Tuesday 25 October 2016

What we can learn from the British about electing more women

Niamh Gallagher

Published 16/05/2015 | 02:30

Nicola Sturgeon the SNP leader meeting nurses in Edinburgh
Nicola Sturgeon the SNP leader meeting nurses in Edinburgh

Last week, as all but the hardcore election watchers slept, the UK accomplished quite a feat - jumping a whole 20 places in the Interparliamentary Union ranking of female political representation, from 59th to 39th place out of 190 countries. Overnight, the UK went from a parliament made up of just 22pc women to 29pc, almost one in every three. Now, 190 of the 650 MPs at Westminster are female, the highest number ever. Cameron has appointed 11 women to ministerial positions in his cabinet of 26 and the Labour shadow cabinet is balanced: half male, half female.

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It is a striking change, and a welcome one.

But it should not come as a surprise.

The UK Labour Party, which counts 100 women among its newly-elected MPs, has long taken this issue seriously. In 1997, the introduction of all-women shortlists - allowing the party's national executive to select a proportion of constituencies where candidate shortlists would be made up of women only - led to the famous election of 'Blair's babes', the largest number of women ever seen in a UK parliament. Job done, or so they thought. The shortlists were not applied in 2001, and just four new women were elected alongside 30 new men. Labour learned a valuable lesson: it takes more than one election to drive systemic change. The shortlists were back in 2005, 2010 and in 2015. Each time Labour has gradually increased the number of women on the ticket and, critically, getting elected. Now, women hold 43pc of its seats and a large proportion of those seats are safe. This matters. In the UK, women have traditionally been fielded in marginal seats. In a first-past-the-post system this means they win one election and lose the next. In safe seats, MPs can concentrate on parliamentary business rather than local issues, build their profile and position themselves for front-bench positions. This is new territory for women looking to move up the ranks to ministerial positions. And it took almost a decade to achieve.

Few parties take as structured an approach as Labour. The Tories under David Cameron are vocal in their desire for gender balance. Party HQ put a push on local associations to select women. The light-touch approach had an impact this time, 26pc of candidates were female and the number of women elected increased from 50 to 68, with women now making up 20pc of all Conservative MPs. But in the absence of the overall swing to the Conservatives, it's unlikely it would have yielded such a positive result.

The Liberal Democrats object to positive-action measures for women, but 26pc of their candidates were female all the same. Unfortunately, not a single one of them got elected.

And 36pc of the SNP's MPs are women. Theirs is a story that will be hard to replicate. Though they provide training for female candidates, have a 50/50 gender split in Cabinet at Holyrood, and boast Nicola Sturgeon as a role model, the party's success in winning almost all contested seats - male and female - is truly once off. To maintain this impressive level of gender balance, the SNP will have to make sure the women contesting next time are in safe seats; otherwise a swing risks a backward step for this party on the up.

So what does it all mean? Will British politics change radically now that parliament is close to that critical mass of 33pc women?

Yes, but not as much as we'd like. For starters, the majority of women are on the opposition benches. The Tories, with just 20pc women, will govern - driving legislation and setting culture. Labour and the SNP, which boasts the most women, will be in opposition, fighting to make their views heard but not setting the agenda. Their opportunity to shape and drive policy will be limited to committee rooms, working groups and through the media.

In short, despite this result, the Punch-and-Judy style politics typical of Westminster is unlikely to grind to a halt.

We are not yet going to see women's rights legislation barrelling through the Commons.

But it is a step, and an important one.

And it should be watched with interest here, just a year out from our own general election. With a 30pc candidate selection quota governing all political parties, 2016 will see more women than ever on the ticket.

Let us learn from our UK neighbours - are those women in winnable seats? Will they form part of the next Government or be left to make their voices heard from the opposition benches? Can we expect a Cabinet with 42pc - or even 50pc - women?

And, critically, can we - as much of the nation slumbers - drag ourselves up from our global ranking of 85th of 190 countries?

I certainly hope so.

Irish Independent

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