Sex, Gender and the Conservative Party: From Iron Lady to Kitten Heels

March 15, 2012

The altered gender balance among Conservative MPs after the 2010 general election was noticeable. Yet, despite a well-publicised pledge by David Cameron to increase the number of female and ethnic-minority Conservative candidates, the 48 women elected represent just 15.7 per cent of the parliamentary party - an increase of 7.1 per cent. This compares poorly with the Labour Party, which despite losing 98 seats, increased its proportion of female MPs to 31.6 per cent.

Was this a result of antipathetic attitudes among supporters? Or was it due to continuing bias against women in selection processes? Or was it simply a question of prioritising other issues? Evidence-based answers to such questions can be derived from this meticulous academic study by Sarah Childs and Paul Webb, who investigate the views of party members, voters and parliamentarians and question whether Cameron's Conservative Party has changed significantly in terms of promoting gender equality. They conclude that changes have been limited in scope and effect.

The authors argue that Cameron's much-publicised "A-List" prioritising aspiring female and ethnic minority candidates, which fell short of providing the equality guarantees of all-female shortlists, was not well received. It was widely seen as interference by the leadership or as a challenge to the view that candidates should be chosen on merit alone, and Cameron downgraded its adoption from compulsory to voluntary. Nevertheless, by providing opportunities for more women to become candidates, the "A-List" promoted greater descriptive representation in Parliament. It did not, however, enhance substantive representation in terms of leading to policy that benefited women specifically.

Nor were Cameron's reforms to party organisation especially helpful in this regard. Women's interests were not at the forefront of the policy review process, and the Conservative Women's Organisation was not always taken seriously. Despite this, the group's report, Women in the World Today, was favourably received and fed into the manifesto. In reality, it was often the efforts undertaken by "critical actors" rather than organisational reform that made a difference. Prominent here was Theresa May's role, in opposition, as shadow minister for women.

Childs and Webb contend that Cameron failed to capitalise on opportunities to raise the level of women's descriptive representation further because of opposition within the party. Indeed, in accepting the "A-List", even to a degree, it was as though the party had "swallowed a wasp" and was unprepared to compromise further. It is also likely that the party will revert to more traditional candidate selection procedures in 2015.

Gender-equality reform was, of course, only one element in Cameron's strategy of modernisation and decontamination of the Tories' image as the "nasty party". Giving priority to dealing with the economic crisis also helped in downgrading the importance of gender-related issues, and policies designed to cut public expenditure and reform of the NHS and welfare systems are seen by many as especially detrimental to women. Indeed, these reforms may be driving female voters away from the party, as opinion polls carried out throughout 2011 attest.

Although it is not an easy read, this book is a valuable contribution to the literature on gender and politics. It is greatly welcome both as a discussion and as a source of evidence for understanding better the role of women within the Conservative Party and the development of the party's ideas and strategy concerning gender. It also brings these elements into the mainstream of the debate on feminism, which is traditionally seen as a fiefdom of the Left. The views of many Conservative women may not be feminist according to commonly held definitions, but they represent an approach to enhancing the descriptive and substantive representation of women that needs to be addressed.

Sex, Gender and the Conservative Party: From Iron Lady to Kitten Heels

By Sarah Childs and Paul Webb. Palgrave Macmillan, 320pp, £60.00. ISBN 97802309001. Published 15 November 2011.

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