Women in parliament: How far have we come, and how far do we have to go?

Today, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published its report, ‘Women in the House of Commons after the 2020 election’, presenting findings from its inquiry into the representation of women in the lower house.

The UK currently ranks an abysmal 48th globally in representation of women in the lower or single legislative chamber. Progress on equal representation in the corridors of power remains remarkably slow; today there are 455 male MPs, which equals the total number of women to have ever sat in the House of Commons. With the proportion of women in the House of Commons lagging at 30 per cent, despite women making up over 50 per cent of the population, the inquiry was a welcome interrogation into why progress is falling short.

The under-representation of women MPs represents a serious democratic deficit. While this inequality persists as a nation we miss out on the widespread benefits of gender-balance in policy and decision-making - something which Unlock Democracy has vociferously campaigned on in the past as part of the Counting Women In coalition.

Importantly, the committee recognises the crucial responsibility that political parties have in delivering greater gender balance in parliament. It is political parties, not voters, that determine who stands for elections. Increasing the number of women candidates is therefore an essential first step. Until parties both take seriously and act on their responsibility to increase the representation of women, and diversity more broadly, we are unlikely to see progress.

To incentivise parties to select more women candidates, the committee proposes linking increased representation in candidate selection to state funding for parties. This model has been implemented in Ireland and shows great promise. Under proposals, parties would field women in 45 per cent of seats they are standing in, or else risk having their state funding cut, or be met with deposit losses or fines.

In Ireland parties have to field women in 30 per cent of their seats, or have their state funding halved. This will rise to 40 per cent in the next election. This measure has been a resounding success, with the proportion of female members of the Dáil doubling from 16 per cent before the legislation was introduced in 2012, to 32 per cent in the February 2016 election when it was first tested.

There would be some challenges to making this workable. Parties could easily betray the spirit of such a policy by fielding women in more precarious seats, leading to an increase in women candidates but not necessarily an increase in women MPs returned to Westminster. The committee therefore suggests this would need to be coupled with placing women in ‘Winnable’ seats, but what is considered winnable is likely to vary from party to party. It is also likely to be tied to election strategy, and so parties may want to keep secret which seats they consider winnable, making it hard to measure the impact of such a policy.

The forthcoming Boundary Review will provide a vital test for for how seriously parties take their commitment to increasing the representation of women in parliament, with analysis by the Fawcett Society suggests could disproportionately unseat women MPs. There are widespread benefits of having a gender-balanced House of Commons,and it is fundamentally important that policy-making that is representative and fair.

It is of course not just in the House of Commons that women are markedly underrepresented. Take almost any other elected office and the pattern is replicated, whether that be Mayoral candidates, party directors, select committee chairs, or councillors in local government. The committee could have gone further to examine the role of systemic factors in sustaining the gender imbalance, a significant one being the First Past the Post electoral system.

Although the report does acknowledge that long-term incumbency, for example, tends to disproportionately disadvantage women, as incumbents tend to be men, the creation of such safe seats and other limitations placed on parties by single member seats can be attributed to the First Past the Post system. Moving to a proportional electoral system would not on its own increase the diversity of politics but it would significantly increase the number of methods parties could use to increase representation. It can also increase the choice for voters at the ballot box, allowing them to select women or ethnic minority candidates if they wish to do so.

The lack of diversity in parliament is a canary in the mine shaft, symptomatic of a system that inherently benefits the status quo and cedes overwhelmingly disproportionate power to a select group of individuals. It is not just women who are grossly under-represented, but also members of minority communities. Political parties are well placed to make immediate headway towards increasing the number of women, and whilst party leaders may be all too happy to agree in principle that equal representation is a good thing, they must also be willing to show leadership and take action.