Ladies of the left unite

Shortlists put women in Labour hot seats

I co-wrote a story in this weekend’s Sunday Times, after our analysis of Labour’s list of prospective parliamentary candidates discovered that they are on track to go into the 2015 General Election with the largest ever number of women candidates.

This is the result of a drive over recent years to encourage women to stand for election, and a controversial policy of all-women shortlists in many constituencies.

Encouragingly, it appears to make little difference at the polls whether the candidate has been selected through an open process or an all-women shortlist. However only two women have been selected in open contests so far.

Catherine Atkinson, Labour’s candidate in Erewash, Derbyshire, was kind enough to speak to me about her selection.

Full text of the article is available on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold.

Shortlists put women in Labour hot seats

By James Gillespie and Cal Flyn
Published in The Sunday Times, 20 October 2013
ED MILIBAND is on course to go into the next general election with the largest number of female candidates ever — but only because of Labour’s all-women shortlist policy.

Of the 103 candidates already adopted by Labour constituencies, 53 are women; but only two were chosen in open contests against male candidates. Analysis by The Sunday Times shows that in every other open contest the nomination went to a man.

All-women shortlists were introduced for the 1997 general election and have long been controversial. However, they appear to be effective in increasing women’s representation and, significantly, make no difference in polling at the general election.

All indications are that voters are indifferent to whether the woman candidate has been chosen from a list.

Among those who have been selected from a list is Catherine Atkinson, 32, a barrister and former councillor in Kensington and Chelsea, who holds a first-class degree in divinity from Edinburgh University.

She is now the Labour candidate for Erewash in Derbyshire. “All-women shortlists are an important way of bringing about change and I think they should use them for as long as they are needed,” she said. “It’s essential that parliament should reflect the society it represents. I didn’t stand because I was a woman, but because I want to defend the NHS, rebuild town centres, and represent Erewash.”

She won selection three weeks after her wedding and cancelled her honeymoon so she could begin her campaign. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” she said. “I’ve been so grateful for the support I’ve received from both women and men.”

The women chosen also include some young candidates such as:

■ Vicky Fowler, 22, a councillor at 20 who beat the former BBC Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly to the candidacy for Nuneaton, Warwickshire

■ Veronica Bennett, 24, for South Ribble, Lancashire, a Labour councillor who worked as an assistant to a Liverpool MP after studying theology at Cambridge University

■ Rowenna Davis, 28, a freelance journalist, for Southampton Itchen

■ Tulip Siddiq, 31, niece of the Bangladeshi prime minister, who is contesting Glenda Jackson’s seat of Hampstead and Kilburn, which has a margin of only 42 votes, the narrowest in England.

At the 2010 general election Labour fielded 190 women candidates, 30% of the total, as opposed to 166 (26%) in 2005 and 149 (23%) in 2001. The percentage so far for the next election is running at just over 50%, but that is unlikely to be sustained all the way to polling day.

Critics also point out that the number of women who stand is not the issue — it is whether they stand in seats where they are expected to win.

Labour’s national executive committee decides which constituencies will select from women only and it has a policy that 50% of candidates in winnable seats should be women. By contrast, an analysis of Conservative candidates found only 14 of the 48 so far selected were women.

Charlie Woodworth of the Fawcett Society said: “At this stage in the cycle, we don’t know that these figures [for Labour] will translate into a higher number of women MPs. But an equal split between men and women in the candidates selected so far can only be a good thing.

“Men outnumber women four to one in parliament — women make up just 22.5% of MPs. Worse, progress is agonisingly slow — since 2000, the number of women in the Commons has increased by just 4%.”

Veronica Bennett is a candidate in South Ribble, LancashirePeter Kellner, president of YouGov, the polling organisation, said there was no discernible effect on voters if the candidate was selected from an all-women shortlist. “If there are very few women being selected on open contests, then it has got worse for Labour since 1997, when a lot of women Labour MPs were elected for the first time and had been selected from open lists,” he added.

Ethnic minorities may feel they have been forgotten by the party, however, as among the 103 candidates there are only eight from a black or ethnic minority background. The influence of the trade unions remains undiminished with about 25% of candidates being officially endorsed by a union.

Additional reporting: Victoria Lim

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