Women in the House of Commons after the 2020 election Contents

3Promoting women parliamentary candidates

Women parliamentary candidates in the 2015 General Election

40.In order to become Members of Parliament, women must first, of course, be selected as candidates. The 2015 General Election saw a record number of women candidates—1,033—standing for election to the House of Commons.41 This represented 26 per cent of all candidates in 2015 and surpassed the previous record of 21 per cent set in 2010.42

41.There are significant variations between political parties in the proportion of parliamentary candidates that they field for general elections that are women, as seen in the table below:

Table 1: The proportion and number of female parliamentary candidates in the 2015 General Election by political party


Proportion of candidates who were women by party in the 2015 General Election

Number of women candidates by party in the 2015 General Election




Green Party






Conservative Party



Liberal Democrats






Source: House of Commons Library.43

42.The process of selecting candidates for a general election begins for some parties within the first 12 to 18 months of the new Parliament. The Liberal Democrats told us that they have already chosen the majority of their parliamentary candidates in England and Wales in the event of an early general election.44 The party’s leader, Tim Farron, said that the proportion of women parliamentary candidates that the Liberal Democrats have selected was “in the region of 30 per cent to 33 per cent [ … ] which is not enough”.45

43.We have heard evidence that the key to increasing the number of women in the Commons is for political parties to place women parliamentary candidates in their “winnable seats”. We explore this in chapter four.

44.Leadership figures in the Conservative Party, Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats all told us that Parliament would benefit from having equal representation of men and women.46 The Labour Party leader told us that his party would aim for at least 50 per cent representation of its women MPs in the 2020 General Election.47

45.We fully respect that the electorate ultimately decides who represents them in the House of Commons. However, it is political parties rather than voters that decide who stands for election, and having more women parliamentary candidates is a necessary precondition to improving the representation of women in Parliament. All of the main political parties fielded significantly less than 50 per cent women parliamentary candidates for the 2015 General Election, which undermined the equality of opportunity for women to be elected. Political parties must take greater ownership of this issue by making gender balance in candidate selection for general elections a key priority. This process needs to start earlier rather than later so that there is a strong supply of excellent prospective women parliamentary candidates from which local associations can select.

46.We recommend that the Government should seek to introduce, in legislation in this Parliament, a statutory minimum proportion of female parliamentary candidates in general elections for each political party. While the goal is equality, we recognise the difficulty inherent in setting this statutory minimum at 50 per cent; such a precise target would be difficult to meet while also ensuring that men did not become under-represented. A minimum of 45 per cent would therefore be acceptable. The measure would need to be subject to a minimum threshold for parties contesting only a small number of constituencies. This measure should be brought into force if the number and proportion of women MPs fails to increase significantly after the 2020 General Election.

47.Parties that fail to comply with this target need to face sanctions for the quota to be effective. The Government should consider a range of possible sanctions, which could include deductions from Policy Development Grants, confiscation of deposits in seats where female candidates have not been fielded, or legislating to extend the remit of the Electoral Commission to introduce fines for non-compliance.

The Boundary Review and selection of parliamentary candidates

48.The Rules for Redistribution set out in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which seeks to achieve equalisation in electorate size of parliamentary constituencies, require the number of seats in the House of Commons to be reduced from 650 to 600. Proposals for how this should be achieved are the responsibility of the four independent Boundary Commissions for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The four commissions published their initial proposals for the 2018 Boundary Review in autumn 2016 for consultation.48 The final set of proposals will be laid before the House in 2018 and must be approved by both Houses in order to take effect in advance of the 2020 General Election.49

49.Some political parties have expressed concern that the overall reduction in the number of seats could reduce the representation of women and other under-represented groups in the Commons. The SNP Westminster Group told us that it was “anxious that the review will have a negative effect on female and minority representation in the House”,50 the Green Party said it was concerned that “fewer parliamentary seats will mean fewer female candidates and therefore less female MPs”51 and the Labour Party stated it would “seek ways to mitigate the effects of [the Boundary Review] on the proportion of Labour women MPs.”52

50.The Fawcett Society, a charity that campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, raised concerns that the reduction in seats could see the Commons “go backwards in terms of women’s representation”.53 Fawcett’s analysis of the boundary proposals found that there are 57 seats that are “at risk”. This is any current constituency whose electorate does not form the largest part of any new proposed seat, and in which, therefore, an incumbent MP that is representing the constituency will not have an obvious successor seat to contest in the next General Election. Fawcett found that 37 per cent of these ‘at risk’ seats are currently held by women MPs. They concluded that:

