The Prime Minister is “frustrated and exercised” by the reluctance of local Conservative associations to select more female candidates, we report today. To David Cameron’s credit, his frustration has been fairly consistent since he was elected Tory leader eight years ago. More than that, he has done something about it. The proportion of Conservative MPs who are women rose sharply at the 2010 election, from 9 to 16 per cent.
The pace of change is now slowing, however. Approximately one-third of candidates selected for winnable seats for the 2015 general election are female, which means that although the proportion of women is likely to advance in next year’s ballot, it will do so by only a very little.
In fairness, Mr Cameron has done about as much as can be done without resorting to all-female shortlists, thereby reserving some seats for women. The Prime Minister has used the resources of Conservative Central Office to promote a strongly female A-list; he has experimented with open primaries, one of which selected Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes; he has bullied and cajoled as much as the leader of a party of fiercely independent local associations can do. At this rate, the Tories will get closer to the proportion of female Labour MPs –31 per cent – but are unlikely ever to achieve it. Indeed, the history of women’s representation in Britain suggests Mr Cameron has reached the limits of what can be achieved by exhortation and “positive action”.
The greatest advance was secured in 1997 by the Labour Party’s policy of all-women shortlists, which raised the share of its MPs who were women from 14 to 24 per cent, and doubled the total number of women in the House of Commons. That policy, which is in effect a quota, is objectionable in principle – hence it being ruled unlawful before the 1997 election. But it was reinstated by the Labour government, and it is a sadly necessary emergency measure.
There is simply no other effective way to achieve the one-off increase in women’s representation that allows equality of respect between the sexes. Mr Cameron should swallow his admirable principles and assuage his frustration by making the case to his party for a one-time-only use of all-women shortlists.