In recent weeks, both here and elsewhere, I have covered an emerging problem for CCHQ in candidate selection: the low number of women being chosen. Whether the Conservatives win or lose the next election, 20 years of work in getting more female Tories elected could be reversed.
As a Daily Telegraph article noted, as of two Mondays ago, only one in four of new Tory candidates – 17 – chosen to stand in an English constituency at the next general election were women. That fell to only 16 per cent in selection contests between June and September.
Around a quarter of Conservative MPs are women, a share that has rapidly increased in the last two decades. 87 female Tory MPs were elected in 2019 – 32 per cent of the total. That was up from 49 in 2010, and 13 per cent in 1997.
Since female Tory MPs retire at a faster rate than men, this raised the prospect of the percentage of women on the Conservative benches falling after the next election. This is a problem for a party that does worse with female voters than male, and which aspires to a 50/50 gender split in candidates – at least according to Greg Hands.
The reason for this has been the longer lead-up to the next election, which has reduced CCHQ’s hand in selections, and the tendency for associations to choose “local champions” over CCHQ favourites. Since around seven in ten Tory members or local councilors, this creates a structural bias towards the selection of men.
Women already face greater challenges than men in getting selected, as Dolly Theis has previously highlighted, despite the best efforts of organisations like the Conservative Women’s Organisation and Women2Win. This trend raised the spectre of all-women short-lists being introduced by the back door, like in Dorking and Horley, where the long-list was six-sevenths female.
However, several recent selections might disprove this. I covered Aisha Cuthbert’s selection in Sittingbourne and Sheppey and Laura-Beth Thompson’s in Heywood and Middleton last week. They have just been joined by Aphra Brandreth in Chester South and Eddisbury and Laura Saunders in Bristol North West.
However, before Greg Hands can get out the bubbly, one should strike a note of caution. Not only are the seats themselves a mixed bag when it comes to the chances of Conservative victory, but so are the circumstances in which candidates were selected.
Take Brandreth. Having unsuccessfully stood in several seats previously, it will be a relief to her (and CCHQ) that she has now been selected in Chester. A local source tells me she was “highly impressive”, won on the first ballot, and benefited from her father being a previous local MP.
But Brandreth hadn’t originally been in the final three. She was the reserve, replacing Adam Wordsworth, who was removed by CCHQ after a local dispute involving Kieran Mullan, the sitting MP for Crewe and Nantwich, and another short-list member alongside Sanjoy Sen, our frequent contributer.
Mullan came last on the day, with local tensions and a dislike of his apparent “chicken-run” being reasons locals gave to me for his placing. Nonetheless, one gets the impression that Wordsworth would have won had he stood, meaning Brandreth’s selection was partly a happy accident.
Her new seat also looks somewhat precarious based on current polling. Electoral Calculus predicts it narrowly going to Labour. One imagines Brandreth would rather not imitate her father in being swept away by a Labour landslide.
Still, she has a better chance of being elected than Thompson or Saunders, who are both only given two per cent chances of victory by Electoral Calculus. Ensuring the female share of Tory MPs doesn’t fall, whatever the result, requires more standing in safe seats, like Dorking and Horley or Sittingbourne and Sheppey, rather than in precarious marginals or no-hopers.
It would also require those seats that already have a female Conservative MP at least select a female candidate to fight it, let alone win it. That is not the case in Norwich North, where Nick Rose, a former Bournemouth Councillor and reservist, has been selected to replace Chloe Smith.
As such, these recent selections have done little to move the dial. If Hands is serious about being “worried” about female selections, watch out for the long-lists in Chris Grayling’s and John Baron’s recently vacated constituencies. The spectre of all-women short-lists – or at least female-leaning long-lists – still looms.