Electoral reform is a feminist issue

The next UK parliament will not be gender-balanced. If we’re serious about this, we’d look at what other countries, and electoral systems, have achieved.

Eve Livingston
7 June 2017

A sign for Parliament Street, central London.

A sign for Parliament Street, central London. Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Regardless of what happens in this election, the UK will not have a gender-balanced parliament. Rather, it seems that the under-representation of women is one of the few constants we can rely on. Research commissioned by the Fawcett Society has predicted that, despite increases in the percentage of female candidates standing for major parties, parliament will likely see women’s representation flatline at under 30%.

Women’s representation in politics has been recognised as a major and enduring issue to tackle with numerous proposals for quotas, recruitment drives, and targeted trainings. Parliament’s own women and equalities select committee, for example, recently recommended new legislation to ensure that at least 45% of parties’ candidates are women. Meanwhile the Counting Women In coalition aims at “changing the political culture” more broadly, “so it works for and not against women”.

Less attention, however, has been focused on the complex but crucial issue of the electoral system itself – how the very mathematics of how our votes count might be holding women and minorities back in parliaments worldwide.

The UK follows what’s called a “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral model, where one seat is available per constituency and the winner is declared based on the highest number of votes in this area. The problem with such systems, says Claire McGing, a lecturer at Maynooth University in Ireland, is that “parties are restrained: they can only run one candidate and that has to be someone who appeals to the biggest number of voters”.

“That restricts their ability to diversify their tickets – they’ll go with their safe choice, usually their incumbent MP, who happens to be a white man”.

"It seems that the under-representation of women is one of the few constants we can rely on."

In 2012, the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that women globally won only 14% of seats contested under FPTP systems. In the 2015 UK general election, women were just 26% of candidates and 29% of MPs. Globally, across all countries and electoral systems, only two in every ten parliamentarians are women.

Changing the mathematics can make a difference. New Zealand never saw its percentage of female MPs rise much higher than 20% until 1993, when the country reformed its electoral system and moved from an FPTP model to what’s called a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. Since then, this figure has never fallen below 28%.

Scotland also has an MMP system – and, in its most recent parliamentary election, women made up 39% of candidates and 35% of those elected.

In one global study, published in 2005, Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris found that women’s representation in “plurality/majority systems” like FPTP was just 10.5%; in MMP systems: 13.6%; and in proportional representation (PR) systems: 19.6%.

Under PR systems, parties win seats proportionate to the votes cast in their favour. So if 30% support a particular party, it would win 30% of seats. MMP systems try to combine the strengths of PR with those of "plurality/majority" models – for example, by having voters cast two ballots: one, for an individual representative in their electoral area which is decided by FPTP, and another for a political party with seats allocated proportionally. (There are many variations of these different models, too).

Joe Sousek and Klina Jordan of Make Votes Matter, a cross-party campaign for PR in the UK, say that such systems are best for diversity because you can have multiple members elected in each constituency. This, they say, means “parties are incentivised to put forward balanced lists – and if they don’t then they’re hurting themselves, as voters will notice this”.

The Make Votes Matter alliance includes the Liberal Democrats, SNP, and the Green Party. It also includes the Women’s Equality Party, which passed a motion supporting PR at their 2016 party conference where party leader Sophie Walker declared: “We will fight to ensure the the UK, and its capital, moves towards a more enlightened and fair system of representation”.

Alexandra Runswick, director of the grassroots democratic reform campaign Unlock Democracy, echoes the benefits of multi-member constituencies under PR. She particularly praises what are called “list PR” systems, where “the voter can choose not just between different parties but also between different candidates representing them”.

The Fawcett Society has also released research supporting a link between PR systems and improved women’s representation. Meanwhile Frances Scott, the founder of 50:50 Parliament, a cross-party campaign set up to advance gender parity, said: “in an international context, evidence suggests that countries using PR systems see better levels of gender balance”.

"A more enlightened and fair system of representation.”

“In Sweden, all parties agree with ‘every other seat for a woman’ and their political institutions have better gender balance without any legislative quota,” Scott added, referring to a 'zipper system' whereby male and female candidates are alternated on parties' candidate lists. Sweden is one of the top ten countries worldwide in terms of the percentage of female parliamentarians – and a whole nine out of ten of these have electoral systems with some element of PR.

Internationally, a range of women’s organisations including refuge shelters and the National Council for Women last year signed up to the ‘Every Voter Counts’ Alliance in Canada, to advocate for PR and to hold Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – elected under FPTP – to account on an election pledge for electoral reform.

While electoral systems can be part of the solution, however, gender inequality in our parliaments today cannot solely be attributed to this issue.

“The electoral system is important, but it’s the way in which parties use the system which is key,” says McGing. In the case of Ireland, she says, “it wasn’t until legislation was introduced that said parties had to run 30% women candidates that we saw any change”.

It’s true, too, that focusing on women’s representation can come at the cost, however unintentional, of appearing to overlook or neglect other struggles and identities.

However, Katie Ghose, CEO of the Electoral Reform Society, says the features of PR which benefit women also have positive impacts for other marginalised groups. She says, while it “isn’t a silver bullet,” introducing PR in the UK would mean “opening up our political system to new parties and demographics, who would finally stand a chance of winning against the ‘traditional model’ candidate”.

Ultimately, the strongest approach to increasing women’s representation in parliaments seems to be a combination of electoral reform and accompanying party strategies designed explicitly to advance gender parity.

And the British issue is one of a political culture which is inhospitable to women, PR may have a positive impact here too. “Proportional democracies tend to be much more consensual and deliberative, and less confrontational,” says Sousek, with the Make Votes Matter campaign. “This generally creates more reasonable and equitable outcomes as well as processes”.

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