Euro elections show how Westminster’s first past the post holds back women

Michela Palese
Author:
Michela Palese

Posted on the 23rd May 2019

Elections to the European Parliament take place today across the UK. As we’ve talked about in a previous blog post, the UK’s 73 MEPs will be elected using proportional representation (PR). In Great Britain, the closed Party List system is used, while Northern Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote.

The diversity of candidates and MEPs is a lesser considered aspect of European Parliament elections, even though analysis of electoral systems around the world shows that women do much better under PR systems than under First Past the Post. Results of European Parliament elections show that this is, in fact, the case: the percentage of parties’ female MEPs has increased considerably over the years and, in particular, following the switch to PR for European elections in 1999 (Table 1). In 2014, 41% of UK MEPs elected were women, an increase of 27 percentage points on the number of women elected in 1979 at the first European Parliament elections (14%).

Table 1: Female UK MEPs in the European Parliament (Percentage of party’s MEPs)

Con Lab LD Other Total
1979 10% 24% 25% 14%
1984 13% 16% 25% 15%
1989 13% 16% 25% 15%
1994 11% 21% 0% 20% 18%
1999 8% 34% 50% 25% 24%
2004 7% 37% 50% 20% 24%
2009 24% 38% 55% 30% 33%
2014 32% 55% 100% 40% 43%

Source: House of Commons Library

Even though the 2017 UK general election returned the most diverse parliament ever (Table 2), female MPs still only make up 32% of the Commons. Each party’s percentage of female MPs is also lower than the equivalent percentage for that party’s female MEPs. First Past the Post not only generates disproportional results and reduces voter choice, but it also negatively affects women’s representation.

Table 2: Female UK MPs in the House of Commons after the 2017 general election

Political Party Number of MPs Number of Female MPs Percentage of Party’s MPs
House of Commons 650 208 32%
Conservative 317 67 21%
Labour 262 119 45%
Liberal Democrat 12 4 33%
Other 57 17 30%

Even less is known about the diversity of candidates, as opposed to elected MEPs, up for election to the European Parliament. Currently, there is no official, consistent and good quality information on the diversity of those being selected for election at any level of government in the UK. This lack of data on candidate diversity means that it’s hard to identify if, where, and why selection processes might be hindering greater diversity of candidates, including female representation.

Primary legislation to address this information gap already exists in Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, but the government has yet to enact it. Section 106 would require political parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing in elections to the House of Commons, devolved administrations, and the European Parliament.

Given this lack of information, however, in order to assess the diversity of candidates in the current European elections, we used the BBC’s list of candidates to identify the number of female candidates for each of the parties standing candidates throughout Great Britain (thus excluding parties standing candidates in only one nation or region). The lack of accurate, party-generated diversity data means that the results below may not be 100% accurate as we identified gender on the basis of a candidate’s name or – where this was ambiguous – by searching them online.

As Table 3 shows, only three of the main parties that are standing candidates in throughout Great Britain have an average of 50% or more female MEP candidates. There is some variation across parties and regions in terms of the number of female candidates standing for each party – ranging from an average of 11% female MEP candidates for UKIP to an average of 53% women MEP candidates for the Labour Party and Change UK. The most significant figure in terms of gender representation is in the North East, where all three Change UK candidates are female.

Table 3: Female GB MEP candidates in the 2019 European Parliament election

Region MEPs to be elected Con Lab Lib Dem Change UK/TIG Green Brexit Party  UKIP
East Midlands 5 1 2 3 2 1 3 1
East of England 7 0 4 5 4 3 2 1
London 8 2 4 4 5 4 2 0
North East England 3 0 2 2 3 2 0 0
North West England 8 3 5 4 4 6 3 1
South East England 10 4 5 3 5 5 2 3
South West England 6 3 3 2 2 4 4 1
West Midlands 7 3 4 4 3 3 3 0
Yorkshire and the Humber 6 1 3 3 4 3 1 0
Scotland 6 3 3 3 3 4 1 1
Wales 4 1 2 1 2 0 1 0
TOTAL 70 21 37 34 37 35 22 8

Table 3.1: Female GB MEP candidates in the 2019 European Parliament election as a percentage of each party’s candidates

Region MEPs to be elected Con Lab Lib Dem Change UK/TIG Green Brexit Party UKIP
East Midlands 5 20% 40% 60% 60% 20% 60% 20%
East of England 7 0% 57% 71% 57% 43% 29% 14%
London 8 25% 50% 50% 63% 50% 25% 0%
North East England 3 0% 67% 67% 100% 67% 0% 0%
North West England 8 38% 63% 50% 50% 75% 38% 13%
South East England 10 40% 50% 30% 50% 50% 20% 30%
South West England 6 50% 50% 33% 33% 67% 67% 17%
West Midlands 7 43% 57% 57% 43% 43% 43% 0%
Yorkshire and the Humber 6 17% 50% 50% 67% 50% 17% 0%
Scotland 6 50% 50% 50% 50% 67% 17% 17%
Wales 4 25% 50% 25% 50% 0% 25% 0%
TOTAL 70 30% 53% 49% 53% 50% 31% 11%

Despite this variation and the fact that few parties have a gender-balanced slate of candidates, the percentage of female MEP candidates is much higher than the percentage of women candidates who stood at the 2017 general election (Table 4; please note that in order to compare female MEP candidates with female candidates in the 2017 general election, the parties under consideration are different from those in Table 3). There an average of only 29% of candidates were women, compared to 40% for the current European Parliament election. There was some variation across parties, with only 28% of Conservative Party candidates being female, compared to 41% for the Labour Party.

The results above illustrate how, in order to increase female representation in parliament, one needs more women candidates. European Parliament elections have a higher proportion of female MEP candidates – something which is facilitated by the PR voting system – which then translates in more female MEPs being elected, compared to elections to the House of Commons.

Table 4: Female candidates in the 2017 general election and 2019 European Parliament election by party


Source: Equality and Human Rights Commission; BBC News

One of the major obstacles to achieving fair representation of women in politics is that they are underrepresented among candidates. But we cannot monitor political diversity if we do not have good-quality, accurate, consistent data.

Political parties could play a vital role in addressing this lack of information by being asked to collect, collate and publish data on the diversity of candidates. The evidence indicates that parties are taking steps towards selecting a more diverse group of candidates, especially under a proportional voting system. But there is still a long way to go before our representatives truly represent the make-up of the country.

Equality legislation already exists, it just needs to be brought into force. The government should enact section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 to show its commitment to a more representative politics at all levels of government.

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