Conservatism, Character and Constitution

Building a more inclusive Party

As Councillors in Conservative-controlled Monmouthshire vote on a target to become the first local authority in Wales to achieve gender parity, the Council’s Leader, Richard John, explains why the Welsh Conservatives need to urgently address their gender imbalance.

The Welsh Conservatives are a male dominated party.  Men outnumber women in every level of its hierarchy, apart from amongst rank and file members.  Amongst its MPs, Senedd Members, Councillors, management board, association officers and professional staff, women are in the minority.

In 2008, I completed my Masters’ dissertation – ‘A critical analysis of the position of women in the Welsh Conservative Party’.  The Party’s representation at the time was woeful, with just 17 female MPs across the UK.  In Wales, the Party had just narrowly avoided electing an all-male Assembly group for the second time, thanks to the shock victory of Angela Burns by 98 votes and a 10% swing in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.

At the time, I interviewed many female Welsh Conservative candidates who privately shared their frustrations that there was no will within the Party to improve selection procedures to level the playing field or to better support aspiring candidates.  It was widely felt that the only way more women would be elected in Wales was if changes were mandated by David Cameron and the Party centrally, as had been the case in the selection of MEP candidates in March 2008, where the next available seat after any incumbents had to go to a woman.  In Wales, that resulted in the election of Dr Kay Swinburne, while a similar intervention in 2011 ensured the election of two high calibre AMs in Suzy Davies and Antoinette Sandbach.

Ten years on and the Party went into the 2021 Senedd election with one female candidate in a safe seat (Laura Anne Jones in South Wales East), Janet Finch-Saunders defending a slender majority of 754 in Aberconwy and doubts over whether any other women would get elected.  Of the 40 constituency candidates, just 10 were women.  Of the 10 constituencies the Party was targeting for potential gains, only Clwyd South and Bridgend had female candidates but requiring ambitious swings of 6.8% and 10.4% respectively.  In South Wales Central, of the 12 constituency and regional list seats there were more candidates called Joel than women.

Until 2019, the Party had never elected a female MP, even amongst the 1983 (14 MPs) or 2015 (11 MPs) cohorts.  While we celebrated the seats gained by Fay Jones, Virginia Crosbie and Sarah Atherton, all three will have to fight to retain their seats in 2024, which may include fighting for selection against male rivals in redrawn parliamentary boundaries.

There is just one woman on the Party’s management board and unlike similar boards in other parts of the UK, there is no dedicated seat for the Conservative Women’s Organisation.

In local government, 29% of Welsh Conservative councillors are female, up from 26% in 2008.  There are 37 female Conservative councillors in Wales, although half of them are in the Cardiff (38% female) and Monmouthshire Conservative groups (40%).

I’m proud of the diversity in my own group with some really talented female councillors in senior positions.  I recently appointed my new Cabinet, made up of four women and four men, including the Council’s first ever female Deputy Leader in Sara Jones, together with Jane Pratt, Lisa Dymock and Penny Jones.  We have a female Armed Forces Champion, a female Chair of the Planning Committee and some excellent role models have served as Chairman of the Council including Maureen Powell and Sheila Woodhouse.  Our group stands in contrast to our main opposition, the Labour group, which returned ten men and no women in 2017.

In our Conservative Group, we have a critical mass of female councillors, many of whom are brilliant role models for other women – showing that being a councillor isn’t just a job for retired men.  Some councils have very few role models or women to advocate for other women, which makes change really difficult without any form of positive discrimination.  This is where the Welsh Conservative Group in the Senedd now finds itself, after six sets of elections it’s just as male dominated now as it was nearly 20 years ago.  The challenge for 2026 is to ensure that this new high watermark of 16 seats is a platform for further advancement, rather than defending male incumbency, which would have very few opportunities for new candidates, including women.

The general image of local government in Wales is of white men over the age of 65.  No council in Wales has ever achieved gender parity.  In Blaenau Gwent, there are only five female councillors, four women in Merthyr Tydfil and on Anglesey, just three women on the entire council.  Local government has existed in various forms in Wales since the Roman invasion in 47AD.  To have five more women on your council now than you would have had 2,000 years ago is not progress.

A council which is more reflective of the people is better placed to adequately represent the broad range of views and experiences of the public.  There is a direct link between the composition of a council and its activities – the subjects it debates, the policies it scrutinises and the decisions it makes.

When universal suffrage was introduced in 1918, it was an acceptance that men, however sympathetic, could not fully and adequately represent the interests of women at the ballot box.  100 years later and we’re still discussing if and why gender representation matters.  When I’ve made these arguments before, people have said to me there’s a gender imbalance simply because women don’t apply or female members don’t help select women or that people should be selected for roles on merit.  The problem with that is that many women don’t get selected on merit.  Many of our members have a subconscious and preconceived idea of what a typical Conservative politician looks like and until we have a critical mass of female role models to challenge that perception, we risk further embedding male dominance.

Personally, I’m not a fan of quotas.  It’s awful for any politician to think they’ve been selected on the basis of their gender rather than ability.  But I believe the Welsh Conservative Party has reached a tipping point where the status quo cannot continue.

To many younger people it looks weird to have a such a gender imbalance.  If our elected ranks aren’t reflective of the wide range of views and experiences of the public, we risk failing to represent or appeal to, great swathes of the population and that carries an electoral cost.  We need a proper debate in the Party about how we’re going to improve our gender balance, because whatever we think we’re doing, it’s not working.  And that isn’t to dismiss the great work of Women to Win and the Conservative Women’s Organisation, but more an acceptance that we need to go much further.

Today in Monmouthshire, we’re recognising that greater gender balance will improve our decision-making and that this is something that’s worth fighting for.  We’re committing to take action locally to ensure the public have a representative slate of candidates from which to choose in next year’s elections.  Of course, it’s up to the electorate who they vote for, but parties decide who makes it on to the ballot paper in safe or marginal seats.

As a council group, we don’t select the Party’s candidates, but what we are doing is headhunting, supporting and mentoring women who would make great councillors and encouraging them to apply for winnable seats.  By having this debate almost a year ahead of those elections, we all have time to identify hardworking community champions in our towns and villages who would make great local councillors.

Unless the gender balance in local government improves next year, there will be increasing pressure on Welsh Government to introduce statutory quotas.  If we can achieve gender parity in Monmouthshire through a shared goal, focussing the minds of every political group on contributing to this target, it can be done anywhere.

We all come into politics to make a difference.  The Conservative Party has a proud record of leading change rather than standing on the sidelines waiting to be shaped by it.  With the political will to better represent the people of Wales, we can lead change once again.

Richard John is Leader of Monmouthshire County Council and County Councillor for Mitchel Troy.

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