The End of an Era in Pension Reform

By Professor Deborah Mabbett

The Financial Times (20 March) called it ‘the biggest pensions revolution for almost a century’ but their timing is a few decades out. The Chancellor’s budget announcement on the lifting of constraints on drawing down retirement pension pots is the end of an era that began, not in 1921, but in the 1980s. Under Thatcher, the government sought to curtail spending on the state pension and promote private provision of retirement income. Private pensions would, supposedly, perform so well that state provision could die back under the heavy mulch of the funded layer, managed by our cutting-edge financial services industry and reaping the high returns that followed the big bang of financial market liberalisation.

What happened instead was that the inadequacy of the National Insurance pension, linked to prices at a time when wages were rising strongly, brought increasing numbers of elderly people into the means-tested part of the social security system. This system was made more generous under Labour, which at least did something to address the problem of pensioner poverty. But it damaged the strategy of promoting private funded provision, because savers faced a ‘better off’problem. Basically, it was not worth saving for retirement if the expected level of savings was insufficient to steer clear of means-testing.

It was against this background that the Turner review found that we must return to a basic state pension, whether universal or contributions-based, which would be adequate to live on, so that means-tested supplementation could be put back in its box. This was strongly supported by the financial services industry, which had detected the potential for another mis-selling scandal affecting private pensions taken out by low income earners.

The industry’s problem became the government’s problem with the advent of automatic enrolment. While this has been marketed to the public as a clever application of behavioural economics, its public policy feedback effects have been neglected. If a government tells everyone that they will be better off saving for their retirement, and ensures that they are defaulted into schemes, then it risks some pronounced negative feedback if people are not in fact better off. Thus the recent scramble to find ways of ensuring that excessive fees are not skimmed from auto-enrolled pensions, and thus the decision announced in the budget to allow people to draw on their savings pots as they please.

The government is taking a risk: it is quite likely that many pots will be used up early in retirement, leaving people dependent on the state pension alone. The calculation is that the state pension will have to be paid anyway, so there are no savings for the Exchequer to be reaped from limiting drawdown. This assumes that means-tested supplementation will shrink and become confined to people who would never have saved for retirement. This is the point of the Triple Lock: it will keep the state pension at a sufficient level of adequacy. For historians of social policy, this is not the biggest change in a century but a return to Beveridge, who planned that flat-rate National Insurance benefits would drive out the remnants of the Poor Law. That plan failed, but this one might succeed, because the costs of failure will rebound on a government that has become in effect the main sales agent for private pensions.

The budget announcement has been pitched as an end to compulsory annuitization, brought about by the failings of the annuities market, supposedly about to be forensically exposed by a now-redundant retirement income Market Study. This is smoke and mirrors. The media have proved wonderfully manipulable: few have pointed out that compulsory annuitization ended in April 2011. What stayed after 2011, and has now gone, was a set of rules limiting the drawdown of funds from pension pots. These limits were set with reference to annuity values, but the government had the option of allowing more drawdown, and it exercised this option recently when it raised the drawdown limit to 120% of the corresponding annuity value. If annuities market failure was the problem, the drawdown limit could have been raised further.

The real problem is not the annuities market, but low interest rates on low-risk investments. Low returns are making money purchase pensions look rather sickly at the point of retirement, but they look twice as ill on a realistic assessment of the income stream they will generate. So let’s use a bit more behavioural economics, this time to cover the tracks of low returns. People value the lump of money in their pot at retirement way above the income stream it will generate. The government can avoid a tide of complaint about the results of auto-enrolment by letting people take their pots as lump sums.

Um – so what is the point of auto enrolment, since it is not to generate a retirement income? Some will invest the money differently: by paying off their mortgage, or buying a rental property. Buying a new car (preferably one that does not depreciate as fast as a Lamborghini), or replacing domestic appliances, or double-glazing the windows, might also be sensible decisions. The government is right that people may find better ways to use the money than the financial services industry can offer them, but it still leaves the question of why exactly auto-enrolment took this money in the first place. Why only get the lump sum at retirement? What about other times in life when a lump sum is useful? Perhaps we should just be allowed to draw down our pots every ten years or so? It’s not a rhetorical question: New Zealanders can draw on their auto-enrolled KiwiSaver pots to buy their houses; Americans can take money out of their 401k schemes if they are made redundant or face other major costly events.

