How Westminster’s voting system is holding back gender equality

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 13th February 2018

In the centenary month of women securing the franchise, looking back on the politics of previous decades throws up some grim reminders of discrimination.

Take just one: when Janet Fookes was first elected to represent Merton and Morden in 1970, she was interviewed about her appearance and love life – rather than her policies or priorities.

It’s easy to see how, in many ways, politics has come a long way since then. Theresa May is in Number 10 and, as attitudes have started to changed, so have the number of women MPs.

Following the 2017 General Election, 208 of the UK’s 650 MPs were women. Two decades earlier, after Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, there had been just 120.

But new research by the Electoral Reform Society, however, suggests that securing equal representation could be a long time coming.

Despite some progress on women’s representation in recent elections, gender equality is being held back by a voting system which effectively ‘reserves’ seats for men.

Male MPs – first elected in more unequal times – have effectively been allowed to reserve their seats for as long as they choose.

Looking at the statistics, the current levels of women’s representation stem from parties trying much harder in recent elections, especially the last two. Of current MPs who were first elected in 2015, there is near gender parity – 45% are women.

Yet there are 212 current MPs who were first elected in 2005 or earlier: of them, 80% are men. That’s a huge bloc of long-standing MPs who are unlikely to budge anytime soon.

The reasons that men have been able to ‘seat block’ for so long lie within the failings of Westminster’s First Past The Post voting system.

When each constituency has just one seat, only one MP can be elected to represent that area. This in itself quells diversity and competition.

Secondly, the majority of seats rarely change hands between different parties. So once an MP is elected to represent a ‘safe seat’ there is little chance of them losing a subsequent election.

Combined with the fact that incumbent MPs are very rarely deselected, it means ‘safe seat’ MPs have unrivalled job security. And, as the new research shows, the longer an MP has held their seat, the more likely they are to be men.

This represents a constant drag on women’s representation – unless there are real structural changes.

proportional voting system with multi-member seats would end seat blocking by adding much-needed competition: constituencies would be represented by multiple MPs, meaning no one could secure a monopoly on local representation. That means more opportunities for political diversity in our communities, including gender.

And there would be an end to ‘safe seats’ with all seats instead being properly contested, including by women.

Even if there was a fair way to ensure that 50% of all new MPs over the next 10-15 years were women, we would be miles off gender parity: there would still be those men who effectively ‘reserved’ their seats many years ago.

A situation where hundreds of seats are ‘blocked off’ for men isn’t one fit for the 21st century.

We need our democracy to be dynamic and competitive to achieve gender equality. It’s time for a fairer voting system that guarantees real competition.  

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