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Women in the UK general election 1997



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RESEARCH NOTE Number 47, May 1996-97 ISSN 1328-8016 Women in the UK General Election 1997 Introduction The issue of candidate selection and increasing the number of women as candidates has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, particularly by parties of the left. For the British Labour Party, this desire led to the adoption of a policy of affirmative action for women candidates through the in-troduction of women-only short lists. Within the Australian Labor Party, a formal quota was also in-troduced in 1994 which aims to have women hold 35 per cent of Labor seats in both State and Fed-eral Parliaments by 2002. This research note looks at the im-pact of the British quota system on the representation of women in the British Parliament in an effort to identify the potential impact of such a system on women’s repre-sentation in the Australian Parlia-ment. The British Labour Party's Quota Policy Affirmative action policies within the British Labour Party have been adopted gradually. A Party Charter concerning women's political equality was accepted in 1983. Then in 1987, conference delegates passed the compulsory short listing rule for women: if a woman is nominated for preselection in a

constituency, at least one woman must be on the final short list. The National Executive Council also has several different quotas in place, including five reserved places for women and, within the parliamentary party, four votes must be cast for women in elec-tions for the shadow cabinet.1

By 1990, the Party had endorsed the aim of having 40 per cent

women in the Labour Caucus by the year 2000 and, to achieve this, decided in 1993 to allow all-women short lists in 50 per cent of winnable seats and 'inheritor' seats in which a Labour MP retires. The official party line on these lists— fair representation of the female electorate—was of particular im-portance as Labour had consis-tently polled lower amongst

women than men. In 1992, at least, this may have contributed to their election loss.2

Looking at the Numbers 659 seats were contested at the recent British election. Despite this large number, opportunities for candidate selection are generally restricted to the number of mem-bers retiring and the number of marginal seats won or lost, which is itself dependent on the swing.

Table 1 shows the increase in the number of Labour women candi-dates in Britain over the last fifteen years. This period corresponds with Labour's commitment to increasing the number of women within its party structures.

While the percentage of Labour candidates who are women has only risen by three percentage points since 1992, the percentage of women who stood and won has increased by a substantial 37 per-centage points. In 1992, most of the women candidates were se-lected for unwinnable seats, in di-rect contrast to the 1997 election.

On average, around 29 Labour MPs retire at general election time. If women were to be appointed to half of these 'inheritor' seats for the 1997 election, then approximately 15 women would have been se-lected. It was estimated that ap-proximately 73 winnable seats ex-isted, so if women were selected in 50 per cent of these, via women-only short lists, there would have been 36 Labour women in 'strong challenger' positions. Thus, it was predicted that women-only short lists would guarantee approxi-mately 51 probable women MPs for the 1997 election.3 The quota system was stopped as a result of a court challenge, so only 35 women

T a b le 1 : L a b o u r W o m en a n d G en era l E lectio n s in U K

N o . w o m en % w o m en N o . w o m en % w o m en N o . w o m en % w o m en % sw in g to

can d id ates can d id ates w h o w o n w h o w o n in C au cu s in C au cu s L ab o u r

1 9 9 7 1 5 8 /6 5 9 2 4 1 0 1 /1 5 8 6 4 1 0 1 /4 1 9 2 4 1 0

1 9 9 2 1 3 8 /6 5 1 2 1 3 7 /1 3 8 2 7 3 7 /2 7 1 1 4 3 .6

1 9 8 7 9 2 /6 5 0 1 4 2 1 /9 2 2 3 2 1 /2 2 9 9 3 .3

1 9 8 3 7 8 /6 5 0 1 2 1 0 /7 8 1 3 1 0 /2 0 9 5 -9 .4

were actually selected for these targeted seats through women-only short lists.4 However, these 35, along with an additional 29 new Labour women, were elected to Parliament. When combined with the 37 returned incumbent Labour women, the representation of La-bour women in the UK Parliament increased from 37 in 1992 to 101 in 1997. This figure surpassed the figure of 80 Labour women MPs predicted by analysts based on the possibility of a strong swing to Labour.5 The 10 per cent swing was considerably higher than ex-pected, with the average swing to Labour between 1983 and 1992 being only around 3.5.

