Centenary: Legacy of inequality in Westminster elections halting Welsh progress

Posted on the 14th February 2018

  • Statement from Electoral Reform Society Cymru.
  • Research finds over 80% of Welsh MPs first elected in 2010 or before and still holding their seats are male.
  • 15% of Welsh Parliamentary seats had no women as candidates in the 2017 General Election.
  • Jess Blair is available for interview. Please contact 07773555390/ jessica.blair@electoral-reform.org.uk

Progress in electing more women MPs in Wales is being held back by Westminster’s voting system, new research from ERS Cymru shows.

While new MPs elected between 2015 and 2017 are relatively gender balanced (40%), the vast majority of incumbents first elected prior to this are male.

Of Welsh MPs first elected in 2001 or earlier, 90% (nine out of ten) are male. And 81% of current Welsh MPs first elected in 2010 or earlier are men.

The dominance of male MPs among long-standing MPs has been described as ‘seat blocking’, slowing down progress in tackling gender inequality among our elected representatives.

The problem stems from the fact that long-held seats were first elected in much more unequal times.

Those MPs are able to hold on to their seats due to the single-member, closed-off nature of First Past the Post constituencies, as well the incumbency effect in Britain’s many ‘safe seats’.

On top of the historic failure of parties to field diverse candidates, progress has stalled in recent elections.

Out of a total 209 candidates for Welsh constituencies in the 2017 General Election just 63 were women, equating to just over 30%. ERS analysis shows that 15% of seats saw parties fail to put up a single female candidate.

The ERS is calling for multi-member seats under a proportional voting system to be introduced – to ensure all seats are properly contested, including by women.

Jess Blair, ERS Cymru Director, said:

“In a month for celebrating 100 years of women winning the right to vote, it is staggering that there is still such a huge gender gap when it comes to our political system.

“Westminster’s outdated voting system is holding back equality in Wales, with dozens of seats effectively ‘reserved’ for men first elected decades ago.

“Since there is only one representative per seat – unlike the system for Assembly elections – one person can control 100% of political power locally.  The single-member, closed-off nature of First Past the Post constituencies means there are often few opportunities for women to secure representation.

“This ‘seat blocking’ is holding back progress on gender equality in Wales. It’s time for a more open, multi-member system that gives voters real choice and diversity.  

“There has been a total failure of parties to take this seriously, with our research demonstrating that recent efforts to increase diversity have not gone far enough. Just 30% of candidates in total in Wales at the 2017 General Election were female, while in 15% of seats parties failed to put up a single female candidate. That is simply not good enough.

“Assembly elections, which use a different system to Westminster, we have had a much higher number of women winning seats – which means women’s representation in the Senedd has never dropped below 40% [table 4].

“In this centenary year, parties need to recognise how Westminster’s broken system is holding back women’s representation in Wales – and take action to ensure we have a political system properly representative of the people of Wales.”
Table 1. Number of Men and Women remaining as Welsh MPs from each election. Broadly speaking the longer an MP has been in Parliament, the more likely they are to be male.

Male Female Total Male % Female %
Total 29 11 40 72.5% 27.5%
1984 1 1 0.0% 100.0%
1987 1 1 100.0% 0.0%
1992 1 1 100.0% 0.0%
2001 7 7 100.0% 0.0%
2005 4 3 7 57.1% 42.9%
2010 8 1 9 88.9% 11.1%
2012 1 1 100.0% 0.0%
2015 4 4 8 50.0% 50.0%
2016 1 1 100.0% 0.0%
2017 2 2 4 50.0% 50.0%

Table 2. Cumulative number of MPs remaining from specific years

Years (MPs for Welsh seats since:) Male Female Total Male % Female %
2001 or before 9 1 10 90.0% 10.0%
2005 or before 13 4 17 76.5% 23.5%
2010 or before 21 5 26 80.8% 19.2%
2015 or before 26 9 35 74.3% 25.7%

Table 3. Total number of male and female candidates fielded by each party in General Election 2017 in Welsh constituencies.

Female candidates Male Total Female %
Labour 16 24 40 40%
Conservatives 13 27 40 32.5%
Plaid 11 29 40 27.5%
Lib Dems 13 26 39 33.3%
UKIP 7 25 32 21.9%
Greens 1 8 9 11.1%
Other 2 7 9 22.2%
Total 63 146 209 30.1%

Table 4. The % of women elected in the Assembly since 1999.

Women total Women %
2018-* 26 43.3%
2016-2017 25 41.7%
2011-16 25 41.7%
2007-11 28 46.7%
2005-07 31 51.7%
2003-05 30 50%
1999-2003 24 40%

*A change in a Member for North Wales has resulted in this variance.
The cause of seat blocking
Deselection of sitting MPs by constituency parties is relatively rare, which means a large proportion of Parliament is made up of men who have been there for quite some time.
Moreover, the longer MPs hold their seats for, the less likely deselection becomes. This and the prevalence of ‘safe seats’ under Westminster’s voting system means that once a seat is in an MPs hands, he can hold it for decades.
While parties have made strides in recent elections, progress is being held back by the fact that 80% of MPs first elected in 2010 or before are men – with little hope of diversity or space for new candidates unless they stand down.
Removing the barriers
Recent elections have seen parties redouble their efforts to select women in winnable seats. This has led to major progress in terms of new batches of MPs – as noted, there is near gender parity among current MPs who were first elected in 2015.
Therefore, calling for parties to do more with the handle of open seats will only produce modest gains from now on. We need to look more closely at the large number of seats which are effectively ‘reserved’ by incumbent men.
Multi-member seats and proportional voting systems ensure all elections are open to real competition – including when it comes to gender. First Past the Post (FPTP) is the world’s worst system for achieving gender balance.
These figures are for the total number of Welsh MPs remaining in Parliament from that election. These are also yearly dates, meaning if an MP was elected in a by election in 1997, which was a general election year, they would be included in with the rest from 1997.

Notes to Editors

[1] See here for the Electoral Reform Society’s press release based on UK-wide data.

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