Conservatism, Character and Constitution

Levelling up the Welsh Conservatives

Standing back from frontline, elected politics is a weird experience. Regardless of the circumstances, it comes with its own salt’n’shake bag of mixed emotions, writes Suzy Davies.

Fans of Pixar’s “Inside Out”will know what I mean. Or, if you had an analogue childhood, just think of the Beezer comic’s Numskulls. All those little guys running around in your brain controlling your thoughts and actions.

Less than a month on from the Welsh Parliament elections, it’s probably a bit too early for a fully dispassionate look back on the last decade’s experience in the former Assembly. There are a few immediate personal observations, the most glaring being the change in atmosphere following the arrival of the UKIP group; their subsequent musical chairs and the extraordinary level of hostility exhibited by individuals in Labour and Plaid to their very presence. For all the metaphorical bed-hopping and ultimate disrespect for the institution, the former UK parliamentarians at least did bring a new edge of challenge to the government. Unfortunately, like a worming pill wrapped in pate, their incisive questions too often ended up disguised by over-spiced political mush, which even the less clever ministers were able to spit out without too much effort.

The second point is how important it is, despite the experience of the Fifth Senedd, for the membership to be regularly refreshed. Wales’ Stockholm Syndrome may have produced another exhausted Labour government but Team Scrutiny looks quite different. Even though this election has restored the main parties there are a lot of new faces. Hopefully, more time will be spent on serious challenge now, not yowling across the Chamber.

Like the new 2019 Westminster intake, a fair few of them are not candidate treadmillers or – yet – greasy pollers, and can bring energy and ideas to the place. Labour backbenchers need to be able to hold their own to account. Being in Opposition, on the other hand, can be soul-destroying when the government can just put two fingers up to anything you say, without any consideration of your words or accountability for theirs. Howling at the moon is not scrutiny, and our new boys need to use their zeal to wield the rapier not the megaphone.

New boys. Well, yes. Five additional seats for the Welsh Conservatives and a drop in the number of Welsh Conservative women MSes. Only one of those new faces is a woman. The fact she is the first woman of colour in the Senedd is a cause for celebration (poor Plaid!) but that can’t distract from the over-all question, posed many times during the election: “Do the Welsh Conservatives have a woman problem?”

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That question is not a small one. But it is not the same as “Do the Welsh Conservatives have a problem with women?” The answer to that is no. Like all parties, we still have our hilarious retro members who think that being a mother makes you incapable of holding public office. Or that women are too emotional. Or care too much about individual people. Or think about too many things before making a decision. Or aren’t forceful enough (they mean “shouty”, of course). These aren’t representative. Overt mysogyny isn’t really the problem.

Our “woman problem” is an understanding problem. An understanding problem which reveals itself as unconscious bias problem (lack of understanding) which has now expanded into an inertia problem. This is having consequences for the party and needs addressing now. So let’s unpick it a little:

Why, despite the UK’s only two women prime ministers, do we have so few women MPs, MSes and councillors?

Why do we have fewer women than men putting themselves forward to stand? Why does it matter?
If it matters, what shall we do?

I know from personal experience that the minute a woman starts to even talk about this, she becomes “that woman”. Her credibility starts to fall. It’s just whinging. If a woman is good enough, she’ll get to the top.

If that were true, and we’d all like to think it is, why aren’t roughly half of our elected representatives women already? There are many different types of merit so surely that would be recognised and we get the very best men and women to represent us. Yet we will all have encountered some very uninspiring male politicians on our rounds at the same time as wondering why some talented women can’t find a viable seat.

Well, there are more men to choose from, you say. I say “why’s that then? Why aren’t more women coming forward?” The reasons are many and I refer you to previous articles on this website! And the footnote at the bottom of this page. With the exception of Donna Gavin in Merthyr, every non-incumbent woman fighting a constituency seat was fighting to secure seats for men at the top of regional lists. And, yes of course there were men who didn’t win too –

but a lot of them did, didn’t they? Most of them are no more experienced than the women who got nothing.

