The report on women’s political representation isn’t so ‘shocking’ if you understand political recruitment

Image by LSE Library

Image by LSE Library

There’s a new report out on women’s political representation today. According to yesterday’s Observer it is ‘shocking’, and shows women’s presence in a range of professions – especially politics – to be ‘plummeting’.

Based on the report, however, there was very little evidence of much plummeting going on.  Women’s presence in the professions was fairly low across the board, down in some areas, up in others. The numbers in the Welsh Assembly, for example, had fallen but those in the House of Commons were up.  In total, the report examines 25 areas of public life – from Directors of FTSE100 to the police, from the armed forces to politics – and found women’s presence up in 19 of them, when compared to 2003.  We assume that would have made a less impressive headline, though.

It might, we guess, be considered a shock if we had all previously been unaware of the relatively low numbers of elected women in politics or in the professions and this report had now revealed this to us for the very first time.  But we know, for example, that the public – both men and women – have a pretty good idea of the number of women in parliament.  The average estimate (in a study in 2009 when the actual figure was 20%) was 26%.

The media coverage of the report (although not, to be fair, the report itself) made much of the decline in the numbers of women in the Cabinet, where women’s presence has fallen noticeably compared to the late-Blair or Brown years.  Perhaps this is the shocking bit?

But it is only shocking to people who don’t understand political recruitment.  There is a very obvious reason why any comparison between now and the late-Blair/Brown years is facile.

It takes time for newly-elected MPs to reach the Cabinet.  They spend some time on the backbenches, then work their way up the ministerial ranks.  Some do it quicker than others (and some don’t do it at all), but thus far no one – male or female – from the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs has made the Cabinet.

And this matters, because prior to 2010, the number of Conservative women MPs was extremely low, with only 18 of the parliamentary party being women before 2010.  It rose, to a record high of 48 (if still low, in absolute terms) in 2010, but the Cabinet is therefore still drawn from the ranks of those elected prior to 2010.  And of current Conservative MPs, just 12 are women from before 2010; of these, four (that is, a full third) are currently in the Cabinet.   The same is true of the Liberal Democrats, who have an even lower level of female representation.

So rather than compare with 2008, a more sensible comparison is with the Cabinet of 2000, three years after the large influx of Labour women MPs in 1997.  How many women were in the Blair Cabinet in 2000? Answer: five, exactly the same number as are in the Cabinet now.   (In addition to the four MPs, there is also Baroness Warsi).

Of those five Labour Cabinet members, four were MPs, all of whom had been in the Commons since at least 1987, if not longer.  In other words, none were elected for the first time in 1997.

Of the Labour women MPs elected for the first time in 1997, five eventually reached the Cabinet.  But it took them on average eight years to do so.  The fastest was Patricia Hewitt, but even she had not made Cabinet until after the 2001 election.

So even if we see Conservative women from the 2010 intake making Hewitt-speed climbs to the Cabinet, we should not expect to see them reach it until next year at the earliest, and mostly later.

We should therefore see an increase in the number of women in the Cabinet (or, in the event of a Conservative electoral defeat, Shadow Cabinet) in the next few years as the 2010 intake climb the slippery slope of junior ministerial posts. The best way to get more women into the Cabinet is to get more women in Parliament in future, perhaps by looking at why political pipeline institutions like local councils don’t provide women with the springboard that they do for men. Then again, that doesn’t make as good a headline, does it?

Philip Cowley and Peter Allen