a 50:50 parliament seems like a distant hope.

But there are grounds for optimism. Based on polling trends and an analysis of every party’s candidate for the upcoming election, the Electoral Reform Society has predicted that 192 MPs are likely to be elected this May – up 44 on the current 148. It would mean three in ten MPs would be women, the highest ever figure.

Parties are putting forward more female candidates than before, too, with every party except UKIP fielding a higher proportion of female candidates than parliament’s current make-up (see Table 1). And in target seats, Labour and the Conservatives are actually fielding a higher proportion of female candidates than their overall number, meaning they are clearly trying hard to get more women into the House.

JosiahTable1

This is good news. The predicted boost this May would see us rising up the world ranking for female representation in lower chambers from 56th to 36th. We’d finally be ahead of Afghanistan and other countries with less-than-positive track records on gender equality.

But we’d still not be world leaders, by any means. And while moving from 23 per cent women to nearly 30 per cent is a welcome rise, there’s one big barrier that’s blocking future progress: our electoral system.

Under First Past the Post, there are hundreds of effectively uncontested seats where parties have a big enough lead not to worry about opposition. That means many MPs can act as ‘seat-blockers’, occupying their seats for decade after decade.

Here’s the catch: the longer an MP has been in situ, the more likely he is to be a man.

As you can see in Table 2, there are 67 MPs first elected in 1992 or before who are standing again this May. 59 of them are men. Having held their seats for over two decades, we can guess that most of these men will keep their positions effectively unchallenged.

josiahtable2

This is a major barrier in terms of increasing women’s representation in the future. We can’t allow the existence of safe seats to act as a block on reaching a 50:50 parliament. We need to reform our voting system.

Proportional representation isn’t a silver bullet, of course. It can only facilitate – rather than guarantee – more diversity in politics. But experience from other countries shows that nearly all of those with a high proportion of women in parliament use some form of PR. Moreover, larger multi-member constituencies would increase the likelihood that more women would be able to win seats, as voters would have a greater choice of winnable candidates. Under our current broken electoral system, less ‘traditional’ and ‘safe-looking’ candidates lose out.

Nonetheless, it’s good news that nearly 200 women will be elected in two months’ time. Let’s just make sure it doesn’t become a new ‘glass ceiling’.

Josiah Mortimer is Communications assistant at the Electoral Reform Society. Follow him on Twitter

Read the ‘Women in Westminster’ report here

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