By Sian Norris
The Labour landslide in 1997 was significant for a number of reasons, not least that it delivered a record number of women MPs to parliament. The election saw 120 women move in to the House of Commons – and of the 65 new Labour women joining parliament, 35 were elected via all-women shortlists. It proved what could happen when a party takes positive action to increase women's representation in politics.
In January this year the women and equalities select committee recommended that parliament should have at least 45% women MPs. In her report Good Parliament, Professor Sarah Childs suggested that we introduce statutory "sex/gender quotas prior to dissolution for the 2020 general election, to take effect for the 2025 general election if, three months prior to the 2020 general election, political parties currently represented in parliament have failed to select at least 50% women in a party's 'vacant held' and 'target seats'."
However, the committee must now brace itself for disappointment. According to academics at Parliamentary Candidates UK, and the Election Forecast, the number of women MPs after June 8th is likely to fall once the votes are counted. The predicted Tory win will, they believe, decrease women MPs from 196 to 194.
Although this would be a slight improvement on the number of women elected in 2015, it is down on the number at the time parliament was dissolved in March. It would be the first time in 20 years that women's representation started to go backwards.
Their analysis, which was carried out before the manifesto launches, suggests that Conservatives will return 98 women MPs and Labour 73. Although this means that for the first time the Tories will have a greater number of women in parliament than Labour, the Conservatives still lag behind when it comes to the proportion of women MPs. The projections from Parliamentary Candidates UK and the Election Forecast show that only 25% of Tory MPs will be women, compared to 46% for Labour.
A reduction of two women MPs might seem like a small number. But it's symbolic of how we can take progress for granted. It also proves the need for taking positive steps to increase women's representation. We cannot rest on our laurels and expect it to improve on its own.
The increase of women MPs since 1997 has been achieved, in part, thanks to Labour taking affirmative action through all-women shortlists. If the party does better on June 8th than first predicted, it is likely that female representation would be greater than predicted in the research mentioned above.
The Conservative party has resisted what is often called 'positive discrimination'. According to Women at the Top (Sarah Childs, Joni Lovenduski and Rosie Campbell), the party was "opposed to equality guarantees on the basis that such measures offend principles of meritocracy". Of course, all political parties have always been perfectly comfortable with all-male shortlists. A fact which rarely gets mentioned.
"The global evidence is clear: quotas for women in politics work," Professor Sarah Childs says. "Most of the countries with more than 30% women have some form of quota. This was true in the UK with Labour's all-women shortlists."
Childs also points out that that we should focus on all-women shortlists in winnable seats.
A reduced intake of women MPs is arguably the result of taking a more laissez-faire attitude to women's representation in politics and highlights the difference in approach between Labour and the Tories. There are Conservative party initiatives such as Women2Win that aim to encourage women to stand for election. However, the party's lack of affirmative action means that if they win a big majority, their low percentage of women MPs will result in women's representation decreasing.
If the party had taken a more positive approach, then we would instead see an increased number of women parliamentarians. As Childs said when I asked for her views on the predicted drop: "The key at this election is not just number of women MPs which each party has, but what percentage of each party is made up by women."
Should parliament return fewer women MPs on June 8th, it would represent a regressive step that the next election must make a concerted effort to reverse. In 2022 all political parties need to commit to following the Good Parliament recommendations. This way, we can ensure an increase in the number of women standing for election. To do otherwise is to risk continuing a trend where women's representation goes into decline.
This involves, as Childs asserts, using all-women shortlists and quotas in winnable seats. But it also means tackling the increased abuse to, and threats made against, women in public life. Diane Abbott recently told the Guardian that if she were a young politician today, she would think twice about standing due to the level of racism and misogyny thrown at black women MPs. Last year popular MP Jess Phillips had to have security measures put into her home and an overwhelming number of women MPs testify that the amount of violent abuse and threats they receive has increased in recent years.
It's less than a year ago, after all, that Jo Cox was murdered on the streets of her constituency.
We need to create a political system where women are actively promoted within politics, and can do their jobs without fear of violence and intimidation. If we don't do so, we will end up with ever decreasing numbers of women in the House of Commons, women's rights will slip from the political agenda and girls growing up will not be able to look to parliament and imagine themselves taking their seat on the green benches.
Our parliament already lags behind on women's representation – ranking 48th in the world. On June 8th, 7.5 million people in over 100 constituencies won't have the chance to vote for a woman candidate at all. At a time when we should be seeing an upward trend when it comes to women MPs, a regression in 2017 will be shameful.
Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. Follow her on Twitter here.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.