It is a quiet scandal that 105 years after women first won the vote they are still grossly under-represented in Parliament. Women make up just over a third of MPs in the Commons and the state is yet more dire in the Lords, where they account for around just 28 per cent of peers sat on the crimson benches. This is indicative of the story of gender equality in Parliament over the last century: one of glacial progress where it is treated more as an optional aspiration rather than a basic requirement of any healthy democracy.
However, an unexpected opportunity is presenting itself that could give this limited progress towards a gender-balanced Parliament the shot in the arm it needs in the form of the proposed reform of the House of Lords. The upper chamber has historically lagged behind even the Commons’ slow progress admitting women. Whereas the first female MP took her seat in the commons in 1919, just a year after the 1918 Representation of the People Act first gave women the right to vote, the first female peer was not able to sit in the Lords until 1958. To this day, there are parts of the Lords that are still all male, such as the 92 sitting hereditary peers who take their seats by birth-right. On the current pace of change we may not see a gender-balance upper chamber until well after 2050.
This is not just an affront to equality, it also had practical implications for the country. The 800 peers each have a life-long right to sit in the Lords and shape our laws, which gives them significant influence over how we are governed. Yet, that influence is overwhelmingly from the male perspective meaning women are still being governed largely by what the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst called ‘the laws that men have made’. The fact that in the intervening century progress to proper representation for women in parliament has only been achieved in a partial sense is a travesty.
Lords reform presents an opportunity to right his historical injustice far more directly. Late last year, Labour unveiled its plans to abolish the current appointed House of Lords and replace it with a new, smaller elected chamber. The proposals, authored by Gordon Brown and endorsed by Keir Starmer, include significant reforms to reshape the composition and purpose of the appointed House of Lords, which the Labour leader described in its current form as “indefensible”.
The plans also seek to embed representation for all parts of the UK in the southern England-dominated Lords. That could be delivered by a proportional electoral system, which would accurately represent the votes of the whole country in the second chamber.
Yet the move to a proportional electoral system could also allow for gender balance to be baked in as a legal requirement via gender quotas.
The Welsh Government is already looking to bring quotas in for its 2026 elections to ensure it always has proper representation of women in the Senedd (Welsh Parliament). Bringing in quotas for a new elected Lords would ensure that at least one of our houses of parliament would have equal representation of women. Not only would this be a realisation of the ambition voiced by all major political parties – but it would also mean better laws that properly reflect the experience and needs of women across the country.
The reality is that gender equality in parliament is within our grasp, it is a matter of political will. The proposed reform of the Lords is an unprecedented opportunity to move the dial forward in a way that makes up for a century of grindingly slow progress and ensures at least one half of parliament meets that basic democratic requirement by the time of the centenary of the next great suffragette victory, the 1928 Representation of the People act that broadened the franchise to all adult women. And for the first time in its history, the House of Lords could become the engine of gender equality in our democracy rather than a brake on it.
Do you want to make our second chamber an engine of gender equality?
Add your name to our call for a fairly elected House of Lords