Without intervention from the major parties, women’s representation is at serious risk of reversing in 2020. The major parties must commit to a transparent and proactive process during selection for the new boundaries to avoid turning the clock back for women.54

51.The Fawcett Society provided an analysis of how the Boundary Review will affect women MPs in each of the major political parties.55 In summary, its findings for the major parties are that:

52.Lord Hayward argued in oral evidence to us that, while the drawing of new boundaries in itself will not affect women’s representation in the House, it is the “selection and attitudes of political parties” that will determine its ultimate effect.57 This was also reflected by Professor Sarah Childs and Professor Rosie Campbell, who wrote that:

Given the key role that parties play in the make-up of the House and the importance of parties’ attention to the gender composition of their parliamentary parties, the parties will need to explicitly take into consideration the impact of the reduction in the number of seats when they and their local parties select candidates for re-drawn or new seats.58

53.In light of the proposed reduction of seats in the House of Commons to 600, we recommend that political parties should publicly set out the measures they plan to take to increase the proportion and number of women parliamentary candidates in 2020. This is necessary to ensure that the previous positive trends do not stagnate or reverse. While the boundary review itself need not result in a lower proportion of women MPs, without intervention from the parties, regression may be an unintended consequence. There is no room for complacency.

Statutory measures to increase the number of women parliamentary candidates

54.Although immediate responsibility falls on political parties to act, we consider that the Government can play a significant role in bringing forward legislation to drive and embed change, particularly if the outcomes achieved by voluntary measures are unsatisfactory.

Publication of parliamentary candidate diversity data

55.The Government response to the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation set out plans for an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 to make political parties publish diversity data on parliamentary candidates. The Government stated that the amendment would “enable diversity data to be collected in a systematic way at a national level for the first time”,59 and expressed a hope that such a requirement would “help generate more diverse candidate selection and [ … ] ultimately result in a more representative Parliament.”60

56.The requirement for parties to publish candidate diversity data is now in place in Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, but this provision has not yet been brought into force.61 The Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders agreed, when giving evidence to the Speaker’s Conference in 2009, to the “principle of publishing monitoring data in relation to candidate selections”.62 However, Professor Childs and Professor Campbell told us that:

These promises have only been periodically and incompletely delivered upon, and frequently only after repeated pressure from senior MPs.63

57.The Good Parliament report recommended that Section 106 of the Equality Act should be brought into force; Professor Sarah Childs argued that this would allow:

The public, you and others within this House to see how the party selections are progressing. Therefore, as we go through the selections, parties can be held to account by their members, by their voters and by civil society actors, to ensure that we see greater diversity.64

58.We recommend that the Government immediately bring into force the statutory requirement for political parties to publish their parliamentary candidate diversity data for general elections, as set out in Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010. Publication of this information is vital for public and parliamentary scrutiny of the record of political parties in selecting a diverse slate of parliamentary candidates. We also recommend that the Government bring forward legislative proposals to empower the Electoral Commission to collect and host this data, to ensure consistency and transparency from political parties.

41 House of Commons Library General Election 2015 p.57

42 House of Commons Library General Election 2015 p.57

43 House of Commons Library General Election 2015 p.58

44 Q86 [Tim Farron] and Q93 [Tim Farron]

45 Q87 [Tim Farron]

46 Q99 [Angus Robertson, Sir Patrick McLoughlin and Tim Farron]

47 Q56 [Jeremy Corbyn]

49 House of Commons Library Parliamentary boundary reviews: public consultations, p.8, November 2016

50 SNP Westminster Group (WHC0079)

51 Green Party (WHC0085)

52 The Labour Party (WHC0078)

53 The Fawcett Society (WHC0075), para.7

54 The Fawcett Society (WHC0075), para.7

55 Fawcett Society further evidence (WHC0084) p.6, paras 32–36

56 Labour Party Rule Book 2016, Appendix 3, p.65

57 Q4

58 Professor Sarah Childs and Professor Rosie Campbell (WHC0065)

61 Equality Act 2010, section 106

62 Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, Final Report, para.25, January 2010

63 Professor Sarah Childs and Professor Rosie Campbell (WHC0065)

64 Q19 [Professor Childs]

22 December 2016