openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Dramatic gender gap revealed between Labour and Tory candidates

New openDemocracy research shows women ‘three times as likely’ to be selected for Labour target seats than for Tory ones, while Tories disproportionately field women in ‘no hope’ races.

Caroline Molloy
10 December 2019
Women MPs campaigning for better representation in parliament, 2018.
Women MPs campaigning for better representation in parliament, 2018.
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PA Images/Stefan Rousseau

At the start of this election campaign, one piece of good news welcomed by media outlets was the record number of women standing as parliamentary candidates across the UK.

Whilst Labour was ahead – with just over half its candidates being women – the Conservatives were also standing more women candidates than ever before.

But now new analysis by openDemocracy has found a dramatic gap between the two parties.

Nearly three times as many Labour women have been selected for their party’s top target seats as Conservative women.

Meanwhile the Tories are nearly twice as likely to have selected women for unwinnable seats – where the party would need a huge swing to overturn the 2017 result – as in winnable ones (seats where they ran a close second last time).

By contrast, Labour women candidates are more likely to be standing in seats that Labour could win than in unwinnable ones.

And in the hotly contested ‘retirement’ seats, where a sitting MP is standing down, the Conservatives have selected fewer women than Labour.

openDemocracy analysis also shows that even when Conservative women are selected for these inheritance seats, they are nearly twice as likely to get the more vulnerable ones than the safest ones. There is no similar skew for Labour.

Frances Scott, founder and director of 5050 Parliament, described the Conservative performance as “measly and depressing,” saying the party was “lagging behind”.

She added: “‘It’s very curious when Boris Johnson tells us that ‘talent and brilliance are equally distributed, but opportunity is not’. The Conservatives have not provided the opportunity in this election to address this democratic deficit.”

Winnable seats, or impregnable majorities?

openDemocracy’s analysis shows that women have been selected as candidates in less than a quarter – only 17 out of the 70 – of the most winnable Conservative seats.

These include key battlegrounds like Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Crewe and Nantwich, and Keighley, all of which have male Conservative male candidates trying to overturn Labour majorities of less than 250.

What proportion of women candidates have been selected for winnable seats?

Conservative women are far more likely to find themselves selected for seats where Labour have impregnable majorities over the Conservatives – seats like Walthamstow, Sheffield Central and Merthyr Tydfil. Nearly half of these unwinnable Conservative seats have gone to women candidates.

In contrast, Labour are more likely to have selected women candidates for their most winnable seats than for unwinnable ones. Labour women candidates are standing in two thirds of these bellweather, ‘must-win’ constituencies – places like Telford, Mansfield and Milton Keynes – but in only 41% of those where the party came the most distant second last time. These are seats like Surrey Heath and the Cotswolds, where Labour’s male candidates have little chance of overturning Michael Gove and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown’s 25,000 majorities.

Not all plum seats are equally plum...

Given the current disproportionately male parliament, one of the best opportunities to boost female representation is the selection of the new candidate in a constituency where a party’s existing MP is standing down. Three quarters of Labour’s ‘inheritance seats’ have gone to women candidates, compared to less than half for the Conservatives.

What proportion of women have been selected where incumbents are standing down?

But the Conservatives have also selected women disproportionately for the more vulnerable ‘retirement’ seats. There’s no similar skew for Labour’ – their women candidates are evenly spread across the safer and more vulnerable seats.

Both Conservatives and Labour have 9 women MPs standing down who won the 2017 election under their colours (though several have changed party since). But whilst Labour has replaced all but one of these 9 retiring women with new women candidates, the Conservatives have replaced 4 of theirs with men, including giving all three of the safest seats to men (two of whom who are aides to Boris Johnson).

All in all, this pattern of selections flatters the headline figures for numbers of Conservative women candidates, but they’re unlikely to boost the number of women in parliament.

Missing data

This parliament has seen increasing attention on both #MeToo and the culture of threat that many MPs, particularly female ones, seem exposed to. It’s also been a time when a significant number of relatively young women MPs have stood down. All this makes it a particularly important time to monitor gender composition in politics.

However, there is currently a lack of similar comparative data on ethnic minority representation and class background. These data tend to become available in a more limited way, and only after an election.

There's definitely more work to be done. But whatever happens in tomorrow’s election, given the polling and the disproportionate selection of Conservative men to their target seats, it seems unlikely that this election is going to see another breakthrough in the number of women who actually win. 

Sources: Democracy Club, BBC, House of Commons Library, Electionpolling.co.uk, Britainelects.com.

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