Positive action or a portrait in miniature?

Political representation and diversity
Keith Sutherland
2 March 2010

Trevor Phillips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, claimed on Sunday that it is time for “positive action” to end the predominance of “white, middle-class lawyers” in parliament. Speaking ahead of an online conference, Human Rights in the Post-Election UK, he called on the three main party leaders to ensure that the next generation of MPs more accurately reflects the social makeup of the population.

Phillips believes that efforts by all three parties to broaden the ethnic and gender diversity of MPs have failed to make parliament a genuine reflection of society, and that far too many MPs are former Oxbridge PPEs. In an article in the Sunday Times he claimed “We don’t want a veneer of diversity. We want real diversity. We want to open doors.”

Notwithstanding the recent emphasis on correcting gender and ethnicity imbalances, occupational diversity has declined sharply over the last two decades. Although recent occupants of the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons include a sheet-metal worker, a tailor and a Tiller Girl, the honourable members that they call to order are drawn almost entirely from the same pool of party-worker turned professional politician, possessing little of what Denis Healey referred to as ‘hinterland’.

Phillips’s observation that modern legislatures are nothing like the ‘portrait in miniature’ of the whole society imagined by the American founders is hardly a new one. Ernest Callenbach and Michael Philips argued some twenty years ago in A Citizen Legislature that a true ‘house of representatives’ should contain:

50% women; 12% Blacks; 6% Latinos; 25% blue-collar workers; 10% unemployed persons; two doctors or dentists; one school administrator; two accountants; one real estate agent; eight teachers; one scientist; four bookkeepers; nine food service workers; one childcare worker; three carpenters; four farm laborers; three auto mechanics; one fire fighter; one computer specialist; and a Buddhist.

No amount of ‘positive action’ over party shortlists could ever achieve this sort of diversity, the only way to achieve true representational diversity is via random sampling by lot. The problem is that the descriptive form of representation achieved by the lot would only fulfil one aspect of democratic politics – that legislators should, as far as possible, resemble the electorate from which they are drawn.

However, as Hannah Pitkin argued in The Concept of Representation, political representation is also an activity. It’s simply not possible to assume that a ‘portrait in miniature’ will automatically (or ‘spontaneously’, in the words of Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by Lottery) act in the interests of the populations that it descriptively represents.

The active aspect of political representation is the setting of the agenda for legislative deliberation. To Rousseau this was the natural prerogative of the ‘magistrate’ (government department), but we now view this as an essentially political matter, best decided by comparing manifestos of competing political parties during general elections. It’s hard to imagine a more impartial way than elections for setting the political agenda – by sharp contrast to advocates of ‘deliberative’ democracy who are content to let the agenda ‘emerge’ through the sheer power of discursive debate within the randomly-selected group.

The problem is that we currently expect our political representatives to combine both functions – to (descriptively) represent the electorate from which they are drawn and also to (actively) set the agenda for the debate and to argue its merits. Randomly-selected legislators are highly unlikely to have the necessary expertise and rhetorical skills, so the agenda is likely to be dominated by those few people in the legislature that happen to possess those skills. Hardly a passport to democratic equality.

It is now over 250 years since Montesquieu wrote his famous treatise on the separation of powers, so we have had plenty of time to acknowledge the logical and empirical impossibility of fusing two distinct constitutional prerogatives in one body. In every case the stronger party will trump the weaker. If the executive is drawn from the legislature (as in the UK), then the latter will inevitably become the poodle of the former. If legislators are elected on a party ticket then, unless the electorate can be adequately ‘described’ in terms of only a few binary characteristics (rich/poor, bosses/workers, male/female, black/white, liberal/conservative etc – and then the impossible task of aggregating these binaries) then the party ticket will inevitably trump descriptive representation. No amount of tinkering by Mr. Phillips’s quango can possibly correct that.

Why not then simply split the representative function into its two component elements? (descriptive and active). Select legislators by lot but allow political parties to offer their competing manifestos during an election campaign. The party/parties that win the biggest popular vote (or the advocates for the winning campaign issues) would then have the right to present their manifesto commitments before the descriptively representative (randomly-selected) legislature. The dominant party/parties would still need to win the argument in the randomly-selected legislature, so this should keep a) Trevor Phillips, b) policy wonks and c) deliberative democrats happy without the inevitable compromise of trying to embody logically-distinct functions in a single constitutional element.

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