The unrepresentative House: the inconvenient truth about our Members of Parliament

Is a prejudiced British electorate solely responsible for an unrepresentative House of Commons?

Daniel Ozarow
14 September 2015
House of Commons.jpg

Flickr/ UK Parliament. Some rights reserved.

Last week as part of his vision for a Labour leadership, Jeremy Corbyn announced plans to establish a fund to aid party members from working-class backgrounds to become MPs. In doing so he has reignited the debate about the need to prevent our Parliament from continued domination by a wealthy and privileged elite, whilst highlighting the urgency with which our elected representatives must reconnect with their constituents if the legitimacy of our democratic institutions is to be preserved.

The selection procedure that Members of Parliament undergo when seeking employment is unique among UK employers. While candidates are usually recruited and later nominated to stand by local or national political parties, they are elected by the public. Yet despite improvements in recent years, the House of Commons remains acutely unrepresentative of the British population it serves. Following the 2015 general election, according to the Parliamentary Candidates UK project, only 191 of the 650 MPs elected were women (29% of the total), meaning that the UK languishes 43rd internationally (below Rwanda, Nicaragua, Algeria and Zimbabwe) for gender diversity. Worse still, just 42 (7%) were from ethnic minorities – half of their proportion of the national population. Only a handful had a registered disability.

In the wake of the recent 2015 General Election, we must ask ourselves whether the lack of parliamentary diversity means that we, the British electorate, are among the most prejudiced “employers” around. If not, then how can the acute under-representation of different “minority” groups be accounted for?

The British electorate as a prejudiced selection panel?

There is no evidence that the British public acts as an instinctively prejudiced selection panel. Indeed there are four principal reasons why the electorate’s choice of MP is skewed towards being a white male over the age of 40 (as well over half of all MPs are) before they even cast their vote.

First the UK’s inherently undemocratic and arcane voting system means that nearly 56% of MP’s are elected in ‘‘safe seats’’ according to the Electoral Reform Society. Thus it is how parties select their candidates –especially in these constituencies– that heavily influence who does and does not become and MP.

Secondly, until recently, internal selection procedures to determine who stands as a parliamentary candidate have been restricted to local party members. Although the Green Party, Scottish National Party and UK Independence Party have bucked the trend with soaring membership in recent years, the three political parties with the greatest representation in Westminster (Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats) have been haemorrhaging members since the 1970s. In Labour’s case this trend has only been reversed very recently in the run up to its leadership contest. As a result, candidates are usually selected by a handful of local party activists who themselves may either not be especially representative of the general population or not consider diversity to be a key criterion for candidate nomination.

The third underlying problem pertains to social class. Of the 525 newly-elected MPs in 2015 for whom data is available, 427 went to university (81%) compared to a fifth of the adult population and 131 (31%) of whom went to Oxford or Cambridge University. Further some 25% attended private schools (compared to 7% of the general population). Such schools have traditionally taught students how to be confident and successful at public speaking, an important skill for many top jobs -including political positions- to the detriment of aspiring candidates from less privileged backgrounds. A similar story is witnessed in terms of MPs’ occupations. Two thirds hail from the professions or business, whereas the proportion of manual workers or farmers fell from 20% to just 4% between 1979-2015. Those with middle-class backgrounds are better equipped to exploit networking opportunities and traverse the necessary political terrain in party infrastructures to both be nominated as a candidate and then achieve power.

Diversity is also negatively impacted in other ways. For instance, working-class people tend to feel more estranged from the bourgeois political process, so are increasingly unlikely to join political parties, let alone become parliamentary candidates. Meanwhile, Black Caribbean men are significantly underrepresented among the UK university population and on average come from less affluent backgrounds, so face disadvantages in terms of their chances of gaining nomination.

Fourth and finally, levels of political engagement are also far lower among minority groups. Although eligible ethnic minority citizens are just as likely to vote as their white counterparts, they are less likely to join political parties. In the 2010 election a million fewer women voted than men. If fewer women and ethnic-minority (BME) citizens are politically active in the first place, then they will be less likely to want to become candidates.

Diversity: a vote-winner and fosters more rounded decision-making

A recent report based upon Hansard Society data on political engagement revealed that rising political disaffection is being fuelled by “spin” and a perceived lack of accountability in the British political system. However a secondary finding was that confidence would increase if MPs appeared to be more like the people who elected them; that they should come from more diverse backgrounds.

