IWD: Why proportional representation can be a driving force for political equality

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 8th March 2022

A driving force for most people who believe in electoral reform is the belief that seats should match votes and that the broad and diverse communities that make up the United Kingdom should have their political voices heard through effective representation.

This International Women’s Day we’ve been thinking about what voting reform might offer women in the UK – and why it should be a priority for all political parties who claim to support equality.

We all know there are not nearly enough women in the House of Commons and that, even in 2022, power continues to rest predominantly in the hands of men. Just 35% of MPs are women, and while that figure is at an all-time high, it shows just how far Westminster has to go. That’s also true at local government level, where most mayors and council leaders are also men. This gender imbalance is not only unfair (and out of date in the 21st century) but it’s also bad for the development of effective public policy – too many voices, experiences and perspectives being cut out of decision-making leaves us all worse off.

An often overlooked contributor to this situation is Westminster’s First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system. We are regularly asked about whether moving to proportional representation would make any difference. Evidence from the UK would suggest so – both Scotland and Wales, with their Additional Member System, have always had a higher proportion of female representatives – indeed in 2003 the Welsh Assembly became the first legislature in the world to elect an equal number of women and men.

For a further example of the benefits of proportional representation to political equality we only have to look to New Zealand. In addition to being the first country in the world where the franchise was made universal, with equal votes for both women and men, Aotearoa New Zealand also voted to ditch FPTP in the early 1990s.

The use of proportional representation in the nine general elections since then tells a fascinating story not only of women’s participation and representation, but also of the impact they have been able to make.

At the last FPTP election in NZ only 20% of MPs in the House of Representatives were women. At the most recent proportional representation general election that figure grew to almost 50%, a remarkable improvement.

Nowhere has that impact been seen more positively than in the office of Prime Minister. For 61% of the time that New Zealand has used proportional representation, a woman has served as Prime Minister. Jenny Shipley (National), Helen Clark (Labour), and incumbent PM Jacinda Ardern (Labour) have governed for 16 years between them. All three have worked with a variety of different parties and independent MPs in a variety of parliamentary arrangements to deliver good government. Indeed, New Zealand’s political stability in the 21st century remains the envy of many other established democracies.

There are many great reasons why we should elect the House of Commons using proportional representation. The Electoral Reform Society has long argued for the merits of the Single Transferable Vote. We know that it would make our election results better reflect our actual political opinions on these Islands rather than the antiquated stitch-up of FPTP. But it would also bring a wider variety of voices to the corridors of power. The rights and aspirations of women deserve a voting system that can deliver for them. Worth reflecting on this International Women’s Day, especially in such turbulent times.

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