Missed opportunity risk on representation for women and minorities in ‘Big Change’ election

Politics in 2024 will see a long wait for the General Election – probably until November or even December. This could well be a ‘big change’ election when it comes.

The British public rarely votes a Prime Minister out and a new government in at a General Election. Consider that Rishi Sunak, aged 43 and three-quarters, has seen that happen only once in his adult lifetime – when David Cameron needed a coalition to make it to Downing Street in 2010 – as Sunak was only turning seventeen when Tony Blair was elected in 1997.

Those 1997 and 2010 General Elections were also the two contests in the last 75 years when more than a third of MPs were newly elected. There is a strong chance that the 2024 General Election will emulate that – with 85 MPs already having announced that they do not intend to stand again, even before any changes in seats between the parties are taken into account.

Whatever the political outcome, the next House of Commons will contain a record number of ethnic minority and women MPs.

British Future has analysed the pattern to date of retirements and candidate selections to replace retiring MPs or to contest marginal seats, and which seats each party would expect to win in different outcomes. This has enabled us to make initial projections of both the ethnic diversity and gender balance of the Commons in different scenarios.

The number of ethnic minority MPs will rise from 65 in 2019 to at least 75 black, Asian and mixed race MPs, perhaps over 80. That would represent a five-fold increase in a decade and a half. There were only 15 ethnic minority MPs – 2.5% of the Commons – prior to the 2010 General Election. The projected rise from 2024 from 10% to 12-13% captures how the gap between the ethnic diversity of the Commons and the society that it serves continues to narrow. But we would need the figure to be closer to 100 ethnic minority MPs for Parliament to reflect the electorate, of whom 15% will be from an ethnic minority background in this General Election.

The party political outcome makes strikingly little difference to the ethnic diversity of the Commons, which will rise in all political scenarios. Ethnic minority MPs are less likely to be among the longest serving MPs and so have been half as likely to retire. Across parties, they also hold safer seats than average. Black and Asian Conservatives make up only 6% of the current parliamentary group but hold a dozen of the party’s hundred safest seats. There is now a 12% ethnic minority selection rate across the Conservative and Labour parties in winnable seats – a rise for the Conservatives, but for Labour a lower proportion than among the existing Parliamentary Labour Party, of whom 20% are from a minority background. The reason is that Labour has so far been much more likely to select ethnic minority candidates in the few seats where Labour MPs are retiring, with 7 out of 14 selections, than in the target seats it must gain: there are only a dozen ethnic minority candidates so far in the 127 seats that would take Keir Starmer across the winning line.

The number of female MPs will be above the 225 out of 650 (35%) elected in 2019 – but the projected advance may be more incremental than impressive. On gender, whether and how the political pendulum swings between parties will make rather more difference in 2024 than it would on ethnic diversity. There may be only 10 more women in the Commons – the proportion barely edging up to 36% – if the Conservatives repeat their 2019 election victory. There would be over 250 female MPs (38%) if Labour won a slim majority, rising above 40%, perhaps to 270 or more, in a Labour landslide.

Men have been selected as candidates more often this time around. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both currently have more female than male MPs sitting in the Commons – but that is not the case in the new selections. If Labour makes the 127 gains it needs for an overall majority, the cohort of newly elected ‘Class of 2024’ MPs would include 49 women and 80 men. This would be the first time since 2001 that the incoming cohort was more male-dominated than the Parliamentary Labour Party as a whole. If the Liberal Democrats do make 20 gains, the selection analysis shows 13 men and 6 women selected in their top 20 target seats so far. Both parties would rely on returning incumbents to provide more gender balance in their parliamentary group.

Why gender diversity is stalling is not fully known. All parties are placing a stronger emphasis on local connections, but there are as many local women as local men in most areas. Around half of the Class of 2024 candidates being selected are local councillors and this may impact on gender balance: 68% of Conservative councillors are men, with a 60-40 male/female ratio among Lib Dem councillors. But over half (52%) of Labour councillors are women, so the higher proportion of councillors can only be a partial explanation of the gender selections across parties.

The barriers may have shifted from thirty years ago: party selectorates are less likely to have a stereotypical image of what voters expect an MP to look like. But the time demands and financial pressures that parties place on those hoping to become candidates may impact differently on men and women when juggling work, family and voluntary political commitments. The parties and the Commons authorities could do more to collect authoritative data on gender, ethnicity, social class and disability to inform stronger scrutiny of progress and barriers, and to inform strategies for change.

Conservative Party Chair Greg Hands is among those to express concern about the gender balance of candidates in this round of selections, saying his party should aspire to a 50-50 balance in candidate selection. Jemima Olchawski of the Fawcett Society is among those urging party leaders and selectorates to do more to ensure the final selections do give fair chances to all candidates.

Party selections to date have chosen probably nine out of ten of those who will make up the House of Commons Class of 2024. This initial snapshot does capture the likely contours of the next parliament but it is not yet the final picture. There is still time to avoid a big change election becoming a missed opportunity for more equal voice, power and representation in parliament.

Sunder Katwala

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future, a non-partisan thinktank and charity, and the author of the book 'How to be a Patriot'. He has previously worked as a journalist and was also general secretary of the Fabian Society thinktank from 2003 to 2011. Prior to that he was a leader writer and internet editor at the Observer, a research director of the Foreign Policy Centre and commissioning editor for politics and economics at the publisher Macmillan.

For information about about the work of British Future, visit: https://www.britishfuture.org