By Prof. Laura McCallister
In 2013, the Electoral Reform Society Cymru published its first annual Welsh Power Report which explored the position of women in public life. The report showed how, a century on from women gaining the right to vote, levels of women’s representation in some parts of Welsh public life remains little changed.
During the last decade, the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government were world leaders in women’s representation. From 2000-2005 over half of all cabinet ministers, and from 2005-2007 over half of all Assembly Members were women – a global first. But that early promise has stalled and as this report shows, Wales now risks falling back.
In both of the last two devolved elections, the number of women AMs elected has fallen, as women elected for the first time in 1999 retired and many were replaced by men. Early positive action by Labour and Plaid Cymru created an ‘incumbency overhang’: women first elected in 1999 or 2003 stood more of a chance of re-selection and re-election in subsequent elections, thus boosting the overall number of women in the Assembly. But as Labour and Plaid Cymru shied away from positive measures like twinning constituencies and reserved places at the top of regional lists, men began to replace women. Furthermore, at the 2011 election, some women from the 1999 and 2003 intakes retired and were often replaced by men. This creates a new incumbency overhang which works in favour of men, and challenges further drives towards gender equality.
This invaluable Electoral Reform Society Cymru’s analysis warns that the number of women elected at this election could fall to as low as 22 and projects a ‘high’ of 28. The most likely scenario is that the final tally will be somewhere in the middle, meaning this will be the third election where the number of women has stalled. It remains to be seen whether this lack of progress is a part of an organic change (one that will level itself out in future elections), or a symptom of longer-term decline which will accelerate as the last of the 1999 and more of the 2003 and 2007 intakes retire.
Whilst individual parties are taking some action, it would be naive to be confident about the future. Without a renewed commitment from political parties, Wales will become another mid-table nation in the global gender equality league. The progress made during the early days of devolution will have been a blip, rather than the start of a positive transformation of Welsh public life.