The Women’s Equality Party will struggle to win seats, but it can push women’s issues up the political agenda

The Women’s Equality Party was founded earlier this year with the aim of promoting gender equality for the benefit of all. But what are its long term political prospects, and what hopes does it have of influencing those parties more likely to hold office? Kimberly Cowell-Meyers argues that while it may struggle to make an impact in an electoral sense, it may be able to use its significant media savvy – as evidenced by the presence of people like Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig in its upper echelons – to push women’s issues up the political agenda.

This blog was originally posted on Democratic Audit UK.

The TV host and WEP leading light Sandi Toksvig (Credit: CC BY 2.0)

When the UK’s new Women’s Equality Party released its party manifesto last week, at least one article about the party appeared in almost every mainstream newspaper in the UK with The Independent running six separate pieces and The Guardian four.  Even The Mirror and The Daily Mail got in on the action. This kind of media attention is essential if the party is to have any chance of overcoming the monumental challenges it faces to significantly impacting the political debate or improving the status of women.

The Women’s Equality Party is not unique in either its gender frame or its policy platform.  More than 30 women’s parties have contested elections at the national level in Europe since 1990 and, in the 2014 European Parliament elections, women’s parties ran candidates in Sweden, Poland, France and Germany with the Swedish Feminist Initiative (F!) taking one seat.  Since then, F! has launched a sister party in Norway to contest elections at the local, national and European levels.  Furthermore, WE’s agenda emphasising equal representation, equal pay for equal work, equal distribution of domestic labour, equal educational opportunities and an end to violence against women, is entirely consistent with the pattern of women’s party advocacy in the more developed states in Western Europe.

What is fascinating about other women’s parties is that even small, marginal and short-lived women’s parties have, in other contexts, had important consequences for women’s descriptive and substantive representation.  They have done this primarily, not by gaining large number of seats and crafting legislation, but by influencing the policy commitments and behaviour of the larger political parties. In the same way that the appearance of Green parties can have a contagious greening effect on other parties in the system or small right-wing parties like UKIP can cause mainstream parties to veer to the right, women’s parties can pressure the larger, more established parties to adopt their agenda.

Iceland’s Women’s Alliance was the largest, and arguably most influential women’s political party in Europe, drawing just over 10% of the electorate at the national level in the late 1980s and breaking male dominance in a system where the mainstream parties had paid scant attention to gender equity until that point.  The NI Women’s Coalition, the UK’s only previous example of a women’s party, managed to alter the political platforms of the other parties and their recruitment and nomination of women as candidates. In Sweden, since 2014 F! has had a similar effect.  Though the parties differ on how to solve the problems of women’s subordinate status in Sweden, the appearance of F! on the political stage, dramatically increased the attention paid to these problems in party manifestos across the political spectrum.

These examples of successful contagion, where the women’s parties pressured the mainstream parties to take up their issues and/or increase the number of women they nominated, occurred, however, in electoral systems that used some form of proportional representation.  Invoking Duverger’s Law, the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system means the Women’s Equality Party stands almost no chance of gaining seats in Westminster. Unlike UKIP, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, WE cannot expect to attain sufficient electoral concentration in any region or district to gain more votes than any other party.

WE’s inability to challenge any of the other parties electorally undermines the operative logic of contagion, whereby parties adapt their platforms and behaviour in order not to lose votes to a competitor party. In cases where women’s parties have advanced women’s interests through pressuring the other parties, they posed a degree of threat, often in times of wider uncertainty, to the mainstream parties, which were eager to hold on to any and all voters.  In short, due to the electoral system, WE cannot hope to effect politics in the same way as these other women’s parties.  In addition, the current climate of a reinvigorated and confident Conservative Party and a left-leaning Labour Party dramatically reduced in stature, leaves little middle ground. This lessens the likelihood that the two main parties will borrow from each other or an innovating party.

WE may be able to win a handful of seats in local elections, despite the use of Single-Member-Plurality-Districts. WE may appeal in districts with high concentrations of voters who are well-educated and relatively well-off and for whom the party might represent something fresh, progressive and principled. This will bring them directly into competition with the Greens, who also champion gender equality, however.

Despite the use of PR, regional parliaments will be difficult to break into because women’s underrepresentation is less extreme in these bodies than in London. In Scotland, where the leaders of the three main parties are female, the party’s campaign to increase women’s access to power will have little appeal. That Wales achieved the world’s first gender equal parliament leaves little toehold for the party there and Northern Ireland has already experimented with a movement-party and seen it fold.

European office may be WE’s best electoral bet. As the case of F! in Sweden indicates, even where PR is used at all levels of government, gaining a seat in the European Parliament may be easier than gaining a seat in the national parliament. This is likely because the European Parliament is seen as a talking shop with little consequence.  Gaining even one seat may validate WE’s strategy of striking out on their own but it will not change the fact that the parties will not fear WE encroaching on their voter base in the Westminster elections.  Thus, while it might give WE a bully pulpit, it can’t translate into the kind of pressure on the other parties that was manifest in other contexts where women’s parties were able to blackmail the mainstream ones into adopting their issues.

WE’s best hope to achieve their goals is to use their significant media savvy to box the other parties in, forcing them to contend with the issues or appear to be standing still while society blows past them.  There is a growing mood of frustration for a variety of reasons with the established parties, all of whom already at least give lip-service to gender equality. Pairing this with WE’s rapid acquisition of some 45,000 members within months of its founding, suggests there may be ample room to embarrass the parties by calling attention to the extent to which they are out of touch with what the people want.

WEP will be an interesting test case for the theory of contagion. Elsewhere, we have attributed contagion effects of small movement-parties to electoral pressure and the context of uncertainty.  In the unlikely event that WE is able to change the commitments of the other parties without presenting an electoral challenge, this will introduce new theoretical mechanisms into consideration.  And, it may encourage other women’s movements in other contexts to join the party!



Kimberly Cowell-Meyers is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Government in the School of Public Affairs at the American University, Washington D.C.

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What is ‘Merit’ Anyway? On using gender quotas in cabinet appointments

By Claire Annesley, Karen Beckwith and Susan Franceschet

trudeauThe announcement of Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet, the first in Canada to include equal numbers of male and female minister, triggered a backlash among commentators who claim to prefer cabinet appointments to be made ‘on merit’. A wonderful spoof article observed that ‘50% female cabinet appointments lead to 5000% increase in guys who suddenly care about merit in cabinet’.

What is ‘merit’, anyway? And how is it applied to the process of cabinet appointments?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that merit is ‘the quality of deserving well, or of being entitled to reward or gratitude’. But OED also refers to a ‘merit system’, which is ‘the system of giving promotion in public office according to the competence of the candidates rather than because of their political affiliations.’

Advocates of merit in cabinet appointments appear to be referring to a ‘merit system’. They want ministers to be appointed because of ‘competence’ not ‘political affiliation’. And let’s be clear: it is not just the guys who call for appointments to be made on merit. In 2013 Anna Burke, former Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, criticized faction leaders in the Australian Labor Party as ‘faceless men’ who were ‘firmly in control’ of the ministerial selection process, to the detriment of women who hoped for a ‘meritorious selection’. Rainbow Murray of Queen Mary, University of London is doing excellent work unpacking the dubious notion that all incumbent men secured positions of political power ‘on merit’.

There is no standard definition of what merit is when it comes to ministerial recruitment. Much evidence points to the notion that merit in cabinet appointments equates to ‘being entitled to reward or gratitude’. However, a seat in cabinet can be granted in reward for a range of characteristics deemed meritorious to a new Prime Minister or President.

Merit is in the eye of the selector

The selector of cabinets is most usually the PM or president, though sometimes parties get involved. Her job is to put together a collective, the cabinet. Individual ministers are appointed to that team not just because of individual qualifications but also because they add something to that collective endeavour. What constitutes merit, therefore, also varies individual by individual.

Initial findings from our research on cabinet appointments in nine democracies points to the following qualification criteria which could count as ‘merit’:

Policy expertise. Your merit is that you have specific policy expertise or a professional qualification (e.g. a Law degree) deemed necessary to master a ministerial portfolio. This type of merit is said to be more relevant in presidential democracies and ‘specialist’ parliamentary democracies such as the Netherlands.

Political experience in a party or in parliament. Here your merit is that you have demonstrated ‘generalist’ political skill over time in your party or in parliament. This type of merit is most significant in Westminster parliamentary systems such as the UK, Canada, and Australia but is also important in states such as Germany.

Loyalty to the PM, president or party. Here your merit derives from the fact that you have demonstrated a high degree of loyalty, reliability and trust to the person who makes decisions on ministerial selection. This version of merit is arguably the most significant, and applies everywhere.

Representative criteria. Here your merit is that you represent a certain demographic, region, religion, minority ethnic group or party faction that the selector, for representational balance, deems necessary to include in her cabinet. These representative norms are often guided by broader national conventions and would apply to all selectors: in Germany the largest Länder must be represented, in the UK the norm is that at least one minister must be Scottish and one Welsh. In Germany religion used to be an important representational factor for Chancellors to consider, but now less so. In other cases selectors can exercise significant discretion when applying the merit principle. One selector might decide merit is due to a region which secured the party victory in the election. Another might decide there is merit in bringing in a minister from an opposing faction of her party. Yet another might appoint a minister to signal recognition of meritorious contribution of the minister’s demographic group to the party’s electoral success.

The important point is that in the process of forming cabinets, selectors have always had to hold a broad view of what constitutes ‘merit’. Therefore ministers appointed to cabinet embody different interpretations of the merit principle. Moreover, meanings of meritorious appointment have changed across time. In the past, loyalty to the PM was the dominant criteria that selectors recognised as merit. Trudeau said he wanted a cabinet that ‘looks like Canada’. Here he is invoking an alternative, but significant interpretation of merit. Why? As he said himself; ‘it’s 2015’.

Read more about the Political Women and Executive Representation (PoWER) research project at | @execgenderpower

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Devolving abortion law: a positive step or cause for concern?

Originally posted on Gender Politics at Edinburgh:

With powers over abortion legislation set to be devolved to Holyrood, Jennifer Thomson asks whether this presents an opportunity or a potential setback for women’s rights in Scotland.

mage © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0 mage © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

Powers over abortion are set to be devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh. The news, breaking last week, was surprising, given that there had been little intimation from national government that this was to happen, and little encouragement to devolve this issue from any of the Scottish parties. Scotland is not the first of the devolved regions to be allowed to decide on this issue separately from central government. The 1967 Abortion Act, which continues to allow for legal terminations in England, Scotland and Wales, has never been extended to Northern Ireland, and the procedure there continues to be strictly prohibited.

Yet the unexpected decision to move this issue…

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CfP: Male Over-Representation in Politics – Preliminary Research and Developing a Research Agenda

A one-day workshop

Held at the University of Bristol’s SPAIS Gender Research Centre,

Wednesday, 3rd of Feb 2016

Hosted by the University of Bristol SPAIS Gender Research Centre, the School of Politics and IR at QMUL and Uppsala Universitet, Sweden, and the UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group

At the 2015 ECPR Joint Session of Workshops, Elin Bjarnegård and Rainbow Murray hosted the workshop, ‘The Causes and Consequences of Male Over-Representation’. Reframing the question of gender and representation, the workshop permitted the identification of new research agendas focusing explicitly on men’s presence in politics rather than women’s marginalization or under-representation. New questions and research areas within the field of gender and politics were invoked, and during the workshop it became clear that the study of men, masculinities and politics was fertile ground for research, requiring much greater exploration.

This one-day workshop provides an opportunity to revisit such research almost one year on: for researchers who were present at ECPR and for those who have come to the topic since. We are seeking papers that examine the reasons for men’s over-representation, and the means by which they perpetuate their position. Papers might explore differences between men vis a vis political participation, as well as men’s reactions to women’s participation. Concepts of representation, accountability, and men’s interests would also be of critical importance to the workshop. Theoretical and empirical papers are welcome.

We have secured sufficient funding so as to require no registration fee. There are, however, no general funds for travel. We are pleased to announce that there is now a small fund to support PhD students’ attendance for  research students presenting their work.

The workshop also has limited places, and so we ask for abstracts (no more than 250 words) to be submitted to by the 1st of November 2015.


Bristol PSAWomenPolQMUL

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Has the Tide Turned for Women’s Representation in Scotland?

Originally posted on Gender Politics at Edinburgh:

Scotland has a female First Minister, who competes in Holyrood with a female Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, as well as a female leader of the Scottish Conservatives. While this should be welcomed, we should not assume that the problem of women’s under representation is solved for good, and instead look at what statutory measures could do to achieve lasting positive change, argue Meryl KennyFiona Mackay, and Cera Murtagh.

Credit: Ninian Reid, CC BY 2.0

The past year has heralded a series of ‘firsts’ for women in Scottish politics – including the election of Nicola Sturgeon as the first female First Minister in November of last year, followed by the announcement that her Cabinet would be 50/50 women and men. One year later, the three largest parties in the Scottish Parliament are all led by women, – including not only Sturgeon, but also Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and…

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New Evidence on Gender Bias in IR Syllabi

From Jeff Colgan, guest blogging over at Duck of Minerva:

And see a further version of this at The Conversation:

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Parties should choose their leadership team with gender balance in mind

The new Leader of the Labour Party, his Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Home Secretary, and Shadow Foreign Secretary are all men, as is the party’s candidate for Mayor of London. Sarah Childs and Meryl Kenny argue that the mechanisms to ensure greater gender representation are available for any political party which seeks to achieve gender process through its allocation of positions. 

Credit: Tim Pierce, CC BY 2.0

The new Labour leader, deputy leader, and both candidates standing for Mayor in London and Bristol: all male. And this from a party whose parliamentary benches are more than 43 percent female and, in Bristol, where all its MPs are women. The newspapers and social media, not unexpectedly, were quick to question the party’s commitment to gender equality. Whatever you think of revaluing the education and health brief (and there’s a lot to be said for it), the absence of not one woman from the traditional top offices of state invited criticism. Some of this was no doubt right-wing commentators finding yet another reason to be critical of Labour’s new leader.

But the feminist criticism was more substantive: a longstanding worry that leftist politics often has too little room for gender equality in policy and personnel terms. Against such criticism, the counter argument: given the number of women candidates standing, party members had ample opportunity to vote for a woman. In short, Corbyn was the preferred candidate, his sex notwithstanding.

Why does it matter? The question of who occupies the ‘top jobs’ in politics is more important than ever – with British politics and media coverage increasingly focused on party leaders at the expense of parties, candidates and policies.  Yet, while some cracks have been made in the political glass ceiling – most notably in Scotland, where the three largest parties in the Scottish Parliament are all led by women – women have been few and far between as party leaders at Westminster. This reflects wider comparative trends, where the general rule has been ‘the higher, the fewer’ – in other words, the more powerful the position, the less likely it is to be filled by a woman.

Can parties committed to gender equality be content when women are under-represented or marginalised? The continuing under-representation of women in the top jobs at Westminster sends powerful symbolic messages about who is ‘fit to lead’ (and who is not). Who gets to be perceived as a credible leader? Who looks like an election winner? Who is regarded as authoritative?  Against the ‘male-politician-norm’ the ‘woman-politician-pretender’ is likely to be find wanting – recall what they used to say about Harriet Harman until, on taking on the deputy leadership and Leader of the House, many former critics changed their views (As a Professor of Politics admitted in private). Gender equality in political leadership also has potential substantive effects. Studies, for example, have found that having more women in party leadership positions has a positive impact on women’s representation; while others find that as the number of women in leadership roles rises, parties are more likely to include social justice issues in their party platforms.

What can parties do to address the under-representation of women at the top? Just like (good) legislative quotas ensure parties’ candidate selection processes become fair, gender-balanced leadership rules ensure that party leadership positions reflect gender equality. Drawing on previous proposals made by the PSA Women and Politics Group, we identify four ways in which the principle of a sex-balanced party leadership might be achieved, each with its advantages and disadvantages.

Table 1: Models for Sex-Balanced Party Leadership: Advantages and Disadvantages

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(1)   Two-round election (i) Open leader, single sex deputy shortlist: election of leader first; election of  deputy via a  single sex shortlist (of the opposite sex) following the election of leader

In round one the winning candidate becomes party leader; from a shortlist comprised of candidates only from the opposite sex to the newly elected leader, the top ranking deputy candidate in the second round of elections is duly elected.

Advantages:  most importantly, it ensures an independent mandate for the deputy; keeps separate candidacies for leader and deputy (we do not assume all candidates would wish to stand for both); candidates do not require the ‘agreement’ of other candidates to put themselves forward.

Disadvantages: extends timing of the selection as it involves two rounds; will increase costs due to two election times; critics of single sex lists will not be predisposed towards it; women might be less likely to be elected as leader – although this is not a given.

(2)   Two staged election (ii), where top ranking man/woman proceed to the second round to determine leader/deputy position

Advantages: at each stage voters must vote for both a male and a female candidate (should both stand at both rounds), or the ballot paper will be deemed as spoilt; avoids criticism of explicit single sex shortlists; candidates do not require the ‘agreement’ of other candidates to stand; might be said that both leader and deputy have mandates given they both participate in both elections; ensures that women and men candidates take part in both rounds.

Disadvantages: Forces all candidates to stand for leader even if they only wish to be elected as deputy leader; as with model (1) there are time and likely financial costs; most importantly, it is possible that the number of votes for the candidate who becomes deputy in the second round may be less than the second ranking candidate of the opposite sex in the first round, thereby reducing their mandate/legitimacy.

(3)   Single sex shortlists for both Leader and deputy

There would be two sets of candidate lists: one male and one female for the leader; one male and one female only for the deputy. The top ranking leadership candidate wins; the top ranking deputy of the opposite sex wins.

Advantages: single election time; candidates can stand for both leader and deputy leader.

Disadvantages:  most importantly, the number of votes for the ‘winning’ deputy may be less than the total number of votes cast for the ‘top ranking’ deputy candidate from the same sex as the newly elected leader.

(4)   ‘Dream ticket’

Prospective leader/deputy come together and offers themselves as a slate

Advantages: ballot is at a single time point; provides for a cohesive leadership team; can combine, but does not guarantee that the leader/deputy reflects intra-party differences.

Disadvantagesmost importantly, it removes the independent mandate from the deputy; may reduce the likelihood of leadership team reflecting differences across the party; may position women as the deputy more often than as leader, although this is not a given.

Which model is the best? Our preference is for Model 1: there is an independent mandate for the deputy plus a real opportunity for a woman to be elected as leader. Moreover, it has the distinct advantage over Model 2 of keeping separate candidacies for leader and deputy – we do not assume all candidates would wish to stand for both leader and deputy. What should the parties do? A commitment to the principle of gender equality in political leadership is one can easily sign up to, forthwith. And with a choice of election procedures from which they can choose, there’s no way they can say that they do not know how to deliver sex balanced leadership.

Note: this post originally appeared on the Fawcett Society website, and a version of it also appeared on Democratic Audit UK. 

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