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Positive discrimination and all-women shortlists are not going down well with the Conservative rank and file. Colin...
Positive discrimination and all-women shortlists are not going down well with the Conservative rank and file. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher report

Last month's by-elections and capricious opinion poll ratings reinforce the difficulties facing Conservative recovery. Progress is sluggish and unstable; the party merely swapping seats with independents during September and a slender poll lead not surviving Labour's post-conference bounce.

This week's conference provided David Cameron with another opportunity to plead his case for modernisation. For some commentators the party will never develop a wider electoral appeal while its establishment is dominated by the public school educated and the Notting Hill set. Mr Cameron himself is trying to break down the barriers, calling particularly for the recruitment of more women and ethnic minority candidates, but the constituency parties are proving intransigent. It is almost a badge of honour to ignore the leader's so-called A-list when selecting candidates to fight the next general election.

The detailed evidence from May's local elections demonstrates further how hard it will be to create a more socially inclusive party. Among the parties the Conservatives were least likely, for example, to

select a woman candidate. Of their more than four thousand candidates, just over a thousand, 29.7%, were women. By contrast, the equivalent figures for Labour and Liberal Democrats are 33% and 34% respectively. And although the Green Party contested fewer seats more than 500, 41.3%, of its candidates was female. In London, where we might perhaps expect more sympathy for the modernisation drive, the proportion of Conservative women candidates was below the national average.

This would matter less if the party ensured that when it did select a woman it did so either for a seat certain to remain in the party's control or in a target ward with a strong likelihood of success. Once again, however, the news is discouraging and highlights two critical issues that confront Mr Cameron.

First, it is difficult for a party to change while so many of the old guard, largely men, hang on to office. The 2006 elections show large numbers of Tory incumbents seeking and winning re-election. In fact, 91.4% of these were re-elected. Although Labour incumbents were more numerous they were more vulnerable to defeat, and only 75% were successful. Ironically, a party that suffers electoral defeat is provided with a bigger opportunity to transform its social base. This happened to the Conservatives a decade ago but there has been little sign since then of recruiting more women to its ranks.

A second critical issue that follows from the 2006 local elections is that Conservative women candidates have less chance of being selected for winnable seats than Labour women. Just over 500 women were elected for each of the two main parties but while these accounted for 35% of Labour's victories, just 28.4% of Conservative councillors elected in2006 are women. This further confirms Labour's key advantage in its appeal to more than half the total


In Tony Blair's farewell speech at the Manchester Conference he set great store by the party's success in increasing women's representation in the Commons. While Labour women account for 27.6% of the party's MPs, the corresponding figure for the Conservatives remains 8.6%.

David Cameron's attempted manipulation of the party's parliamentary selection process is, of course, a policy of positive discrimination. But such a course of action is anathema to many sections of the party.

Indeed, positive discrimination is opposed by a majority of candidates fighting local elections. Last May a colleague in the LGC Elections Centre, Mary Shears, conducted the largest ever survey of local election candidates, receiving replies from over 1000. Her survey shows a paradox confronting Cameron and his modernisation hopes.

Although over half of candidates want more women elected, three-quarters are against the use of all-women shortlists and half are against the use of quotas. The message is clear: we approve the ends but not these means. Of course, many candidates that contest local elections are likely also to be the activists that comprise the local party organisations that help to select the next generation of candidates. This should give modernists in the Conservative Party plenty of food for thought.

Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher Directors, LGC Election Centre, University of Plymouth. The 22nd Local Election Handbook will be published later this month.

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