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Centre for Women & Democracy
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Open Primaries Fail Women Candidates

6 Nov, 2009

New research shows only 15% of candidates selected through open primaries for seats where the MP is retiring are women. 

Initial work by the Centre for Women & Democracy (CFWD) has found that just 15% of Conservative candidates known to have been selected through open primaries in seats where the sitting Conservative MP is retiring are female, compared to 39% of candidates selected for ‘safe’ seats through traditional methods. 

The research also shows that:  

  • 27% of all Conservative candidates selected through open primaries are women
  • 25% of all candidates selected through traditional selection procedures are women
  • 27% of all new Conservative candidates in seats where the Conservative MP is retiring are women
  • 22% of all Conservative candidates are women


CFWD Director Nan Sloane said: ‘Whilst these figures obviously have implications for the number of Conservative women MPs in parliament after the General Election, they also raise some serious questions about the wider effects of open primaries. All parties considering using them will need to look at how they can be combined with other policies about increasing the diversity of public representatives, otherwise recent advances will be put into reverse.’

Neither the Labour nor the Liberal Democrat parties have used open primaries to date, although Labour do use all-women shortlists. To date:

  • 47% of Labour candidates in seats where the Labour MP is retiring are women
  • 30% of Labour candidates overall are women
  • 22% of Liberal Democrat candidates overall are women, and 4 out of the 5 candidates selected in seats where the Liberal Democrat MP is retiring


Open primaries are regarded by their supporters as a more inclusive method of choosing candidates than traditional selection processes which are restricted to party members. Open primary selections were first used by the Conservative Party in 2003 in Warrington South and Reading East. To date, 73 Conservative Associations are known to have used the method to select candidates for the 2010 general election.