Monday 5 July 2010

Why a smaller Commons will set back progress to gender equality in Parliament

One curious feature about the government's proposals is that they conflate three issues, not simply two as is commonly claimed, namely:

(a) a referendum on the voting system
(b) the proposal to equalise constituency sizes.
(c) reducing the size of the House of Commons, so that there are a much smaller number of equalised constituencies.

Whatever the other merits for and against (c) - a House of Commons capped at 600 - where the government clearly thinks "less politicians" will strike a populist chord, I have not seen any comment on what appears to be one of its easily foreseeable impacts: that a smaller Commons will almost certainly delay and slow down progress towards gender equality in the House of Commons, something which both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have said is an important priority for them.

They have both said that progress is too slow and must be speeded up. That their smaller Commons proposal will achieve the opposite is an eminently foreseeable direct consequence of the decision to shrink the House of Commons.

The reasons are very simple: it would be very difficult to find any evidence to predict any other outcome.

(i) The reduction in the size of the House makes it extremely likely that the new intake in 2015 will be one of the smallest in recent political history.

This was already quite likely, because the new intake in the class of 2010 is the largest in recent times. (On average, MPs serve for three terms in the House of Commons, with the vast majority serving between one and six terms before either defeat or retirement). But this is an impact which will be considerably exacerbated by the decision to shrink the House.

The number of retirements was unusually high before 1997 and 2010. Outside of those two unusual years - in which a long-standing government was coming to the end of its life after 18 and 13 years respectively, and with the MPs expenses having a major effect in 2010 - the number of retirements has usually around 60-80 in a Parliament, for other Parliaments from 1979-2005.

That historic pattern makes it reasonable to estimate that perhaps 570 to 590 of the 650 curent MPs would seek re-election in 2015. That is perhaps on the low side: we would expect the number to be somewhat closer to 590 or perhaps higher still, given that a record number of MPs - no fewer than 232 - are in their first term. If the Commons was remaining at 650 seats, we would expect there to be around 60-80 seats where new candidates might enter the lists to defend a seat already held by their party.

There is no reason to think that fewer than 570 to 590 current MPs will seek re-election (and some reason to suppose that more will do so), they will be doing so in pursuit of candidacies and seats in a House of just 600. There will be fewer opportunities for new candidates to defend a seat that their party holds than at any recent General Election.

It is almost certain that most of the turnover of MPs in 2015 will come from seats changing parties: there is usually a much more even balance, with more new entrants than not usually (outside landslide elections like 1997) replacing a sitting MP of their own party. For example, one-third of new Tory MPs (51 out of 148) and a majority of the 232 new MPs overall won seats their parties already held in 2010.

As a result, I predict there will be fewer new MPs in 2015 than at any recent General election. Quite probably, only a Labour landslide could prevent this!

(ii) Why will that have a clear gender impact? It is because new cohorts of entries to the House of Commons are very likely to be more equal than the House as a whole in terms of both gender and ethnicity.

This can be seen very clearly in comparing the 2010 cohort to the House as a whole.

For example, the House of Commons as a whole is now 21.4% female, with 139 women MPs in total. However, the class of 2010 was 35.3% female - with 82 of the 232 newly elected MPs being women.

The Labour benches are now 31% female, with women making up 46% (31 out of 67) of the Labour 2010 intake.

The Conservative benches have only 48 women among their 306 MPs (15.6%), yet 24% (36 out of 148) of the Conservative 2010 intake are female.

The LibDems have only women MPs (12%), and only 10% (one in 10) of their class of 2010. Those outcomes suggest that the party has not matched the other two parties in making progress towards equality. Nick Clegg has said that speeding up progress is an important priority.

While new intakes are not themselves 50% men and 50% women, they have got closer to equity in recent cohorts than was the case before 1997 for Labour and before 2005-2010 for the Conservatives.

One thing which will speed up gender equity overall will be larger intakes into the House of Commons; and one thing which slows it down is smaller new intakes.

The Coalition says it is fully committed to speeding up equal representation for women in Parliament. It has, no doubt unwittingly, produced a proposal which will almost inevitably slow that down.

