The Merit of Party Institutions: Women’s Descriptive Representation and Conservative Parties in Australia and the United Kingdom

It is easy to forget that the Liberal Party of Australia (LPA) was, once, the party for women. The Liberals were better at talking about politics on women’s terms, extolling the private sphere as the bastion of middle class virtue and evoking the domestic budget as a model for sound economic management. The party was also led the way in terms of electing and promoting women into parliament and into the ministry. At the federal level, Dame Enid Lyons took both firsts. Indeed, the party has a proud, and under lauded, record of firsts for women, and women responded by voting for the Liberals in droves.

A similar story can be told about the UK Conservative Party (Conservatives). The party elected Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in Westminster as early as 1919. The Conservatives were also the  first UK party to elect a female leader when Margaret Thatcher ascended to leadership in 1975. Only the Conservatives have faced an election with  not one, but two female Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May respectively. Like Australia, the Conservative enjoyed an advantage amongst female voters.

But today, both these parties trail their centre-left opponents. What happened?

Women and Right-wing parties

Today, in many countries, right-wing political parties are less successful at selecting and electing women in national legislatures than their left-wing counterparts. Australia is no exception.

However, not all right-leaning parties are equal. Take the LPA, which was more successful than the Conservatives at recruiting women to office. The Liberal Party of Australia achieved 20% representation by 1996. By contrast, the UK Conservatives only reached that milestone in 2010.

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Ideological principles are a major factor shaping attitudes within parties. Both the LPA and the Conservatives have a strong commitment to individual achievement and merit.

For many activists within both these parties affirmative action strategies, such as the use of quotas adopted by both the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the UK Labour Party, disrupt the merit principle of candidate selection. This is despite significant research demonstrating that an egalitarian culture and affirmative action measures such as gender quotas can increase women’s presence in political parties.

Yet, women in the Liberal Party had made gains much quicker than their counterparts in the UK. So how can we explain this difference?

What about the role of Institutions?

In a recent article published in the Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, we answer this question by investigating how internal party activists organised within two similar parties: the LPA and the Conservatives. We wanted to understand whether institutional features mattered, and found that they do.

We found women’s success, both in terms of organisational capacity and their overall influence, was shaped by both internal institutional constraints and constraints external to parties. Specifically, internal constraints included:

  • patterns of organisation (de-centralised vs centralised) decision making for candidate selection systems;
  • leadership support and;
  • party norms and ideology/culture.

External constraints included:

  • the saliency of gender representation issues within broader society; and
  • public support (ie. electoral victory).

In both parties, activists’ strategies to increase women’s participation were influenced by their parties’ core belief in individual merit over collective equality. This is hardly surprising, but it has persisted despite growing internal and external critique. In the UK, this was further complicated by the obvious achievement of Margaret Thatcher as a dominant Prime Minister. In Australia, the LPA’s response was increasingly framed in response to Labor’s adoption of a quota.

This context shaped the type of strategies that appealed to right-leaning women themselves—many right-leaning women argue that quotas are patronising and diminish their achievements and excellence—and to their fellow party members.

But this meant that the responsibility for low numbers of women was, and still is, placed on women themselves—they do not have the necessary knowledge of party politics or the necessary network to come forward and be selected as candidates. The solution then is to increase these women’s meritorious qualities by increasing their capacity as candidates. Training programs and courses are offered by political parties to help women demystify and navigate the candidate selection process.

We find that in both Australia and the UK, after their introduction, that these programs were successful in increasing the number of women elected to the legislature. In Australia, the results were dramatic, producing a 14% increase between the 1993 and 1996 elections, after training programs were launched. In the UK, the numbers of women doubled between the 2005 and 2010 elections, after the introduction of Women2Win, a Conservative Party pressure group, which offered women training and mentoring.

But the picture is more complicated.

To be successful, the women advocating for these programs needed support from the party leadership. In both countries, support was most forthcoming when the issue of gender and representation became acute as a result of public pressure and more importantly, successive electoral defeats. Doing better on women’s representation was an important signal to the electorate that the party was modernising and ready to govern again.

Institutional differences matter

A major difference between the LPA and the Conservatives are their organisational structures, which shape decision making processes. We argue that these structural differences have contributed to the long-term success of capacity building programs as a strategy to address the underrepresentation of women.

In Australia, the LPA has a decentralised process—it is organised along federal lines and each sub-national division of the party sets its own rules. This created opportunities for women to organise internal capacity building programs at the sub-national level, later seeking and receiving federal endorsement. However, these programs were largely run by volunteer labour, and, over time, they became absorbed into factional disputes within various state divisions of the Liberal Party. The combination of relying on volunteer labour, a lack of independent funding and an inability to stay one-step removed from factional in-fighting all contributed to a failure to institutionalise this form of organisation amongst women activists over the long-term.

By contrast, in the UK, selection of candidates occurs at the local level, but the rules are centralised and can be changed by the party leader. Thus, for women in the UK Conservatives, the challenge lay in competing for attention at the national level with other ‘more pressing’ problems such as electoral failure, organisational reform and ideological drift. However, after successive electoral defeats and a continued dismal performance on women’s representation, the issue increasingly became salient. Opposition Leader David Cameron saw action on women’s representation as an important facet of his strategy of party modernisation. Cameron’s ability to centrally change the rules would prove important. So too would conservative women’s success in organising their own one-step removed lobby Women2Win. Women2Win is financially independent, which may prove critical to its long-term success.

Stagnation, backsliding or long-term success?

Ultimately, the Liberal Party was not able to maintain its program which helps to explain the persistent stagnation of women’s representation of the right of Australian politics hovers above the 20% mark.

In the case of these two parties, decentralisation and saliency helped women in the Liberal Party establish their program earlier than in the UK, but the lack of central control can also explain the difficulty these women had in maintaining the program and their gains. As for the UK, Women2Win was established in the wake of the 2005 election, and has now been through four election cycles (two of which were the result of Brexit), but we won’t truly be able to assess the success of Women2Win for at least another decade.

Importantly, training programs are easy to introduce because they require no change to a party’s rules and can be implemented with volunteer labour. They also do not challenge the ideological opposition to quotas and affirmative action programs.

They are also difficult to maintain unless institutionalised in a manner that secures their finances and allows them to remain outside of the factional disputes. This seems to be the case for the UK Conservatives.

While the LPA was ahead of the Conservatives in achieving the 20% benchmark of women’s representation, the Conservatives might well move ahead of the LPA in the next decade because of how women were able to set up their capacity building programs.

We suggest that following the lead of the Conservatives might be a solution for LPA members who desire an increase in women’s representation but reject stronger affirmative action measures.

Katrine Beauregard is a Senior Lecturer and Marija Taflaga is a Lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations at The Australian National University .