The loss of a 19,000 majority in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales - a Labour heartland seat previously held by Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot - was one of the biggest upsets for the Labour Party in the general election. Peter Law, previously a Labour Party member who ran as an Independent, struck a chord with his opposition to centrally imposed all-women shortlists used to pick the Labour candidate. The election itself seemed dominated by men - Blair, Brown, Milburn took centre stage as, despite eight years in power, Labour still appeared to have no women deemed suitable to take the lead role in its press conferences (although Ruth Kelly and Patricia Hewitt did have some profile). Even the wives of Blair and Howard seemed to gain more column inches than their husbands' female colleagues. Improving the numbers and profile of women in politics remains a real challenge for Britain in 2005 and beyond.
Until 1997 women constituted fewer than 10 per cent of MPs - and fewer than 5 per cent between 1918 and 1983. This under representation persisted despite women's growing achievements in education, work and other areas of public life and despite increasing numbers of qualified women seeking office. In response women began to mobilise to achieve political equality, culminating in the introduction, by the Labour Party, of all-women shortlists in 1997. The number of female Labour MPs almost doubled from 62 to 121 - the ubiquitous 'Blair's Babes'. This, in part, helped to push so-called women's issues higher up the political agenda than ever before - with childcare, flexible working, maternity and paternity issues and even domestic violence much more prominent.
The use of all women shortlists for most of its retirement seats in the 2005 election meant that although Labour significantly lost seats overall, it was still able to increase its number of women MPs by four. Women now represent 28 per cent of the Labour Party in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats, whose share of the vote increased from 19 to 23 per cent, also increased the number of women MPs by four, totalling 16 per cent of the party. The Conservatives, in spite of making large gains, only increased their proportion of women MPs by one percentage point to nine per cent. The total number of women MPs now stands at 128, around 20 per cent. At the current rate of change, the Fawcett Society predicts that it will take Labour around 20 years to achieve equal representation, the Liberal Democrats around 40 years and the Conservatives more than 400 years to gain equal numbers of women and men MPs (Fawcett 6/5/05).
Critics of all-women shortlists, such as the new MP for Blaenau Gwent, argue that the selection of candidates must be based on merit and not sex. For them, achieving representation for men and women does not have to mean equal numbers of male and female MPs. This ignores the reality that women are not able to succeed on merit, because discrimination in the selection process means that they are rarely given the opportunity to try. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, in 1997 half of the aspiring candidates short-listed in every safe Labour seat were women and yet only one in ten selected a woman (EOC 2001). This low number reflects a male bias within the selection process, as the local party membership consistently chose not to vote for a female candidate. Positive action, designed to level the playing field, should be seen as a necessary precursor for allowing women to compete on the same basis of men.
Women themselves have been divided on the best route to improving representation. This is crudely summed up as the tension between claims for representation made on the basis of equality and those made on the basis of difference. The equality route stresses women's entitlement to be in politics on the same terms and in the same numbers as men. Here, women must play by the rules of the (male) game, and win. This would suggest that women's claims to representation, if successful, will effectively turn them into 'political men'. A difference position would imply that, in sufficient numbers, the presence of women representatives will change the practice and nature of politics - i.e. the need to change the rules of the game rather than simply play it as successfully as men do. These ideas, often seen as working in opposition, are actually deeply intertwined. As Joni Lovenduski points out, "equality is needed if difference is to be compensated and difference must be recognised if equality is to be achieved" (Lovenduski 2005). Women may need to follow the equality route, to gain access to politics, if they are then to alter the nature of politics itself.
Altering the way politics is done presents a much more complex challenge. Despite the influx of women MPs since the 1997 election, and with greater numbers of women in the Cabinet than ever before, women MPs still feel stuck on the edge of a male world. A recent survey of 83 women MPs entitled 'Whose Secretary Are You, Minister?' and carried out by Joni Lovenduski and Margaret Moran MP contained startlingly frank testimony about practices such as male MPs asking to "roger" colleagues, juggling imaginary breasts and crying "melons" as women try to speak in the Commons (Guardian 7/12/04). Estelle Morris, former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, is just one of a number of women who have decided to withdraw from politics rather than continue in a culture felt to be unsupportive. Increasing the number of women MPs above 20 per cent could help to combat this atmosphere. But challenging the prevailing culture will also entail moving beyond reform of the selection process, and looking again at further reform to the working hours and practices of the House of Commons and the Lords. Despite introducing limited reform to sitting hours in 2002, MPs have since moved to restore some late-night sittings - a real blow for modernisers. Better training and support for potential women candidates also needs to be a priority.
Women, both within the major political parties and without, once again need to mobilise and push for their greater representation within politics. Labour's third term could provide a real opportunity to further this agenda. The returning government has been given a majority large enough to continue its work, but small enough to serve as a warning that if it is to continue to hold on to its share of the progressive vote, it may need to enact real change. And low turnout, combined with Labour's diminished share of the total vote - down to 36 per cent - has renewed calls for the reform of the electoral system. If Brown were to succeed Blair, he might well look to Scotland for inspiration and embark upon a referendum for proportional representation, something promised in 1997 but not yet delivered. EOC findings show that proportional representation is much more conducive to higher levels of female representation than a first past the post system (EOC 2001). Lessons could also be learned from the Scottish Parliament's working hours and observation of school holidays. A wider debate needs to be reopened on reform to the House of Commons and the Lords, including the need for a real effort to design working practices and adopt hours that are more family friendly.
The statistics do show that more equal representation can make a difference: the presence of women MPs increases political activism among women. In seats where a woman MP was elected in 2001, turnout among women was 4 per cent higher than men (with no negative impact on male turnout) (EOC 24/4/04). Women are increasingly targeted during election campaigns, albeit in rather simplistic ways - think 'Worcester woman' or 'school-gate mum'. The Labour Party in particular could stand to make real gains - MORI research post-election found that if just women had voted, Labour's majority would have been nearly 90. If only men had voted, Blair would be facing a majority of just 23 (Observer 8/5/05). Part of engaging with women voters should include ensuring much greater female representation at the highest levels of political office. This will entail reform not just to the selection process, but more significantly to the political culture itself. A lot more still needs to be done to ensure a woman's place is in 'the House' rather than in the home.
BBC (7/5/05) Valley Voters relish rule of law, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/vote_2005/wales/4523545.stm
EOC (24/4/04) Electoral Commission research reveals political gender activism gap, EOC press release
EOC (2001) Women in Parliament: A Comparative Analysis, EOC Research Findings
Fawcett (6/5/05) Record number of women MPs, Fawcett Society press release
Guardian (7/12/04) Women MPs bullied and abused in Commons, print edition
Lovenduski, J (2005) Feminizing Politics, Polity press
Observer (8/5/05) Women's support gave Blair the edge, print edition