How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people?

Without wide changes in party leadership, membership and party procedures, electoral reform will not result in our representatives being any more proportionate.

Our guest writer is Dr Omar Khan, senior policy researcher at race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust; he writes for Runnymede’s Westminster Monitor blog

The question of what makes a voting system proportional is difficult and contentious, so it is important to focus on the question of how different systems may impact black and minority ethnic (BME) representation in the UK.

According to Nick Clegg in his first speech as deputy prime minister this week, more proportional systems provide better representation for underrepresented groups, but the evidence (internationally and in the UK) on this point is more complicated, especially for the ‘AV’ (alternative vote) system on which the Coalition Government has agreed to hold a referendum.

Most European countries have various kinds of proportional voting systems. Only one country – the Netherlands – does as well or better than the UK in terms of the representation of black and minority ethnic people.

The Netherlands has a party list system and 8% of Dutch MPs are BME (compared to roughly 11% of the population). Conversely, France – with a non-proportional voting system – has only 2 BME MPs out of 555, or 0.4%, compared to an overall BME population estimated at 12.6%.

However, countries with more proportional systems do not always deliver more BME representatives. For example, in Germany (where exactly half of candidates are selected on a mixed member proportional system) only 1.3% of representatives are from a black and minority ethnic background, compared to almost 5% of the population.

For whatever reason, BME candidates are not selected for their parties’ lists in Germany and indeed elsewhere in Europe. It is of course also likely that different political cultures, citizenship law, and responses to ethnic diversity are likely to affect representation whatever the electoral system.

It is not always appreciated that the UK has a number of different electoral systems in its various representative bodies. The table below summarises the numbers of BME representatives in these different UK representative institutions. The key point is that the sorts of proportional systems we have in the UK do not tend to result in a significant increase in the number of BME representatives.

Representative Body % BME representatives % BME in representative area Voting System
UK Parliament 4.1% 10%+ First Past Post
England Councillors 4.1% 11.3% Various, but mainly plurality (non-proportional)
London Councillors 17.7% 35%+ Plurality at-large (non-proportional)
Wales Assembly 1.7% (1 out of 60) 2% Mixed: 40 FPTP, 20 PR
Scottish Assembly 0%* 2% Mixed: 73 FPTP, 56 PR
London Assembly 16% 35%+ Mixed: 14 FPTP, 11 PR
Northern Ireland 1% 2% STV (proportional)
UK MEPs 5.7% 10%+ PR (D’Hondt – GB, STV – NI)
All European Parliament 1.1% (estimate) 5% PR
House of Lords 5.2% 10%+ Appointed

* Bashir Ahmad was elected as the first BME MSP in 2007, but has sadly passed away;
when he was a representative, 0.7% of the Scottish Parliament of 129 MSPs was BME

Westminster elections are decided by perhaps the most influential example of first past the post (FPTP). In the 2010 UK General Election, this system resulted in 27 BME MPs being elected, 16 Labour and 11 Conservative. This was a significant increase from 15 in the previous Parliament, especially for the Conservatives, who increased from 2 to 11 BME MPs.

Just over 4% of Parliament is now BME, compared to roughly 10-11% BME in the total population; the 2001 Census counted 8% BME people, while the ONS 2007 estimate for England was 11.3%, and given existing trends, the 2011 Census is likely to estimate a UK BME population at 11-12%

The Scotland, Wales and London Assemblies all have mixed voting systems, with the majority decided by FPTP, and between 33% and 44% of their members chosen by proportional lists. Scotland and Wales have very small BME populations, but each Assembly has returned one BME member through their list system. As mentioned above, the Scottish MSP, Bashir Ahmed, has since died, while the Welsh AM, Mohammad Asghar, defected from Plaid Cymru to the Conservative party.

In London, the 4 BME Assembly members (16%) represent roughly half the proportion of London’s BME population (35% or more), and only one of the four was elected via the list. While proportional systems seem to provide greater representation of BME people, so far this has provided a quite modest effect; indeed, when Scotland moved to an STV system for local elections in 2007, there was no increase in the number of BME councillors.

The European Parliament election further explains the role that PR might be able to play in increasing the number of disadvantaged groups on UK representative bodies. There is a slightly higher number of BME MEPs from the UK (5.7%) than there is in the House of Commons (4.1%), but there are three caveats.

First is that there are fewer MEPs, meaning that each MEP contributes more to proportionality (or indeed disproportionality); second is that the number of overall MEPs from all European countries is very low indeed (1.1%); third is that the House of Lords – a chamber that is currently wholly appointed – has a roughly similar share of BME members (5.2%) as does the UK delegation in Brussels, and more than in the House of Commons.

What conclusions can we draw from this admittedly brief study of BME representation and electoral systems? First, that the choice of system does indeed have some effect, but the effect derives from more ‘pure’ proportional systems such as single transferable vote (with more than one representative per constituency) or party lists; other considerations include how constituency boundaries are drawn, and the dispersal of a given population.

Second, however, is that party leadership and commitment to ethnic representation is as important as the proportionality of a system in increasing the numbers of under-represented groups.

In the Netherlands, for example, the popularity of anti-immigrant parties led leaders to place black and minority ethnic candidates in a high position on their lists, thereby ensuring they would get voted in. If, however, party leaders do not select BME candidates for their list, then such candidates are no more likely to get voted in than they are under FPTP.

This last point is worth reflecting on in the UK context. In recent Westminster elections, both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have been able to improve the representation of women and BME people through measures adopted by the party leadership, namely all-women shortlists and the ‘A-list’; for a good summary of the representation of women in parliaments, see IDEA (2005), ‘Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers‘. Whatever the merits of these policies, they have been successful in increasing representation – even in a FPTP electoral system.

And, of course, the wholly appointed House of Lords is still more representative than the Commons, indicating that party leaderships could perhaps deliver even better results. We should therefore be cautious in agreeing to Nick Clegg’s claim that PR (or devolution of power) will increase the representation of disadvantaged and under-represented groups, especially as the Liberal Democrats currently have no BME MPs, and have a very small number of women MPs.

Given that the coalition agreement explicitly states that our future referendum will be on the alternative vote only – which strictly speaking is not a proportional system at all – there is no reason to believe that this reform will increase the number of women or BME MPs. Without wider changes in the political party leadership, membership and party procedures, electoral reform will not result in our representatives being any more proportionate.

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