It is well-known in public policy-making that problems are redefined to fit the solutions that are available. The solution is auto-enrolment, that beacon of ‘nudge’ policy-making. With a bit of imagination, we find a problem for it to solve. Here it is. The age of eligibility for the state pension is rising. Some people are working longer, but many are not. Life is tough for those who stop working before the state pension age. The available benefits have been cut in real terms: no triple lock for them. The process of claiming benefits, designed to deter scroungers and benefit tourists, will keep many self-respecting citizens from entering the doors of JobCentre Plus. How to survive until reaching pensionable age and entering the promised land, protected by Conservative voters? Answer: tap the pension pot that has been accumulated, which can be accessed ten years before the state pension age. Draw it down carefully, working towards the definite end date of pensionable age, not to an uncertain life expectancy.

One final question: what about those who really want to save to provide income for their retirement, and do not want to be a landlord, or run their own share portfolio? The Chancellor does have something for them after all. For people aged 65 and over, NS&I will launch ‘market leading’ pensioner bonds, paying a significantly higher return than other safe assets. The financial crisis taught everyone that the financial system is underpinned by the state, but large parts of the industry already knew that. The annuities market in particular has always been heavily dependent on the government to provide the financial instruments that it needs to match its liabilities. Reformers have periodically advocated that the government should boost the market by creating tailor-made instruments such as ‘longevity bonds’ that would shift some risks from the insurer to the taxpayer, a process which we’re now all thoroughly familiar with.  In this light, the new bonds from NS&I are a great step forward: pensioners will be able to secure an income stream directly from the government, rather than paying the masters of the financial universe to buy government bonds on their behalf. No wonder the share prices of some financial intermediaries fell. At this rate, we’ll return to having a welfare state by the back door. It might be expensive, but now that we know how much financial intermediation can cost, the welfare state is beginning to look like quite a good idea.

Prime Minister’s Questions as Masculinity

By Professor Joni Lovenduski 

PMQs are a prominent feature of political news routinely reported by journalists. They are a recurring topic in parliamentary sketches and Wednesday news bulletins. The reports offer some largely unchallenged received wisdom. We are told that PMQs are a ‘Punch and Judy’ show, a gladiatorial contest between party leaders who falter at their peril. Their adversarial nature bears responsibility for putting the public off politics but it is a loved and necessary part of the theatre of British politics.

It is the most famous parliamentary session anywhere in the world. In Britain it is both reviled and relished. The present Speaker, John Bercow, knows that for the most part the public dislikes the schoolboy rowdyism and tries periodically to quieten things down. He rarely succeeds for long.

Simon Hoggart, Guardian, 2011.

Bercow’s reported views are shared by women MPs and feminist observers of parliament who contend that the occasion is particularly off putting to women, so much so that they explain women’s relatively lower levels of interest in politics and also their reluctance to become parliamentarians. There is plenty of evidence that the institution encourages sexism. For example the ‘calm down dear’ and Nadine Dorries ‘frustrated’ comments for which Cameron apologised, the Kenneth Clarke rape comment controversy, the recent row about efforts to cancel the international women’s day debate (disapproved of by some commentators as a ritual debate) and the fall in the numbers of women in government and cabinet positions may be an indicator of recidivism. The press are unrepentantly sexist. As recently as April 2011, The Telegraph ran a ‘whose boobs are these?’ item using photos of a woman MP sitting behind Ed Miliband during PMQs.[i]

I was interested in the claim that PMQs put women off politics so I commissioned a YouGov survey that explored public attitudes to it in 2010. I was surprised to find that not only were women and men generally positive to PMQ, women were slightly more positive than men.[ii] The survey research was not designed to pick up ambivalences and ambiguities in public attitudes. This is the terrain of qualitative work such as interviews and focus groups. Hence the recent Hansard (Tuned in or Turned Off 2014) research showing that the public are put off by some aspects of PMQ was focus group based.

