Last week the Counting Women In coalition published its 2014 report into Sex and Power in the UK. Yet again women will be reading that they are under-represented in British politics: at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff, Stormont, and in local government across the UK. Meanwhile, resistance to gender quotas continues, with a recent YouGov poll highlighting the lack of popular support for all-women shortlists. It’s time for political parties to show leadership on this issue and follow the global evidence – well-designed and properly implemented quotas are the most effective way to address the under-representation of women. Patience is no longer an option – the time has come for legislative quotas in British politics.
The findings from last week’s Sex and Power in the UK report are stark: women constitute more than half the population but only 23% of MPs and Government Minsters, 35% of MSPs; 42% of AMs; 19% of MLAs and 33% of local councillors. Globally, the UK’s performance on women’s representation is slipping – in 1997 the House of Commons was ranked 20th in the world for women’s representation; it is now 65th.
No one who knows anything about British politics will be surprised about this. Sure there are frequently lots of brightly coloured jackets on show at PMQs , but earlier this year the maleness of politics was laid bare at Westminster: the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister apparently failed to realise that their front bench was men-only. While the Sex and Power report is welcome, it’s but another in a long line of reports over the last decade and a half which show substantially fewer women than men in politics[i]. We also now know – for the first time systematically – that mothers are a particularly absent group in the House of Commons. Working class women are rarely part of elite male claims about the under-representation of working class MPs. And BME women are fewer than they should be despite gains and ‘firsts’: in 2010, the first BME Conservative woman MP and the first Muslim women MPs.
The research evidence is clear about the causes of women’s under-representation: a combination of a lack of women coming forward and obstacles placed in their path. Academic research also shows – based on UK and global analysis – that something can be done about it in the here and now. The use of gender quotas by the Labour party in the form of All-Women Shortlists (AWS) for Westminster elections in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010, and twinning in Scotland and Wales in 1999, reveals the critical role that UK political parties play as gatekeepers to political office. In short, when a political party has adopted a quota for women in the UK, women’s representation has increased.
Sex and Power shows clearly the impact of Labour’s quota for the 2015 general election on the numbers of women selected as parliamentary candidates relative to the other two main parties. While not all selections have been completed, the Tories lag well behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats in terms of the number of female candidates selected in retirement seats, and behind Labour in target seats. Admittedly, the Conservatives might be able to increase their selections of women candidates in the last year; meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats will need localized above national swings to protect their sitting women MPs. In contrast, Labour should – as a direct result of AWS – see a PLP that is more than 40 percent female.
If we look to Scotland and Wales, Labour’s advantage remains, again thanks to quotas. Yet while Labour women continue to hold up headline figures, the previous Nordic-level highs of women’s representation at Holyrood and Cardiff are beginning to look rather like distant memories. In Scotland, the decline in women’s representation has been particularly dramatic, with the current SNP government only delivering a ratio of 1 in 4 women to men in their parliamentary group. This is likely to stall if not fall in the event of another SNP victory in 2016, given the party’s reluctance to follow Labour’s lead in adopting quota measures.
Following the Evidence: The Argument for Gender Quotas
As soon as quotas are raised critics are quick to tell us that everybody hates them. Male and female politicians (the usual suspects) are vocal in the media rubbishing them, from across the political spectrum. And a YouGov poll reported last week found that the public don’t like them, with not one group in favour of them. Indeed, if you ask the public what kind of representative they want, they don’t want women, even as they will agree that in principle there should be more women in politics. The findings of the YouGov survey should again not come as a surprise; surveys have repeatedly shown thatvoters are hostile to the concept of gender quotas or all-women shortlists. However, parties that present an all male face to the public risk looking out of touch and out of date, and the only short to medium term fix to this problem is to apply equality guarantees; be they AWS or ‘A lists’ rigorously applied.
Do quotas work? The global evidence is overwhelming – quotas that are well-designed and properly implemented are the most effective way of ensuring significant increases in women’s representation. Indeed, 17 of the top 20-ranked countries for women’s representation have used some form of gender quotas – ranging from voluntary party quotas to statutory legislative ones. Rather than follow the evidence, however, opponents of quotas usually advance a set of well-worn criticisms – quotas are un-democratic, they discriminate against men, they create ‘token’ women politicians, and so on. Well, here’s a few counterarguments to the critics, in the elite and in the wider society:
- ‘Just be patient, increases in women’s representation will happen naturally’. The evidence is clear – gains in women’s representation are too small and they are taking too long. As the Sex & Power report highlights, a girl born today in the UK will be drawing her pension before she has an equal voice in the government of her country. Such a scenario also presumes an upward linear trajectory – which in the UK and elsewhere is demonstrably not guaranteed.
