©UK Parliament/Andy Bailey

The urgent need for more women MPs: how to ensure progress beyond the election

This month saw some great women elected as mayors — a cause for celebration. But  only three of England’s eleven regions are represented by elected female mayors. That’s just 27%. Of the fourteen elected city mayors, just five or 36% are women.

And what of parliament? In what is almost certainly an election year? At present, women only hold 35% of seats in the House of Commons. The UK is currently ranked 46th in the world in terms of female representation — not exactly a good place to be for the so-called ‘Mother of Parliaments’. With just 564 female MPs in the history of parliament, their collective presence wouldn’t even fill its chamber—a sobering reminder of the work that lies ahead.

The significant underrepresentation of women not only undermines the principles of fairness and equality but also poses a threat to our democracy. The imperative for more women MPs extends beyond mere parity; it is fundamentally about enhancing the efficacy and inclusivity of our legislative bodies. More gender equal parliaments are more likely to enact legislation that reflects women’s concerns, as well as ensuring a fairer distribution of public services and benefits. There are exceptions to the rule, but time and time again, we see that women bring broader perspectives to the table and that they foster collaborative and inclusive leadership styles that result in stronger decision-making and governance. Greater diversity creates a virtuous circle that benefits everyone — if women see themselves represented equally in parliament they are more likely to feel they belong and men’s behaviour towards their female colleagues also changes.

As we approach the centenary of equal suffrage, the desire to celebrate this milestone with equal representation in parliament grows ever stronger. There is a danger, however, that significant strides may not be made in the upcoming election, potentially even seeing progress stalling toward this crucial goal. That makes the aim of gender parity by 2028 really challenging.

Centenary Action is actively urging political parties to take concrete steps toward achieving gender parity by 2028. Achieving this goal hinges on the outcome of the forthcoming election which presents a pivotal opportunity to increase the proportion of women MPs. Whether this opportunity materialises depends largely on the selection of candidates by political parties. In their recent report, Diversity in the next parliament, British Future suggested that, with the expected swing to Labour, women MPs could account for 40% which, although an increase, remains some way short of the 50% target and leaves a lot of work to do in the next parliament.

Centenary Action’s data, collected alongside 50:50 Parliament and Chamber UK, shows a similar picture. It’s likely that close to 50% of Labour and Lib Dems MPs will be women after the next election but there is a mixed picture among other parties and it looks like the overall percentage will fall well short of 50%. Unfortunately, the lack of transparency around candidate selection has made it difficult to hold the parties to account. Information from the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP has been shared with us but we have had to scrutinise publicly available information in relation to the other parties to assess the progress.

We strongly believe that we will not reach the 2028 target without greater transparency around selection — better systems around the selection process are key. To ensure progress towards women’s representation does not stagnate, parties must be more open about their progress so that women inside and outside the political parties can hold them to account more effectively. Although many seats have now been selected there is still a window of opportunity – some vacancies remain and there will likely be resignations of several MPs in safe seats much closer to the election. These are precious and shrinking opportunities to further increase the percentage of women in parliament.

One critical step toward greater transparency would be the enactment of Section 106 of the Equality Act, which mandates the publication of diversity data on election candidates by political parties. While some parties, such as Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP, have committed to bringing the legislation into force, and there have been voluntary commitments to publish data, the full implementation of the measures remains elusive. We hope to see progress on this in the next Parliament. But it’s not enough to release this data post-election; it must be made available to the public on an ongoing basis and before the election, allowing for informed scrutiny and accountability.

The need for more women MPs is not merely a matter of equality but a prerequisite for a truly representative and effective democracy. It’s also what women voters want to see with 66% thinking there should be more women MPs. As we stand on the precipice of a new election cycle, it is incumbent upon all political parties to prioritise gender equality in candidate selection and to uphold transparency in their processes. Only through concerted and sustained efforts can we ensure that we move substantially closer to progress toward gender parity in parliament and this is a prerequisite to a truly inclusive and effective democracy.

As my grandmother Sylvia said: ‘Great is the work that remains to be accomplished’

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