If we really want gender equality, we have to change the electoral system itself

The argument that parliament would be flooded with a series of token women hardly stands up to scrutiny.

The argument that parliament would be flooded with a series of token women hardly stands up to scrutiny

The present position of women in our politics is staggering. The role of parliament is to legislate for the good of a British nation which is predominantly female.

Likewise, it is almost a century since women got the vote and 85 years since Margaret Bondfield became the first woman to sit in Cabinet.

And yet today less than one in four British MPs are female – a proportion that puts the UK behind social democratic Europe on the one hand (Norway 40 per cent, Sweden 45 per cent), and nations recently subject to British military intervention on the other (Iraq 25 per cent, Afghanistan 28 per cent). It is pretty poor stuff.

At the present rate of post 1918 progress, women will only achieve equal parliamentary representation with men sometime in the 2150s. As I argue in my new book One Nation Britain, this is not good enough. Reform is needed.

The current fourth wave of feminism has alighted on cultural sexism as its main (or certainly most public) enemy. The success of Laura Bates’ activism rests on the assumption that a patriarchal power dynamic plays out in the Everyday Sexism of normal life. Bates’ campaign is fundamentally a good and brave thing. I don’t think even the most foaming below the line commenter could – well, should – deny that sexism remains prevalent in many ways.

But as Rachel Cooke noted in her review in The Observer, ‘the question is: what are we to do about it?’

Bates is not the only high profile voice, and for many the gateway to change is to ask ‘what’s on the Vagenda’? Certainly the occasional calling out of parliamentary sexism, but rarely concrete proposals to reform the whole system. This is odd. Nuts and Robin Thicke may perpetuate inequality between the sexes, but parliament directly enshrines it.

For all the advances achieved through the all women shortlists delivered by Labour and, yes, David Cameron’s Conservative leadership, we are nowhere near parliamentary equality. There are reforms that can ameliorate the present conditions of women MPs – particularly surrounding the parliamentary calendar, sitting hours and a greater understanding of maternity leave for younger MPs.

But, if we want to pay heed to parliamentary equality as more than just a nice idea, it is time to look at changing the electoral system itself.

It is commonly assumed that people want ‘less politicians’. I’d argue that only applies to politicians of a certain type. In many ways we need more politicians, not less. Queen’s speech day is a time to think big, and the following reforms are a decent starting point for discussion.

Firstly, parliament should be expanded, not contracted, to around 800 MPs with redrawn, larger, boundaries.

If press stories about bloated fatcatdom are an issue, this could be achieved by a pay cut for MPs of 30 per cent: contrary to much comment, MPs are certainly not outlandishly paid, but if they are unwilling to accept a salary of still over £50,000 each year (and no doubt a series of lucrative contacts they could exploit in their post-parliamentary career), their public service credentials are perhaps not what we would desire.

Crucially, each new constituency could have one male and one female MP – parties would put forward two candidates, and the highest polling male and female candidates would become an MP for that area. Each constituency would have an established line of demarcation determined, most probably, by council wards – say north and south – and the MPs would represent the concerns of the residents of one or the other.

There would doubtless be some duplication of efforts, but this occurs already on issues of cross-constituency concern without the system collapsing. It would also have the interesting effect of having MPs from different parties for the same area as was relatively common in the days of two member constituencies between the wars – in 1929, for example, populous areas like Dundee, Norwich, Preston and Stockport returned two MPs each from a different party.

Since 1918 precisely 369 women have been elected to the House of Commons; in the 2010 General election alone 503 men were returned. What we have is a nominally free political market with significant barriers to entry. This broken market, as with any other, is ill-served by such an approach.

Let’s be clear. Unless your argument is that women are innately more or less clever than men, the actual functioning of parliament or the quality of debate is unlikely to change drastically either way. Yes PMQs is currently a little nauseating, but doubtless a 50/50 gender split parliament would find different ways of looking out of touch.

But it certainly would legislate on a broader range of issues. One would imagine that with 62 per cent of sub-living wage employees being women, the existence of a significant post-childbearing age pay gap between the genders, and swingeing recent cuts to certain public sector jobs largely staffed by women, these might be areas that would gain more attention.

Good. I doubt this would produce an out and out revolution in policy making overnight, but it would evolve our politics over the long term.

Over the past five years or so, there has been some political momentum behind encouraging big companies to put more women on their boards. Certainly investment banks with women on boards have often adopted more long term strategies to the benefit of their shareholders.

But, in such instances, the private sector can forward the legitimate counter-argument that every position should be judged on merit, and they are best judged to determine said merit.

Parliament is different. The role of a MP is general, and they are expected to know about every facet of the broad nature of modern life. Clearly not all do, nor could be expected to.

But by expanding the pool of our politicians we may improve the quality of our politics. Unless your contention is that our current parliamentary stock is made up exclusively of Nietzschian supermen we’ll probably be alright with a little reform.

Whilst we do not want to be denied our best male MPs, the argument that parliament would be flooded with a series of token women hardly stands up to scrutiny. Not all the 503 male MPs elected in 2010 were Jesse Norman or Tristram Hunt, and some have added little.

Similarly, the argument for strong female politicians does not have to rest on the history of Castle, Thatcher or Williams, but has present day examples in Stella Creasy, Theresa May, Rachel Reeves, and many more.

To be clear, under a gender equal parliament there would be no guarantee that top posts would be filled by women, and this is not a call for tokenism.

Even were we to cut the present size of parliament down the middle, you could fill a cabinet, a shadow cabinet and the chair of every select committee with a man and still have almost 250 male back benchers to play with.

But let us at least equalise the playing field and give ourselves the best shot at the most desirable upper parliamentary echelons. Depending on a given intake, that outcome may be equality, a predominately male or a predominantly female cabinet. Once the barriers to entry are lifted the parliamentary ‘market’ may then decide.

This is not intended to be ‘mansplaining.’ It is just an idea and one, given the boundary changes issues of this parliament, which would take some doing. But if fixed term parliaments, AV and independence for Scotland referenda, and, potentially, votes at 16 can be achieved, why not some form of this?

A gender equal parliament would certainly not solve all ills. But it is a reasonable demand. At the very least it should be a demand.

Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. He publishes the book One Nation Britain this summer

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