- ‘There just aren’t enough women’. When parties are required to select women, they usually manage to ‘find’ that they had women who’d been willing to stand all along, if only somebody had asked them. Indeed, both Wales and Scotland managed to find women to stand for the new institutions, achieving record levels of women’s representation in 1999 and 2003. Many studies have shown actual increases in the share of women candidates following the introduction of quotas. Do we really think the UK does not have 300 women good enough to be MPs out of a population of 65 million?
- ‘Quotas promote unqualified candidates’. First, as above, qualified women are out there, just not ‘seen’. Second, the concept of merit is itself gendered, in that it privileges the ‘male-politician-norm’ over the ‘female-politician-pretender’ – there is no evidence to support the assumption that men are ‘naturally’ better at politics than women. Indeed, analysis of the career trajectories of Labour’s women MPsshows that they were as successful as their male colleagues.
- ‘Quota women will be stigmatised’. This may be a problem if there are only a few women, but where a larger number come in this is less likely. Labour’s AWS women have reported that their colleagues and the public rarely have an accurate sense of who was and who was not a ‘quota woman’. Finally, if one has sex neutral quotas – for example, 50/50 for both sexes – then you also create ‘quota men’, and the argument simply disappears.
The long Grass is no longer an option: time for legislative quotas now
Quotas work, but they lack popular support – does this mean that the issue of women’s under-representation is irresolvable? Absolutely not, there is a space for political leadership on this issue. As recent Scottish polls demonstrate, opinions change – voters agree that there should be more women in politics and they don’t penalise women candidates at the ballot box. When faced with an AWS woman the voter does not discriminate either.[ii]
Yet, the political parties have not yet tried to lead rather than follow public opinion on this issue. As a result, the UK debate over quotas has been marginal (within the parties, and only to any effect within Labour), parochial (refusing to engage with the global evidence), non-scientific (failing to follow the evidence), and ideological (refusing to accept that gender matters to democracy). The leaders of both main parties in England who are resistant to quotas have a tendency to raise their spectre only not to follow through: Cameron in 2010 said there would be some when the best candidates were women; Clegg is apparently prepared to countenance them after the next election…..we have become sceptical of such promises.
In this context, the debate about quotas in the UK can no longer be left in the hands of the parties. In all of the recent reports, recommendations have suggested that it is time for the UK to consider legislative quotas:
- Recommendation 8 from the Hansard Society’s Women at the Top Report
- Recommendation 24 from the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation
- Recommendations for improving the selection of women candidates from the All Party Parliamentary Group Women in Parliament Report
- Recommendations 1 and 4 from the Sex and Power 2014 Report
- The concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which call on the UK to consider more prescriptive measures to address the political under-representation of women in political life
A Labour government is probably the most likely direct route; but a cross-party group of women MPs post 2015, if the numbers of women on the Tory and Lib Dem benches decline, would be another. Of course the House would need to be persuaded. Political leadership is essential – not just from the women who are most vocal on this, but from the men too who support the principle of equality. The exclusion of women from British politics is a serious democratic deficit. As such, it demands not patience but a solution that works: that solution is quotas.
[i] See for example Sex & Power 2014, published by Counting Women In (the collective voice of the Hansard Society, Fawcett Society, ERS, CFWD and Unlock Democracy), September 2014; Improving Parliament, published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament, July 2014; The Speaker’s Conference Report on Parliamentary Representation, 2010; and the Hansard Society’s Women at the Top, 2000, 2005, 2011.
[ii] Cutts, David, Sarah Childs, and Ed Fieldhouse. 2008. “‘This is what happens when you don’t listen’: All-women shortlists at the 2005 General Election.” Party Politics 14(5):575-95; Cutts, David, and Paul Widdop. 2012. “Was Labour penalised where it stood all women shortlist candidates? An analysis of the 2010 UK General Election.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 15 (3), 435-455.
The blog was originally posted on the UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group blog on 10th September 2014.