International Women’s Day: How Westminster’s voting system is holding back gender equality

Tara Azar, former Student Placement

Posted on the 8th March 2021

This International Women’s Day it’s worth thinking about the state of women’s representation in British politics – and what’s holding it back.

Despite 220 women being elected as MPs in the 2019 General Elections – the highest number of women MPs in history – women remain hugely under-represented in Parliament.

Just a third of MPs are women (the picture is even worse in the unelected Lords), and while that’s progress on previous elections, equal representation is being held back by Westminster’s warped voting system.

Under the First Past the Post system, we have single-seat constituencies on a winner-takes-all basis. This often leads to the same person holding on to the one ‘safe seat’ for decades. It’s no surprise that this is very often a man when historically men held nearly all the seats.

This ‘seat blocking’ is one of the reasons why First Past the Post is the world’s worst system for gender equality. A proportional voting system with multi-member seats would help end seat blocking, by adding more competition. Constituencies would be represented by multiple MPs, meaning no one could secure a monopoly on local representation.

That means more opportunities for diversity in our politics, including fairer women’s representation.

As the Fawcett Society noted in 2012: “There is a distinct gap in women’s representation in countries with single-member constituency electoral systems [compared to] those with PR systems. When there is only one seat per constituency to be won as in the FPTP system, appealing to a broader base of voters is seen as riskier for parties”. It’s a finding that’s been repeated in studies worldwide.

In 2018 the ERS found that, of current MPs who were first elected in 2015, there is near gender parity – 45% were women. Yet there were 212 current MPs who were first elected in 2005 or earlier: and of them, 80% were men. That’s a huge bloc of long-standing MPs who are unlikely to budge anytime soon.

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

Since the majority of seats rarely change hands between different parties, once an MP is elected to represent a ‘safe seat’ there is often 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 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 – like switching to the far fairer Single Transferable Vote to elect MPs.

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.

As well as proportional representation – ending the reign of ‘seat blocking’ – parties also need to open up about their candidate diversity.

Section 106 of the Equality Act

Section 106 of the Equality Act (2010) would require political parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing in elections to the House of Commons, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

However, 10 years on and the government has yet to enact it. As a result, there is no official information on the diversity of those standing for election at any level of government.

As the ERS noted last year: “We already know that women register to vote, and vote, in equal numbers to men. However, we do not have all the data to help explain when it comes to standing for election why the playing field is not equal. Transparency of information is the first step towards solving this inequality.”  Parties could also provide stronger mentoring, funding and practical support for women candidates.

What’s clear is that Westminster’s out-dated structures aren’t giving us the fair representation Britain needs. That’s bad news for all of us.

Tara Azar is a Communications Placement Student at the ERS from the University of Nottingham.

Sign our petition for a fair voting system in the UK

Read more posts...