By Professor Linda McKie, BSA Public Engagement Director
Much has been made of the increased numbers of women, black and ethnic minorities, disabled and new MPs who attended state schools. Regardless of how MPs, or media, choose to categorise our elected representatives there is change, but it is slow and concentrated in certain political parties. For example, if we continue with the current pace of change it will be 2062 before we see equal representation of women MPs. Next year marks the centenary of the election of Countess Markievicz and by the time we reach 2062 it will have taken 144 years to achieve parity. And that’s if we do!
Currently, the UK sits at 48th in the parliamentary equality league tables with Rwanda at number one. What is key here, is that Rwanda revised its electoral system and has quotas in place, as do many of the countries in the top ten such as Bolivia, Iceland and Sweden. If we look to devolved assemblies and the Scottish Parliament, all with proportional representation voting systems, diversity would appear to have stalled here too. In last year’s election in Scotland women accounted for 34.9% of MSPs, the same as 2011. It is interesting to note that similar analyses emerge if you review the profiles of local government councillors. At every level of representation, we can evidence the under-representation of diverse groups.
Why the slow pace of change in the composition of our elected representatives? Sociological and political analyses offer a range of explanations and recommendations. Core to many of these is the continued preference for white, male, middle class leadership styles and how diversity can be perceived as less good, less able, even weaker. We can cite the election of Preet Gill, the first female Sikh MP, with a degree in sociology and social work, as evidence of change. But why do many choose not to stand for parliament?
The barriers to active engagement in political activity start early on with the many images and examples of the “assumed” nature of leadership. Then there are the practicalities of everyday life with many of us aware of, and exhausted by, restricted access to resources and opportunities. Structures, social and economic closures, and prejudices combine, as do the daily and weekly pressures to achieve a decent life for families and those in need of care and support. The Jo Cox Women in Leadership Scheme is one that parties could emulate as any analysis of data demonstrates how completing that nomination form, working through selection processes and being supported in an electoral process, matters. Rosie Duffield, elected MP in Canterbury, is an early graduate of this scheme.
There is also the issue of the youth representation and should the voting age be reduced. Would this promote diversity? Voting rights, and the role of social media in news and analysis, are likely to be key issues in the BSA’s Youth Assembly, a regional activity to be piloted in the North East of England next February. More on this, and other public engagement activities, in coming news pieces.