Something similar is true of BME representation. Indeed, the Labour class of 2010 was 10.7% BME (with fair chances for new candidates clearly established) taking the overall PLP to 6% now, whereas both the new intake and the PLP as a whole were 2% non-white in 1997. With the Conservatives (though not the LibDems) now making progress too, the most effective way to move towards a Parliament that looks like Britain would be to maintain or accelerate the turnover of MPs. Instead, the government will slow it down, and so the record progress made in 2010 will also stall.

The new Parliament should hold a debate on the report of the Speakers' Conference, to discuss future steps towards the goal, rhetorically shared by all parties, of greater diversity. I would have thought it would be a good idea for the impact of a smaller House on Parliamentary diversity to be considered by a relevant Select Committee and on the floor of the House.


What could be done about this? I am not sure that anything effective could be done to remedy this probable and foreseeable outcome (other than a Labour landslide!) if the government sticks to its plan.

One thing could be attempted, which is that each of the parties should say that the redrawing of all boundaries means that they will open up from scratch selections for every seat, whether or not existing MPs wish to stand again. This might make some difference at the margin. For the Conservatives and LibDems, it would symbolically in tune with "new politics" rhetoric.

There are two problems: it would have the potential to be somewhat unpopular with current incumbents, who might already be not 110% gruntled about the reduction of the number of seats.

And, even if were introduced over their objections, in practice, this would be unlikely to make much difference. it would very probably be more symbolic than practical, as existing MPs would often have very strong practical advantages and would start off as strong favourites in most "open" contests where they were effectively incumbents.

However, if some this is not done, then it seems very straightforward to predict a smaller class of 2015, because of the reduction of the size of the House, and so an all but inevitable a slowing down even of the recent gradual progress towards gender equality. (Another consequence which does not seem to have been commented upon is that there is also an impact on the Coalition Agreement's proposal to introduce (and publicly fund) up to 200 open primaries, particularly in "safe seats", in proportion to parties' share of the vote. Would it be considered legitimate to hold and publicly fund these if a sitting MP was among the candidates?)

These proposals is intended to be part of the "new politics". Their practical effect will be to put up a "political class - closed to new talent" sign, however much the Prime Minister and his Deputy might have intended the opposite.


Harry Barnes said...

(a) Over 3 million people otherwise entitled to vote were missing from the registers at the General Election. This is even a more serious problem when a referendum takes place if the outcome is decided by a small majority.
(b) Those missing from the registers form high percentages of the young, the poor, ethnic minorities and the rootless who often live in bedsitter land. These groups are maldistributed and thus distort the drawing of constituency boundaries. Before we have a major redrawing of boundaries, the missing millions should be placed on electoral registers.
(c) If the number of MPs are cut by 50, how will this effect the balance of MPs between the front and back benches? If things plough on as they are, it will mean that in effect 50 back bench places will go. So much for the Wright reforms which were supposed to advance the influence of MPs especially over the Executive.

Jane Chelliah said...

I don't think many women will be alarmed by the thought of their political prospects being diminshed by a smaller Commons because women, generally, aren't as interested in politics as the academic argument on gender representation makes them out to be. I have written on my own blog, concidentally, about how young girls today are far more interested in becoming WAGS than using their intellectual powers.
Can we not start to accept the reality of the gender debate and tackle it at grass roots level? The top-down approach of positive selection processes and quotas isn't incorporating an analysis of why women aren't going into politics.
I can offer a personal anecdote as an insight. My 10 year old daughter is seen by her female peers as being odd because of her interest in politics. She is grateful to Ed Miliband for talking about how he was considered uncool when he was growing up. If it is starting at this age then I can only assume that when these girls are adults any thoughts of them going into politics will be as remote as the concept of the paperless office.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Labour have always supported a smaller House of Commons. The existing legislation puts the optimal size of the Commons at 619 and Labour have never sought to change this. The reduction takes us closer to that optimal size than at present so it is a little late - 13 years to late - to cry foul now.