HRM theorists argue that diverse teams and the associated independent thinking that different perspectives bring, lead to better decision-making. Parliament is no different and concerns have led to two major innovations in recent years. First, since 1993 Labour has been using all-women shortlists, a form of “affirmative action” which is permitted under the Equalities Act (2010) in order to address Parliament’s gender imbalance. However the policy did nothing for ethnic under-representation and in the 1997 Parliamentary intake, all of the MPs selected using all-women shortlists were White. Another criticism is that the policy is “undemocratic”, and is a “form of discrimination against men” because it ignores the merit principle. This has generated internal tensions within parties that have used them.

The second important change was the Conservatives’ use of open-primary ballots in which party members were joined by non-members from the public to elect some of its candidates for the 2010 and then 2015 general election. They also introduced an “A-list” in 2005 whereby its central office selected candidates from minority groups and women in top target seats as a means to increase its MPs from those backgrounds. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats’ “leadership program” provides mentoring and support to candidates from under-represented groups.

Organic versus enforced diversity

Although these top-down initiatives have improved its diversity during the past decade, they have failed to achieve a House of Commons that looks anything like the general population. Following the 2015 General Election, 43% of the Labour MPs returned were women, compared to 36% of the SNP’s, 21% of the Conservatives’, and none of the Liberal Democrat MPs. In terms of BME MPs, the failure was even more marked, with Labour having just 23, the Conservatives 18 one SNP and the Lib Dems none.

These policies have not worked because there has been a shortage of women or those from minority backgrounds putting themselves forward as candidates.

 The case of the Green Party also suggests that factors other than leadership intervention are at play in fostering diversity. The Greens achieved the highest proportion of female parliamentary candidates for the 2015 General Election despite the fact that they are selected purely by local party members and without the need for quotas or central office interference by naming candidates. The stipulation is that a woman must appear as a nominee for the ballot to take place for all its internal ballots for elected office. It is also the only party with a BME deputy leader - Shahrar Ali (the Party has two, one of which must be a woman). This suggests that attitudinal tendencies among members of different parties, varying degrees of internal party democracy and supportive cultures or structures may hold more explanatory power in organically promoting the emergence of such candidates than “quota regulation”, especially where gender is concerned.

Intervention by party leaders may also come at the expense of local party autonomy and cause conflict with local activists. Open-primary elections act as a disincentive for party-based membership involvement and also leave the process greatly exposed to entryist tactics by well-financed pressure groups that may (legitimately or illegitimately) exert influence and numbers from among their own supporters to vote-in their preferred candidate. The coalition government 2010-15 abandoned its original idea of state-funded primaries in 2010, perhaps aware of the potential threats to democracy of a descent into clientelist politics. Detractors of the open-primary system point to the Labour leadership contest to argue that such a process would be fraught with difficulties.

Instead, encouraging greater diversity of “supply” among candidates from non-traditional backgrounds must be the policy focus. Practices must aim to stimulate the involvement of such groups in the political process and reduce their barriers to standing in elections. “Short money” (annual state funding to opposition parties for organizing costs) should be extended to also specifically fund their women’s, BME, disability and LGBT caucus groups, with similar allocations made to the ruling party’s respective groups. Grants should also be made available to organizations that promote the political empowerment of minorities that operate outside the party system, especially those that work with young people.

Political parties also need to radically rethink how they might attract a diverse range of members. Biases in their parliamentary candidates’ selection process towards people with a narrow range of professional backgrounds can be reduced through assessment processes that identify those with the potential to become a successful MP, then providing them with the necessary training and support – before and after election. The cost of standing for Parliament (in terms of forfeited income and direct expenses) also deters poorer candidates. Women, people with disabilities and those without a privileged education are disproportionately affected as they tend to have lower incomes or face greater child-care or personal-support costs. The Speaker’s commission on parliamentary representation recently recommended that means-tested bursaries should be offered to parliamentary candidates to enable a wider range of people to come forward.

Finally, fundamental electoral reform is necessary to end the prominence of white, male, middle-class and older candidates being re-elected in safe seats under the first-past-the-post system. The British electorate, not parties, should have a greater say in who their MPs are. Electoral systems such as proportional representation or additional-member voting are more democratic and promote a multi- rather than a bi-party political agenda. Such systems will also establish much needed ideological diversity as opposed to the current Westminster consensus around the need to deepen neo-liberalism and austerity, which is itself fostering powerlessness and disaffection. The need for a representative House must urgently be addressed so that our MPs look, sound and think more like us.


This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in Human Resource Management International Digest 13(5) (Emerald Group Publishing) in August 2015.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData