This is the first of two Insights looking at gender representation in the House of Commons. Here we look at the proportion of women standing for election, and the number elected.

All candidates

The number of all candidates standing at general elections since 1918 steadily increased until 2010, before starting to fall again. 3,320 stood in 2019.

The highest number of candidates came in 2010 (4,133) whilst the lowest number in this period was in 1931 (1,292). The peaks have tended to coincide with elections that resulted in a change of governing party.

A chart showing total number of candidates at General Elections since 1018, peaking at 4,133 in 2010

Women candidates by party

The chart below shows the percentage of women that stood for election for the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats since 1918. It also shows the overall percentage of all women standing for election.

A chart showing women as a percentage of all candidates at general elections since 1918 by party. Labour has had the highest percentage.

At the 2019 General Election, over half of Labour Party candidates were women (53.1%). This was the first time in history that more than 40.6% of any party’s candidates were women. 2019 also had the highest total number of women candidates in history (1,121). This was 33.8% of all candidates standing.

When aggregating all elections, Labour has had a higher percentage of women candidates standing in elections since 1918, compared to other parties standing in elections across the same period. Their average is 14.3% compared to 8.8% for the Conservatives and 14.2% for the Liberal Democrats.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru (who have not fielded candidates across the whole period), have average percentages of 18.4% and 13.4% respectively. The average percentage for all other parties is 18.0% (2,842 women out of a total of 15,758 candidates).

The overall average for the period for all candidates is 13.8%. Out of 63,621 candidates since 1918, 8,780 have been women.

Women candidates becoming MPs

The increase in women candidates is an important and significant trend in recent general elections. However, it’s also important to consider whether, and to what extent, the increase in women candidates has led to increased representation of women MPs in the House of Commons itself.

All other things being equal, we might expect the proportion of women candidates to be broadly the same as the proportion of women MPs elected.

If, however, women are more acutely underrepresented as MPs, this may indicate other factors contributing to under-representation. For example, it may indicate that parties were or are selecting men in seats that they are better placed to win, and selecting women in seats where the party is less competitive.

The chart below shows the difference between the percentage of women elected compared to the percentage of female candidates. In the 2019 General Election this ‘conversion gap’ was zero. Women made up 33.8% of all the candidates and 33.8% of the MPs elected to Parliament.

Most of the period analysed has seen a smaller percentage of women elected compared to the percentage of candidates. However, there have only been four elections where the ‘conversion gap’ exceeded 5% (1979-92), i.e. over 5% more women stood compared to the percentage elected.

In four of the six elections from 1997 onwards, women formed a higher percentage of MPs than they did candidates. This reversal of the historical trend peaked in 2015. That year, 3.4% more women were elected than the percentage of female candidates.

A chart showing the difference in percentage between female MPs elected compared to other candidates

Women candidates and MPs by party

The majority of the women elected to Parliament have been MPs in either the Labour or Conservative Party. The chart below, using the same methodology as above, compares the proportion of women candidates and MPs by party. It looks at general elections from 1979 onwards.

Prior to 1997, the trend for the two major parties was broadly the same as the overall picture: the proportion of women MPs elected was generally either lower or equal to the proportion of women candidates selected by the parties.

The Conservatives have never returned a higher proportion of women to Parliament than its proportion of women candidates. By contrast, the Labour party has done so on four occasions. The largest positive difference for the Labour Party came in 2015 (8.8%) whereas the largest negative difference for the Conservatives was in 2005 (-10.8%).

Neither party returned a greater percentage of women MPs at the 2019 compared to the percentage of candidates (Conservatives: -6.7%; Labour: -1.6%).

A chart to show difference between female MPs elected compared to percentage of candidates

More information on candidates can be found in the Library’s general election briefing papers, General Election 2019: full results and analysis. 

Further reading

General Election 2019: full results and analysis, House of Commons Library.

Part two of this Insight on gender representation looks at the proportion of women serving on select committees over time and can be found here.

Our Ethnic diversity in politics and public life briefing has more information on women belonging to ethnic minority groups in the House of Commons.

This is part of a series on House of Commons trends to mark Parliament Week 2020. You can find more analysis and data in our full briefing.

Read the rest of the series.

About the author: Chris Watson is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in parliamentary data.

Image: ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor under CC BY 2.0, cropped

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