Writing about a paucity of female Conservative candidates seems slightly odd on the day upon which the party (rather unexpectedly) gained its newest female MP. But since Lisa Cameron does not apparently plan on standing at the next election, we can politely ignore her case when we analyse a trend in the ongoing selection process.
Much has been made, first at ConservativeHome, and then more widely, of the trend towards ‘local heroes’ in the recent selection of candidates for winnable seats at the next election. Michael Crick – my candidates frenemy – calculates two-thirds of current Tory nominees are current or former councilors. Those with a connection to the local area – however oblique – are even higher.
Myself, our Editor, and the peerless Daniel Hannan have all explained my this is a worrying trend. A Parliament made up of local councillors is one that increasingly fails to make decisions in the national interest. Our current self-defeating indulgence of backbench NIMBYism will only grow, as the pool for of future ministerial talent progressively shrinks.
Nevertheless, CCHQ is currently finding another statistic even more worrying. As of last month, only 16 per cent of those selected in Tory-held seats since June had been women. That’s lower than the current percentage of women on the Conservative benches (around one-quarter). It’s hardly a good sign for a party that may have produced three female PMs, but increasingly struggles for their votes.
Although obvious exceptions – like Katie Lam in Weald of Kent, or Faye Purbrick in Glastonbury and Somerton – exist, the fear is that two decades’ worth of success in encouraging more women to be Conservative MPs is about to be reversed. At the last election, 32 per cent of new Conservative MPs were women. 87 female Tories were elected – up from 49 in 2010, and 13 in 1997.
When ConservativeHome interviewed Greg Hands last month, he expressed concern that he was “very worried” about this trend. He suggested the reason was that “people have been selecting more locally” and we need “more women councillors” and “more women involved at all levels of the Conservative Party”. He suggested he was “looking at different ways we can do something about it”.
Some readers might think this is not much of a problem. Shouldn’t candidates be selected on their merit, not their sex? For every Margaret Thatcher, there is a Liz Truss. It might just so have happened that the best candidate in more instances was a man, and that more men had initially put themselves forward. Attempts to interfere would be a return to the secrecy and deception of the A-List.
Yet, as Dolly Theis has previously highlighted for us, women face a greater number of barriers towards becoming MPs than men. They are less socialised than men into considering standing and face more barriers when it comes to time and money – some fruitless selection attempts have cost around £20,000 – and are turned off by a boy’s club culture that endures despite numerous reforms.
Moreover, any reader who looks at a 28-point gap between Labour and the Tories amongst women and doesn’t think the party has a problem must take a long hard look at themselves. Having more female MPs – or at least keeping the present ratio – is not a silver bullet. But women are an obvious part of that conversation (especially when Labour finds them so difficult to define).
So how can we try to avoid the situation in seats like Windsor of all-male final shortlists? As Dehenna Davison has pointed out, groups like Women2Win and the Conservative Women’s Organisation have long played a sterling in providing training and encouragement to potential female candidates. But with an election in the next year, a solution is required that is rather more urgent.
The spectre of the A-List still looms, even if such an approach produced such noted champions of w*kery Liz Truss and Priti Patel. The speed at which the last two elections were called allowed CCHQ to somewhat lean on the scales when it came to selections. That is one reason why associations seems to be currently pushing back against it.
Has CCHQ begun placing forwards a greater number of female candidates – all women’s short-lists, by the backdoor? In Dorking and Horley, six of the final seven long-listed were women – and the final three were female. Could this become more of a trend, as Hands and co seek to surreptitiously rebalance the scales in favour of female candidates by providing long-lists disproportionately featuring them?
It has its merits – it does allow local members to still exercise a degree of control and avoids the explicit approach long since taken by Labour. But it also raises challenges. What happens if female candidates with little experience are fast-tracked onto the candidates list? A local suggested to me that this had happened in Dorking and Horley, with “dramatic” results. It will also provoke the ire of male members.
Yet if members find some form of all-women’s short-list – explicit or not – being imposed, they only have themselves to blame. Boris Johnson once backed a 50:50 Parliament. To reach one, without imposing quotas, requires some degree of tacit acceptance that female candidate will need to be pushed forwards. Members ignore this in favour of favourite sons at their peril.