The evidence that today’s Conservative Party discriminates against women is overwhelming. Only 8% of Conservative MPs are women (compared to 24% of Labour MPs). Despite the Party leadership’s recent attempts to break down discrimination, only 21% of candidates selected since 1997 have been women – and most of those have been chosen for unwinnable seats. A huge pool of talent is being ignored – probably illegally: it may only be a matter of time before a case of discrimination is brought against the Party.
The Party must change – and not just for reasons of fairness and efficiency. It is also a question of political expediency. The Conservative Party has lost touch with women voters. In the 1997 General Election, the Conservative share of the women’s vote fell faster than that of men. Amongst women in the 18 to 35 age group, the Labour Party secured a 22% lead over the Conservatives.
The Conservative Party has been slow to recognise the extent to which the position of women in British society has changed in the last thirty years. Women are now more economically independent than ever before. Today, among childless couples with degrees, for example, women provide 48% of the household income. In every walk of life, their professional involvement is increasing. The Conservative Party, normally so closely attuned to the changing needs and aspirations of the electorate, has failed to keep up.
Ironically, it has been the Conservative Party which, in the past, did most to promote the role of women – from granting full universal suffrage in 1928 to the selection of Margaret Thatcher as party leader in 1975 to the economic liberalisation of the 1980s which saw more and more women join the workforce. And the party owed much of this success this century to its electoral appeal to women – if women had voted the same way as men, the Conservatives would have hardly won any elections at all since 1945.
The leadership of the Party must now act if it is to recapture the allegiance of women voters. It must make every effort to increase the proportion of women candidates selected for winnable seats – a target of 30% for the next election and 40% thereafter should be actively pursued. And, as it did during the great days of greatest electoral success, it should unashamedly promote policies and themes which appeal to today’s women. Only then will it regain the confidence of 52% of the electorate.