Women's representation in parliament: tokenism or transformation?

Among Labour activists, and feminists in particular, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Cameron and Clegg refuse to promote the women in their parties. The accepted wisdom is that their front bench is almost entirely, and very deliberately, male, whereas ours has a much stronger gender balance.

It's certainly the case that we are leading the way when it comes to enabling women into parliament: we're the only party to have made use of all-women's shortlists (AWS), which have been incredibly effective at opening up competition for seats to women. At every rank in the party, women are consistently better represented in Labour than in the Conservative and Liberal Democrats.

We all regularly attack the Tories and Liberal Democrats for failing to promote those women who do succeed in making it to elected office. Equally, Labour has been criticised for 'tokenistic' promotion of women. Is it the case that, unlike other parties, we promote women for the sake of being women in order to make up quotas? Or, rather, for women who successfully overcome the sexism of selection processes and make it to parliament, is it only Labour that gives them a fair chance of promotion? The numbers tell an interesting story.

Of the 32 MPs who attend Shadow Cabinet, 14 are women (44%). Labour has a total of 86 female MPs out of a total of 257 parliamentarians on our benches. So despite the fact that 33% of our parliamentary party is female, women have much better representation at the very top.

Compare that to the Tories. Out of the 28 Conservative MPs who attend Cabinet, just five, representing 18% of the total, are women. However, there are far fewer Tory women in Parliament than there are Labour, just 48 out of 305 MPs (16%), so 18% still reflects a modest increase. For both parties, the number of women at the very top suggests that women are not under-promoted.

However, these statistics are based on small figures, which are easy to skew so it's worth broadening the calculations. Labour currently has a total of 136 MPs who are front benchers. Fifty-four (40%) are women. The Tories have 100 MPs on the government pay roll, of whom 21 are women (21%).  In both cases, the proportion of women is greater than that in the respective parliamentary parties, and for both it represents an addition of around 6-7%. For the Liberal Democrats, despite only 13% of their MPs being female, almost double that number, 27%, sit on their front bench. Of course none of these women are in the Cabinet, but again, women are much better represented in the Liberal Democrat ministerial ranks than on their benches overall.

All this suggests that the fundamental problem with the political glass ceiling lies outside parliament, not within it. Despite media stories to the contrary, all three of the main political parties have promoted a higher proportion of women compared to the numbers within their parliamentary ranks. It can't be denied that the Tories and Lib Dems remain woefully behind Labour in terms of their gender balance within parliament as a whole. However, rather than directing our ire at Cameron and Clegg for failing to promote their female colleagues, perhaps instead we should challenge those who run their selection processes. Like Labour, they need to take steps to ensure more women are on the ballot paper next May.


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