More women in politics is great, but political parties shouldn’t expect it to lead to more votes
Harris MacLeod, Communications Intern, New Local Government Network, 24 April, 2012

An NLGN analysis of London Assembly elections from 2000 to 2012 has revealed that although both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party started off with low percentages of female candidates, the Lib Dems have managed to substantially improve their proportion of women, while their Coalition partner’s percentage of female standard-bearers has gotten slightly worse.

The Lib Dems have more than doubled their percentage of women candidates from 22% in 2000 to 46% standing in this year’s election, which will be held 3 May alongside the vote for London mayor. Meanwhile, the percentage of female Tory candidates has shrunk from 28% in 2000 to 24% today. The Labour Party has been most effective at consistently attracting female candidates, with 50% standing in 2000 and 56% in 2012.

This NLGN analysis coincides rather intriguingly with a YouGov poll released last week, which found that despite the laudable efforts of the Liberal Democrats and Labour to put forward a representative slate of candidates, Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson, at 51%, opened up a 15-point lead over Labour challenger Ken Livingstone (36%) among women voters. Meanwhile, Lib Dem mayoral candidate Brian Paddick was the first choice of only 6% of female voters. Both Mr Livingstone and Mr Paddick enjoyed stronger support among men, with 45% and 8% respectively, while Mr Johnson garnered only 39% support among male voters.

The gender divide in voting intentions for the Greater London Assembly (GLA) told a similar story. For the GLA constituency vote, the Conservatives led among women with 41% support versus 30% among men. They were followed by Labour at 40% of women versus 50% in male voting intentions, while 10% of women said they would vote Liberal Democrat in their constituency versus 12% of men. For the London-wide top-up list Labour, at 41%, very narrowly led the Tories (40%) in female voting intentions, while only 30% of male voters said they would vote Conservative versus 50% for Labour. And again, despite the Liberal Democrats’ impressive increase in women candidates they were still slightly more popular among men (9%) than women (8%).

The Conservatives have enjoyed an historical advantage with female voters, which was greatly diminished in 1987 (interestingly, while a woman was prime minister), but was largely restored in 1992 under John Major. New Labour was effective in witling this down and in 2005 Tony Blair gained the comparative advantage among women voters. Much ink has been spilled about Dave Cameron’s “women problem”, but my friend Mark Gettleson over at Politics Home revealed this to be largely a myth. In fact, at the national level support among women has been quite fluid with each of the three parties (yes, even the Lib Dems) becoming the object of female voter affections at different times over the last few years. It could be that the old Tory advantage nationally has lived-on in London. Or, as Johnson biographer Sonia Purnell recently speculated, it could be that the Mayor’s “charm, brains, alpha-male tendencies and emotional intelligence” resonate with women voters, despite recent reports that some of his female colleagues at the GLA have been somewhat less enamoured.

Whatever the reason for Mr Johnson’s enduring popularity with women, one conclusion that can be drawn from this analysis is that attracting female candidates is a far from sure-fire strategy for attracting female voters. I come from Canada, where before the 2008 election the Liberal Party took the bold step of declaring a third of its candidates must be women, and even overrode democratic constituency nomination processes to meet this quota. That effort aside, the Liberals went on to lose their historical advantage among women and the election was the most disastrous in the party’s history. In Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s epic battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination Ms Clinton enjoyed a clear edge with women voters. But when John McCain tried to lure more female supporters by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate it worked briefly and then subsequently backfired, partly because women were insulted the Republicans presumed their votes could be bought just by fielding a candidate with whom they shared a gender.

There are of course many good reasons for political parties to strive to include more women, but increasing their popularity among the electorate is at the heart of every decision that parties and leaders make. The traditional thinking has been that appointing more female minister and candidates will make parties more attractive to women voters. This strategy obviously isn’t working, however, and so it may be time for strategists in every party to head back to the drawing board.