Why does it matter? Apart from the inherent – and blatant – unfairness of this, this is dreadful news for the party: Structurally, there was nothing to prevent the real prospect of just one woman MS being returned if our vote had sat at home as it often does in devolved elections. And, structurally, nothing to help the party ensure that any growth in representation improved our reflection of society.

As well as robbing Wales of talent, and a stream of influence over policy which the Senedd can only get by maintaining its pretty good gender balance, this is miserable for the Party. 16 and 17 year olds, the new voters, find such visibly male representation just weird. A reassuring number of our own young men members find it weird. The aspirational voters of Wales, our potential investors – and funders – , who live in today’s world, aren’t going to identify with this solid wall of men. And we’re already losing the women’s vote. How will doing nothing help?

And how will it help us retain and attract more women to think about standing? You can’t be what you can’t see and, in this election, what we all did see was a lot of women still skivvying for men.

The party in Wales is lucky. It has Women2WinWales and, latterly, Conservative Women’s Organisation. They help with talent spotting, bringing women on board and helping them see their way round (sometimes) self-imposed, women-specific ways of thinking and behaving in order to be ready to fight and take seats. To get to a place where they can demonstrate and sell their merit.

Those organisations are not here to help fill hopeless constituencies and the bottom of regional lists.

Really, this is something the Welsh party itself should be dealing with as part of its understanding the “woman problem”. Both these organisations are putting in the work to help the party as a whole. This is not trivial work, so the least the chaps can do is make sure the effort isn’t wasted.

They also need to be explaining to the party at large why the principle of 50:50 representation matters. They need to explain that this is anything but tick boxes. We “that woman” types understand we need men to say this stuff as

well because it affects the whole party. This is not about getting any old women into places of influence, regardless of who they are. That’s the very behaviour that needs to stop when it comes to some of the male cliques.

The party in Wales needs women in winnable seats, so it has to stop just shrugging its shoulders and hoping for the best – because the best will just walk away.

And not just to be fair, which should be reason enough for the Conservatives whose core principle is fairness. But to win votes; to win them back and to win new ones. What hope government in Wales without that! To better reflect the priorities of all voters. To show how different types of merit in power becomes the case for meritocratic selection (in all parties).

Not just to stave off the growing political voice in favour of legislation to oblige parties to select candidates differently. Labour has been through its pain and is currently 50:50 in the Senedd so has nothing to lose. Plaid, seeing a backslide on equal representation in its own party, is warming to the idea. The influential McAllister report recommends it.

And to make politics kinder – which in itself will hack away at one of the barriers women face. For all its faults, the Senedd is not the locker room that we see in Westminster. That’s because nearly half its Members have been women.

It’s main fault, of course, is that nowhere near enough of them are Conservative women.

Monmouthshire County Council has a 50:50 Cabinet and has proposed that parties field a 50:50 slate of candidates. If this Conservative Council gets it then the Welsh party has no excuse.

Footnotes:

Aberavon – Liz O’Shea (Lab over Cons 9236)
Alyn & Deeside – Abigail Mainon (Lab over Cons 6545)
Bridgend – Rachel Nugent-Finn (Lab over Cons 5613)
Ceredigion – Amanda Jenner (Plaid over Cons 9939)
Clwyd South – Barbara Hughes (Lab over Cons 3016)
Cynon Valley – Mia Rees (Lab over Cons 8653)
Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney – Donna Gavin (Lab over Cons 8432)
Swansea West – Samantha Chohan (Lab over Cons 5080)
Ynys Mon – Lyn Hudson (Plaid over Cons 10884)

A really strong offer of women of different backgrounds and achievement. Women2Winners who really should be winners …

… but you see the problem. Look at those majorities.

PS: The Numskulls were all men


Suzy Davies was the Member of the Senedd for South Wales West (2011 – 2021).