More women in Westminster

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 14th May 2015

Back in early March, we launched our report ‘Women in Westminster’. In it, we predicted the number of female MPs who’d be elected, based on the percentage of female candidates parties were putting forward in winnable seats and their likelihood of being elected. We guessed that 192 women would enter Parliament. The result? There are now 191 female MPs – an accuracy rate of over 99%! That’s despite all the dodgy polling…

While we’re very pleased with our predictions, we’re not just saying this to show off. With 29.4% of UK MPs now women, Britain has just moved up 20 places in the world league tables for female representation in Parliament – from 56th to joint 36th (equal with Nepal, and ahead of Trinidad and Tobago and Luxemburg). It’s good progress, and it’s fantastic to see we’re doing better as a country in terms of female representation. But there is still a long way to go before we reach 50-50 representation.

It’s not just female representation where progress is being made. The UK now has ‘the most LGB elected MPs in the world’ according to a new study (almost 5%). There is also a record number of black and minority ethnic (BME) MPs, according to Operation Black Vote – up to 41 from 25 in 2010 and making up over 6% of Parliament (although that’s still less than half the 13% of the public who are from ethnic minority backgrounds).

Why does all this matter? Firstly, there are many reasons why people are increasingly alienated from formal politics, but the make-up of Parliament has a large role to play in that sense of disillusionment. When Parliament doesn’t look like the people it governs, it makes it hard to see the Commons as a representative body.

We cannot afford to be left lagging behind on the fundamental issue of fair representation. Even after the progress we saw on May 7th, we still have a House of Commons that is 70% male and which fails to adequately represent black and ethnic minority people – and that doesn’t send a great message in the ‘mother of all Parliaments’.

To get the best Parliament possible – to stir it up, to introduce new perspectives and to add some much-needed dynamism in a chamber ripe for reform – we need to be drawing upon the whole population, not excluding large sections. It’s both a matter of principle, and to help restore faith in politics.

Despite the progress, we’re still not world leaders when it comes to female representation. And there’s a key reason why. Our voting system is holding back progress. One of the biggest barriers to change when it comes to women’s representation is the ‘incumbency effect’.

As we noted in our Women in Westminster report: “Thanks to our broken electoral system, many seats are completely safe and unlikely to change hands. And many of these safe seats have been occupied by men for three, four or more election cycles, since before there was real progress on women’s representation. Deselection of sitting MPs by constituency parties is relatively rare, which means a large proportion of Parliament is made up of men who have been there for quite some time. Moreover, the longer MPs hold their seats for, the less likely deselection becomes.”

The figures are stark. Of those elected ten years ago or before who were re-standing in May, just 18.3% were women. And of those who were first elected in 1987 or before and stood again this year, just 10.5% were female. It gets worse the further back you go.

So. Last Thursday saw progress, but not enough. Now the task is to sort out our out-dated voting system to open up the nearly 400 safe seats to competition from those from more diverse backgrounds. We can’t wait decades for equality – or for a proportional voting system, for that matter…

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