Women in the House of Commons after the 2020 election Contents


Representation of women in the House of Commons

1.We held this inquiry to bring the importance of women’s parliamentary representation to the forefront of the minds of political parties, Government and Parliament.

2.The 1918 General Election saw the first woman, Constance Markievicz of Sinn Fein, elected to the House of Commons. One year later Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat in the House. Since 1918, there have been only 455 women elected to the Commons.1 Putting these numbers into perspective, the number of men in the Commons today is the same as the total number of women ever elected to the House.

3.Until 1997 women had never represented more than 10 per cent of MPs at any one time, and until the late 1980s the proportion had always been below five per cent. The proportion rose to 18 per cent at the 1997 General Election when 120 women were elected following the introduction of all-women shortlists by the Labour Party.2 The highest ever number and proportion of women elected as Members of Parliament was in the 2015 General Election. Out of 650 available seats 191 women were elected; this represented 29 per cent of all MPs. After five by-elections won by women there are now 195 women MPs, which brings the proportion to 30 per cent.

4.We cannot take it for granted that the level of women MPs will carry on increasing; indeed, the number and proportion of women MPs decreased in the 2001 General Election as seen in figure 1. Proposals of the Boundary Commissions for how to achieve equal-sized constituencies and a reduction in their number to 600 were published in Autumn 2016, and are discussed in more detail in Chapter 3. There is nothing inherent in that process that will inevitably produce a lower proportion of women MPs in 2020, but regression in this respect may be an unintended consequence unless political parties take steps to prevent it. It is important also to recognise that more than half of women MPs today are in the Labour Party, with women making up 43.7 per cent of Labour’s parliamentary party. The overall number of women in the House is at present therefore worryingly dependent on the electoral performance of one party.

Figure 1: Percentage of women MPs elected at general elections, 1997–2015

Bar chart to show the percentage of women MPs elected at general elections 1997-2015

Source: House of Commons library

5.The UK ranks only 48th globally for representation of women in the lower or single house of legislatures.3 This is behind European countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and Italy and non-European countries including Rwanda, Angola and Mozambique. The ranking of the UK Parliament has gone down by 23 places since 1999 when it was ranked 25th in the world.4

6.The United Nations report ‘Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals’, published in June 2016, stated that although women’s participation in parliaments globally is increasing, progress has been slow with a small increase of only six percentage points over the last decade.5

7.We are concerned that Parliament is failing to be a world leader on women’s representation. The under-representation of women MPs does not only represent a serious democratic deficit; it also means that the UK is missing out on the benefits of having gender balance in its highest decision-making body. As the gatekeepers of political office, political parties are in a key position to improve the representation of women in the Commons. Some parties already have policies to help promote women to become MPs, but their current initiatives are evidently unsatisfactory since there have still only ever been the same number of women MPs as there are men in the Commons today.

Our inquiry

8.Our inquiry was launched in August 2016. During the inquiry we received 85 written submissions and held two oral evidence sessions. In the first session we took evidence from the Conservative peer Lord Hayward OBE and from Professor Sarah Childs and Professor Rosie Campbell who are academics specialising in politics and gender. In the second session we took evidence from four political parties represented in the House of Commons: the Leader of the Labour Party, Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn MP, the Conservative Party Chairman, Rt Hon Sir Patrick McLoughlin MP, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron MP and the Westminster Group Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Rt Hon Angus Robertson MP. We are grateful to all individuals and organisations that took the time to provide evidence to this inquiry.

9.This report is the latest of many other publications and inquiries that have highlighted the issue of under-representation in the Commons. A Speaker’s Conference was convened in 2008 to promote greater representation of under-represented groups, including women, in the House. The final report was titled ‘Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation)’ and it presented a range of recommendations to help widen the diversity of the House.6 The Good Parliament report, written by Professor Sarah Childs and published by the University of Bristol in July 2016, provided in-depth recommendations for making Parliament a more representative and inclusive environment for everyone.7

10.Our report specifically focuses on the under-representation of women in the Commons. This first chapter provides background information on women’s representation in the House of Commons. The second chapter examines Parliament’s responsibility to be a representative institution and the benefits of more equal representation. The third and fourth chapters detail the measures political parties should take to expand the equality of opportunity for women to become parliamentary candidates and the actions Government should take if political parties fail to deliver an increase in women’s representation in the 2020 General Election.

11.We believe that genuine diversity in Parliament includes the fair representation of many different groups of people, including ethnic and religious minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, those from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, disabled people and many more. We believe that the proposals in this report will help towards the end goal of improving equality and diversity in Parliament overall.

Who is this report aimed at?

12.There are a variety of players that are involved in improving the under-representation of women in the House of Commons. The three key players that we would like to address in our report are the Government, Parliament and political parties:

13.Each of these actors has an important role to play in making the Commons more inclusive and representative of the people that it seeks to represent.

1 House of Commons Library, Women in Parliament and Government, p.5 (plus the by-elections in Batley and Spen, Richmond Park and Sleaford and North Hykeham)

2 House of Commons Library, Women in Parliament and Government, p.5

3 IPU Women in national parliaments ranking as of 1st September 2016

5 United Nations Economic and Social Council report Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals p.9, June 2016

6 Speaker’s Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Final Report, 11 January 2010

7 The Good Parliament, Professor Sarah Childs, University of Bristol, July 2016

22 December 2016