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Women in the UK General Election 2001

Yvonne Galligan and Duncan Sutherland
Centre for Advancement of Women in Politics, Queen's University Belfast

The process of choosing candidates to contest the general election on 7th June is now complete. With the figures available, we have composed a profile of the women candidates standing in this election.

There are 631 women standing in this election and 2, 663 men. Women comprise 19 per cent of the total candidates in the field. We find little advance on that proportion among the main parties, as women make up 20 per cent of party candidates in Great Britain (Table 1) and Northern Ireland (Table 3). Labour has done most among the larger parties to select women candidates, but even then, it has only managed to put forward 149 women (23 per cent) for the 640 constituencies it is contesting. The Liberal Democrats are next in line, selecting a total of 140 women (21 per cent), while the Conservative party fares worst, choosing only 94 women (15 per cent).

Of the smaller parties, the Greens have chosen 30 (25 per cent) women to stand, while the Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru come in with a more modest selection of 16 (22 per cent) and 7 (18 per cent) women.

Table 1: Women candidates in Great Britain

PartyNumber womenNumber menWomen as % of total candidates
Liberal Democrats 140 499 21
Plaid Cymru73118
Scottish National Party165622
TOTAL 436 1713 20

Retiring women MPs

Ten women MPs are leaving parliament at this election. Of the 101 women Labour MPs elected in 1997, six are standing down, including the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam and two women first elected in 1997, Tess Kingham and Jenny Jones. One Labour woman elected in 1997, Audrey Wise, died in 2000.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are each losing one incumbent woman MP, former Euro-rebel Teresa Gorman (C) and Ray Michie (LD). The SNP's two women MP's, Roseanna Cunningham and Margaret Ewing, are leaving Westminister to devote themselves to the Scottish Parliament. The former Speaker, Betty Boothroyd has been elevated to the House of Lords.

Table 2: Women incumbents

PartyTotal women candidatesIncumbents%
Liberal Democrats 140 32
TOTAL 383 11029

Races to watch: women in target seats and vulnerable incumbents

Among the sitting women MPs, we find that Labour women parliamentarians are most likely to keep their seats in 2001, though four women were elected by less than 5 per cent in 1997: Christine Butler in Castle Point, Valerie Davey in Bristol West, Eileen Gordon in Romford, and Betty Williams in Conwy. The three Liberal Democrat women MPs will have a fight to retain their seats, particularly Jackie Ballard, who was elected in Taunton by a margin of less than 5 per cent over the Conservatives.

Two Tory women face a serious threat. Caroline Spelman in Meriden, where Labour needs a mere 0.5 per cent swing to win, and Angela Browning in Tiverton and Honiton, who could be defeated by a swing of 1.4 per cent to the Liberal Democrats. Former ministers Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shephard were also elected by narrow margins, but their constituencies of Surrey South West and Norfolk South West were traditionally safe Conservative seats prior to 1997.

Three of the Liberal Democrats top ten target seats are being contested by women: Annette Brooke is running in Mid Dorset and Poole North, Rachel Oliver in Totnes, and Vicky MacDonald in Conwy. The Conservatives have nominated Marian Rix to contest one of their top ten target seats, Milton Keynes North East, while Elaine Bird is the Labour hopeful in the party's target seat of Boston and Skegness.

Northern Ireland

The chances of Northern Ireland returning a woman to Westminster are the best in over thirty years (Table 3). The SDLP has selected six women candidates (33 per cent), led by Northern Ireland's Agriculture Minister Brid Rodgers in West Tyrone. Sinn Fein are fielding three women, with Assembly member Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh and South Tyrone best positioned to take a seat. The Ulster Unionist party has nominated two women, with hopes that Lady Hermon will recapture North Down, their top target seat. The Democratic Unionists expect Iris Robinson, wife of Deputy Leader Peter Robinson, to take Strangford, seat of retiring Ulster Unionist MP, John Taylor. The tiny Progressive Unionist Party are running Dawn Purvis in South Belfast. In addition, the Alliance Party have four women candidates, out of ten, and the Women's Coalition are putting forward their high-profile representative, Monica McWilliams, in South Belfast.

Table 3: Women candidates in Northern Ireland

PartyNumber womenNumber menWomen as % of total candidates
Democratic Unionist Party1136
Progressive Unionist Party1150
Sinn Fein31517
Ulster Unionist Party21512
Women's Coalition10100
Workers Party1520

Regional distribution in Great Britain

In terms of female candidacies throughout the other parts of the Kingdom, it is not surprising to find that the majority of women are contesting for seats in England, given that England elects 529 MPs (Table 3). Aside from England, there are proportionally more women seeking election to Westminster from Scotland than from Wales or Northern Ireland.

Table 4: Regional distribution of women candidates in Great Britain

PartyTotal women candidatesEngland (529 seats)Scotland (72 seats)Wales (40 seats)
Liberal Democrats 136 115 15 6
Plaid Cymru7007
Scottish Nationalist Party160160
TOTAL 432 350 56 26


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