How can we better represent women in parliament?

Stale, male and pale. PA

A recent report from the Hansard Society revealed that a girl born today will be drawing her pension before she is equally represented in Westminster, or has an equal chance of being elected to it.

Nearly 100 years since women were first allowed to sit in parliament, fewer in total have been elected to the House of Commons than the number of men currently sitting. And with women accounting for just 23% of the current population of MPs, things seem to be getting worse rather than better. In 1997, the UK ranked 20th in the international table of women’s representation in parliament and has now fallen to 74th place.

What is representation?

The representation of women in parliament is part of a wider issue. There is also a lack of regional and local voices as well as MPs from ethnic minorities, younger MPs, MPs from some religions and classes and even those speaking certain languages. Not everything that could be represented is equally important, though.

A job or a top job? PA

It might seem obvious that the representation of women in parliament should be in direct proportion to their numbers in the population, but before reaching that conclusion, we have to decide what representation is and what sort of representation we have in mind. Is it the voice of women itself? Is it their voice on women’s issues? Their perspective on all issues? Again, what is most important, the proportion of women in parliament or their proportion in important roles?

Would it be desirable for women to comprise more than 50% of MPs? Is the real issue the promotion of women’s rights and legitimate concerns independently of who is promoting them? After all, women might vote the “wrong” way and men the “right” way on some matters.

“Principal-agent representation” is where someone acts as the agent of another – as a barrister represents a client in court, for example. On this view, there is no need for the agent to be the same as, or like, the principal. The agent is briefed by the principal and acts on their behalf. A man with a strong interest in women’s issues might, according to this line of thinking, be just as good as a woman in promoting women’s issues in parliament.

The alternative view is known as “microcosmic representation”. This is the idea that a parliament should have, broadly, the same composition as the population it represents. On this view, actually being there matters. If one accepts, even for a moment, that it matters whether women are present in the House of Commons or not, the fundamental point has been conceded: at least some element of microcosmic representation is needed.

Oddly, those who argue strongly for the principal-agent view tend to see nothing wrong with male dominance of parliament, but at the same time get worried when one extols the virtues of a female majority.

We shouldn’t doubt the sincerity of those who seek to represent those unlike themselves. The point is that there is a limit: a limit of experience and sensibility. Despite their best efforts, if the composition of parliament is entirely different from the composition of the country, representatives will be unable to achieve the necessary breadth of understanding and viewpoint. If this point is accepted, an element of microcosmic representation is required.

Making a difference

One option for resolving this problem might be to make equal representation a constitutional requirement. This could be done with parallel elections in which men and women are elected separately. Voters would have two votes and there would be two seats per constituency, one man, one woman. In a party list system (such as the one used for EU elections), it could be mandated that equal numbers of male and female candidates be chosen and the zipper method of alternating them in the list used.

But while countries using party list systems usually have more woman MPs, it doesn’t follow that the system automatically leads to this. Neither does it follow that the single-member plurality system used for UK parliamentary elections should be modified to give more equal representation. The issue is solely whether suitable numbers of women are chosen as candidates for winnable seats.

All-women shortlists are sometimes seen as the solution. But there is a corresponding danger that the lack of representation won’t be considered (still less addressed) across the full range of seats either in principle or practice.

People often express the view that candidates should be chosen solely on their merits rather than their gender. This objection would be valid if there were a level playing field (from childhood on) and no entrenched sexism. But if there is entrenched prejudice (or second order prejudice: “we would love to choose a woman but the electorate wouldn’t vote for her”) then the view collapses. That’s precisely because not everyone in society has had an equal opportunity to develop the abilities which constitute the merits on which parliamentarians are chosen.

There is no single best solution to this problem. Although much can be done within the existing system, as already suggested, alternative systems provide more scope for enhancing women’s representation. The adoption of a party list system, or a mixed system (as in Germany) which combines party list and single-member constituencies, would certainly make a considerable difference.

Of course, so much depends on political will. Of the major parties, Labour is ahead of the crowd while the Conservative party is blowing hot and cold on the issue. With the election looming in May is there any chance of a major change? The short answer is no, because the major parties have already chosen virtually all of their candidates and, on current projections, the proportion of women in the UK parliament will not increase.