If we look at the proportion of women MPs overall (see Table 2), it is apparent that women's repre-sentation has doubled from 9 per cent to 18 per cent since 1992. This represents considerable progress, and while female representation in the UK still lags behind many of its European counterparts, this is largely because the UK does not have a proportional representation electoral system.6 However,

women are better represented in the House of Commons compared with 15.5 per cent female representation in the House of Representatives here (which does not have propor-tional representation either).

Table 2: Women in Parliament in UK

(all parties)

No. %

1997 120 18

1992 60 9.2

1987 41 6.3

1983 23 3.5

Data from P. Norris and J. Lovenduski, Gender and Party Politics, Sage, Lon-don, 1993: 44-47 and 1997 UK election figures.

The percentage of women in the new Labour Cabinet is 23 per cent (5 out of 22)7 which closely re-flects the 24 per cent of women in

the Labour Government. In Austra-lia, 12.5 per cent of Cabinet Minis-ters are women, while women make up 19 per cent of the Coali-tion Government.

Conclusion The quota system adopted by the British Labour Party has now been disallowed. In 1995, the Party was taken to court by a member who claimed sex discrimination because he had not been allowed to stand for selection. While the British Sex Discrimination Act 1975 exempts political parties from its require-ments, it does not permit discrimi-nation between women and men in awarding a professional qualifica-tion. Because selection as a parlia-mentary candidate leads to the pos-sibility of becoming an MP which is a profession, women-only short lists were ruled unlawful.8

Nevertheless, women-only short lists did have the desired effect of substantially increasing women's representation in the British Par-liament. While there can be no doubt that a swing to Labour of 10 per cent enhanced the increase in women's representation, it could be argued that, without the placement of women in 35 of the 73 or so

winnable seats through the women-only short list system, the figure of 101 Labour women might have been only 66. Because women have been elected in both safe and marginal seats if Labour returns in five years time with a reduced per-centage of the vote, the number of women in the Labour caucus

should remain at a minimum of 72.

Political parties in Australia are also exempt from the Sex Dis-crimination Act 1984 (Cwlth) since they are considered to be voluntary bodies. However, political parties may pursue affirmative action poli-cies or quotas if they are intended to achieve equal outcomes between men and women.9 Thus, adopting

a quota system to permanently in-crease the percentage of women in Parliament, as opposed to relying solely on large swings, may prove a useful means in providing women with political equality and fair rep-resentation.

1. P. Norris, 'Labour Party Quotas for Women', in D. Broughton, D. Farrell, D. Denver & C. Rallings, British Elections and Parties Yearbook 1994, Frank Cass, London, 1995: 167.

2. J. Squires, 'Quotas for Women: Fair Representation?' Parliamen-tary Affairs, 49 (1), 1996: 73.

3. Norris, op. cit. 175. 4. Meg Russell, British Labour

Party National Women's Officer, Personal Communication, 13 May 1997. 5. Norris, loc. cit. 6. For comparative figures see

'Women in the Parliaments of the World: 1997', Research Note No. 41. 7. This figure does not include jun-ior Ministers. 8. C. Short, 'Women and the Labour Party', Parliamentary Affairs, 49 (1), 1996: 21. 9. Section 33, Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cwlth).

Jennifer Curtin Politics and Public Administration Group Information and Research Services

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Views expressed in this Research Note are those of the author and do not neces-sarily reflect those of the Information and Research Services and are not to be at-tributed to the Department of the Parlia-mentary Library. Research Notes provide concise analytical briefings on issues of interest to Senators and Members. As such they may not canvass all of the key issues.

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