One of my recent posts – and the response it generated from female candidates in this year’s election – got me wondering about the parties’ gender balance. My analysis revealed that
Labour is the only party that comes anywhere near gender parity. Are the other parties really that bereft of decent female candidates? Or are they somehow alienating 50% or so of the population from their politics? That doesn’t sound like good political strategy to me…
It’s time to look at the stats on this.
Firstly, the only way to get elected is to either stand as an independent candidate or be on a party list. So let’s have a look at the candidates each party put forward. There are a few startling statistics to get us going.
Clearly one of the reasons that Labour returned an even number of male and female councillors was that they put up a roughly equal split of candidates: 52% female and 48% male. Top marks to the Labour party in the Vale.
The Conservatives did very poorly; just 28% of their candidates were women, with 72% men. Of their 11 councillors, 9 are men, which gives a percentage rate of 18% women and 82% men.
Plaid came out even worse. Three-quarters of their candidates were male: 76%, leaving just 24% as female candidates. And the councillors? Just one out of six is female, or 17%.
Of the minor parties we see that all four Llantwit First Independent councillors are men, which is unsurprising given they could muster no women to stand under their banner. The three independent candidates are all men – again, an unavoidable 100% male cohort given that 10 out of 10 independent candidates were men. And the only other party to win a seat – UKIP – also returned one man, although in their case it’s forgiveable because with just one candidate it will either be a man or a woman.
So why should we be bothered about gender balance anyway? Surely the important thing is that we have the best people for the job, and if women aren’t standing for election, then they’ve self-selected themselves out of the contest?
Wrong. Gender balance is extremely important.
Now I think that gender balance is important because it feels intrinsically a good thing. I think that women are less prone to make cack-handed decisions as a body politic. Would UK forces have been sent to Iraq if half of MPs had been women? Maybe not. Would the banking ponzi scheme whose collapse has given us the worst economic depression since time began have happened if half of bankers were women? Perhaps not. And lest anyone believe the myth, it’s not necessarily true that women are more risk-averse than men.
But I’m not the expert in gender balance, so I looked here for inspiration. Drude Dahlerup tells us that the three standard arguments still hold true:
- That women’s participation in elected office should reflect their presence in the general population (the justice argument)
- That women’s experiences should be integrated into policy-making (the experience argument)
- That men cannot adequately represent women because of intrinsic conflicts between specific groups of women and men (the interest argument)
But there are deeper reasons for desiring equal participation in public life: Dahlerup suggests that women’s full participation in politics is a prerequisite for genuine democracy.
Can we in Penarth and the Vale take our lead from Westminster? The UK parliament is currently ranked joint 55th in the world (with Malawi) on women’s representation, with 22.3% of MPs. Pretty poor.
But the National Assembly for Wales – not ranked by the Inter-Parliamentary Union – has 25 women out of 60 representatives, or 41.7%. That means that Wales is an enviable 8th place in the world (although it has fallen back since becoming the first legislature in the world to achieve parity of gender representation). Perhaps Westminster should take some lessons from Cardiff Bay.
So let’s look at some of the barriers that women face which mean they aren’t putting themselves forward as candidates. There are some particularly gender-specific issues such as child care and work/life balance. Ways to improve the accessibility of council meetings to women facing these obstacles might include having council meetings at family-friendly hours. You never know, this might just help engage a bit more of the population at large in local politics.
But there’s clearly something deeper at play. The fact that one political party has succeeded to attain gender balance while the other two have catastrophically failed is all the evidence we need. So for the Plaid and Conservative parties in the Vale, here’s some advice.
Firstly there may be an issue of role models. This is a frequently cited feature of poor representation, whether it be senior ethnic minority and female police officers or local council elections. So tip number one – request that your few women councillors spend time on outreach throughout the Vale with a specific mandate to encourage more female candidates in 2017.
Secondly there’s the issue of culture and inclusiveness within these two parties. Clearly they’re virtual no-go zones for women given that in both cases the proportion of female candidates was less than 30%. Plaid and the Conservatives need to start asking really hard questions of themselves. On an issue such as this, perhaps the Labour party in the Vale might be willing to offer some advice. And because this is such an important subject that crosses way beyond the boundaries of party politics, I’d like to know if Labour refuses to help you out. And Labour, do let me know if you don’t receive requests for help on this from Plaid and Conservative by the end of this year. We’ve got a problem in Vale politics that needs resolution, and a bit of co-operation could go a long way.
Finally (for Plaid and the Conservatives), here’s a practical way to redress the balance in councillor representation, which will, over time, address the ‘role model’ issue. Each time a sitting male councillor retires, replace him with a female candidate in the following election. Preferably a young woman. Repeat until you reach gender parity. And I don’t want to hear any feeble excuses about worthy male no. 1 who’s been waiting for his seat on council for 12 years.
I’d also like to see a minimum 50 percent quota of women on all selection panels and in the party leadership, both locally and nationally. All political parties and groupings should be putting forward between 45 and 60 per cent female candidates. I err on the side of more female candidates as legitimate compensation for centuries of under-representation. And although it might be nice to see female independent candidates, let’s deal with the party issue first. Who knows, by getting equal representation within parties we might find more women interested in politics per se, with a concomitant increase in independent candidates.
None of this is to decry the talented and committed male politicians that exist. But the chances that the successful male candidates were the best that could possibly be elected are nil.
Through the processes of the parties we support and do not, we participate in excluding – or including – women from social and public life. Isn’t that worth thinking about when you’re next in the polling booth?