In becoming Britain’s second female prime minister, Theresa May has made the country just the sixth in Europe (and 17th in the world) to have had more than one female leader.
May, like her female predecessor Margaret Thatcher, is a Conservative. Her party’s main rival, the Labour Party, has had a parade of white male leaders. Although Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman served as interim Labour Party leaders, neither was elected to that post.
Which party has better female representation: Conservative or Labour?
So is the Conservative Party beating Labour 2 to 0 in representing women in politics, as former prime minister David Cameron quipped in his final Prime Minister’s Questions? Is it true that the Conservative Party, as Boris Johnson said last week, is “the most progressive party in Britain” when it comes to representing women? No, in at least two important ways.
First, on the benches of the House of Commons, only 21 percent of Conservative Party MPs are women — less than half that of the Labour Party, whose MPS are now 43 percent women. In fact, for almost two decades, Labour has consistently had about twice the proportion of women as has the Conservative Party, as the graph below shows.
Second, unlike the Conservatives, Labour has consistently used robust policies in selecting candidates to guarantee healthy female representation on their slate.
Here’s how Britain’s Labour Party boosted female representation in Parliament
More than 100 political parties around the world — including Labour — use what are called “gender quota.” Labour’s gender quota policy, called all-women shortlists, was first used for the 1997 election. It commits the party to considering only female candidates in at least half of all “winnable” seats that come open.
The policy’s results were dramatic. That year, the proportion of women in the Parliamentary Labour Party went from 14 percent to 24 percent, and the number of women in parliament overall doubled from 60 to 120. Labour has continued to use all-women shortlists in selecting its candidates for general elections ever since, with one exception. During the 2001 election, a legal challenge made the practice illegal. But a Labour-dominated Parliament amended the Equality Act to accommodate the provision.
Here’s how the British Conservative Party tried to boost female representation in Parliament
By contrast, the Conservative Party’s attempts to increase the number of female MPs have been significantly less effective. From the mid-2000s, Conservative gender-equality activists pressured party leaders to pay more attention to the underrepresentation of women. May, now prime minister, co-founded one key effort: Women2win, an organization to encourage and support women entering into Conservative Party politics. As Sarah Childs, Paul Webb and Sally Marthaler argued in the journal Political Quarterly, these efforts were important in changing party attitudes.
In fact, after being selected party leader in 2005, David Cameron spent much of his acceptance speech promising that the party will “change the scandalous under-representation of women in the Conservative Party.” Within the year, the party introduced what it called priority candidate list — or the “A-List,” of about 150 aspiring candidates, from which local party organizers were encouraged to select. The party promised that the A-List would be at least 50 percent women and that a “significant” proportion would be nonwhite, and also introduced rules for gender-balanced shortlisting during the candidate-selection process.
In Political Quarterly, Rosie Campbell, Joni Lovenduski and Childs argued that Cameron’s increased emphasis on getting more women into Parliament was an important evolution of the Conservative Party, raising awareness within the party of the need to “modernize” and appeal to female voters. But relatively few local party constituencies (equivalent to, in the United States, a district party organization) selected women from the A-List, and it was abandoned altogether in 2012. While Conservative Party leaders encouraged them to voluntarily select all-female shortlists themselves, no local party chose to do so. Although more Conservative women were elected in 2010, they still made up only a modest 16 percent of Conservative MPs, a bit more than half of Labour’s 31 percent.
So what kinds of policies actually lead to gender equality in politics?
Lovenduski in her book “Feminizing Politics” puts attempts to tackle women’s political underrepresentation into three categories: equality rhetoric, equality promotion and equality guarantees. While the Conservative Party in the past decade has had plenty of equality rhetoric and promotion — which Lovenduski considers important steps toward “feminizing politics” — it has stopped short of guaranteeing equality. Labour, by contrast, took steps to guarantee equal representation. Political scientists, such as Mona Lena Krook, have consistently found that robust equality guarantees in the form of gender quotas are the surest route to increasing women’s representation at all levels in politics. The results can be counted.
Of course, only the Conservative Party has put women into the top spot
It’s true that the Conservative Party has now put women in the most exceptional position in Britain: that of prime minister. But it has not gone far in diversifying its gender composition. As Diana O’Brien and Karen Beckwith wrote here earlier this week, both Thatcher and May came to power after political crises, which is often the way women become political leaders. That might soon happen in the Labour Party as well; if Angela Eagle succeeds in challenging Jeremy Corbyn for leader, she too may take over at a time of organizational disaster.
In other words, even women’s rise to the top of the party may not indicate a commitment to institutional change; rather, it’s a product of political convenience and circumstance.