Revealed: how hundreds of seats are effectively ‘reserved’ by men at Westminster

New research released today shows how our electoral system is blocking progress towards greater gender equality in parliament. It’s time for a new frontier.   

Jess Garland
13 February 2018
Marking the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act. PA Images/Steve Parsons. All rights reserved

Image: Marking the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act. PA Images/Steve Parsons. All rights reserved

After a week of celebrating the extension of the right to vote, where does women’s representation go from here?

Recent elections have seen progress on women’s representation in Westminster. Yet it is slow. Two thirds of MPs are still men.

And when it comes to our democratic institutions, one factor has been largely ignored.

Parties point to increased action to put forward more women candidates. There are schemes to get more women into open contests.

Indeed, there has been some success. There is near gender parity among current MPs first elected in 2015 – 45% are women.

Yet this can only do so much in a system which ‘reserves’ seats for men. Of the 212 currently-serving MPs first elected in 2005 or before, just 42 (20%) are women.

The further you go back, the worse the picture. Of 44 current MPs first elected in 1992 or before, only eight of them – 18% – are women. And of course, the longer an MP holds his/her seat, the less likely a challenge seems. 

It represents a huge ‘bloc’ of our Parliament which is likely to stay in the hands of sitting male MPs.

The problem stems in part from the prevalence of ‘safe seats’ under Westminster’s voting system, meaning that once a seat is in an MP’s hands, it may be theirs for decades.

But the primary issue is that with only one MP per seat – unlike the situation in many other democracies – individuals control a monopoly on representation, and then entrench that monopoly.

It means there is only one opportunity per area for a party to win power – once they have the ‘winning’ candidate, they are likely to stick with the incumbent as the safe option, meaning hundreds of seats are effectively ‘blocked’ from new, more diverse candidates, particularly in the many safe seats created by one-member, First Past the Post constituencies. 

170 seats are held by men first elected in 2005 or before, leaving few opportunities for women to take those seats or selections.

This isn’t to blame individuals – but a system which limits opportunities. Long-held seats were first elected in much more unequal times – four out of five MPs first elected in 2005 or before are men, with little hope of diversity or space for new candidates unless they stand down.

While parties have made strides in recent elections, without changing the system, it is hard to see how further progress will be other than glacial. Indeed progress has slowed in recent years. It’s easy to see why when there is a constant ‘buffer’ on gender parity.

Westminster’s voting system is widely regarded as one of the worst in the world when it comes to gender equality. But stagnation is not inevitable.

Multi-member seats under a proportional voting system would ensure all seats are properly contested, creating opportunities for women candidates.

Too often under the present system, those opportunities are simply not there: in the 2017 General Election only 99 of the 650 seats elected a new representative (and 12 of these were former MPs).

There is a difficult realisation here: calling for parties to do more with the handful of open seats will only produce modest gains from now on.

It means they need to look more closely at the large number of seats which are effectively ‘reserved’ by incumbent men.

As parties evaluate their progress towards equal representation, they should make an honest assessment of what the continued use of Westminster’s voting system means for achieving equality.

To get the best Parliament possible – to stir it up, to introduce new perspectives and to add some much-needed dynamism into the chambers of parliament – we need a proportional voting system that puts real democracy at the heart of our politics.

We don’t have to settle for an unequal Parliament. And while the headlines focus on so-called ‘bed-blocking’ in the NHS this winter, the crisis women face this centenary is seat-blocking. It’s time for parties to be honest about the solutions.

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