My research found a discrepancy between voters and MPs (who had been interviewed and then surveyed about their attitudes to PMQs.) Among voters women are, if anything, more positive about PMQs than men while women MPs are less so. This is puzzling though some of it can be explained. The differences in attitudes of women MPs and women in the public may result from their different experiences of PMQs. The public see only the relatively more exciting (!) version of it that appears on TV.

Overall it is in the ritualised aspects of PMQs that we find institutionalised masculinity. The standards of good performance at PMQs were designed by and are best suited to particular kinds of male political actor. Women MPs say they would prefer substantive political discussions to confrontational argument a view that may well be shared by their male colleagues. However there is little about PMQs that reflects this. Its performance standard is one saturated with ideals of traditional masculinity and is difficult for most women and some men to emulate. The performance standards, which are reinforced by party competition, are compelling. Most members concede that the competitive aspects of the performance socialise MPs, help to bind party groups and maintain backbench morale. However, it also helps to embed and continue a logic of appropriateness that is not inclusive and may not be supported even by the actors who abide by them. One example of the effects of PMQs on performers is PM David Cameron’s widely criticised remarks to Nadine Dorries during PMQs. In an interview with Andrew Marr of the BBC, Cameron blamed the aggressive and confrontational atmosphere of the occasion for his remarks which he said ‘came out wrong’ and ‘caused the wrong impression…’. Cameron then underlined how PMQs norms affected his behaviour, saying ‘It’s not what I’m like, that’s not who I am’. (BBC News 2 October 2011). Similarly, when asked about her widely publicised conventionally adversarial performance opposite William Hague when taking PMQs on 8 July 2009, Harriet Harman stated that she had no choice but to follow the conventions when she took PMQs because she knew that was what her party wanted. ‘I had to do it that way’ she said. (October 28, 2011[iii]) Such examples indicate a very high level of awareness by individual actors of how embedded norms affect their own behaviour.

PMQs are a rule governed activity that supports a paradigm of politics which is internalised by MPs and accepted and internalised by the public. The ritual sustains the traditional masculine culture by continually repeating performances of adversarial confrontation. Performance is evaluated in terms of competitive success framed in the way that the discourse of sporting competitions, races or wars are framed. (Did David Cameron win over Ed Miliband during PMQs today?) Commentary, if often amusing and erudite, is rarely framed in terms of the contribution to policy made in the contributions to the debate. But for the public this is the best known of all of parliament’s activities, and likely its main notion of the functioning of parliamentary accountability. Generally the public thinks that PMQs are functional and their belief that parliament should hold government to account explains why. However this may be because it is all they know. Even if the practice is symbolic and ritualistic, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, if it is a means, perhaps the only means of securing accountability, it will be valued.

While PMQs undoubtedly contribute to the accountability of government to parliament, the ritual offers a model of behaviour in the political arena that affects not only how citizens and actors see politics but also how they see themselves. In short, PMQs performance accords to a logic of public masculinity that is accepted by both women and men voters. This is a barrier to women MPs and would-be politicians because it underpins an expectation that politics is an activity best performed by men. Some women MPs and many feminist observers of politics believe that PMQs performance requirements are a paradigmatic example of the type of posturing and strutting that puts women off politics and stops them from wanting to be politicians. At present good evidence that would enable fuller assessment of this important claim is not available.


[ii] For a full discussion of the study see Joni Lovenduski 2012 Prime Ministers Questions as Political Ritual British Politics Vol. 7, 4, 314–340.

Watch Professor Colin Crouch discuss his new book, Making Capitalism Fit for Society.

On Thursday 30 January, 2014, the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, in partnership with the Political Quarterly and the UCL Department of Political Science, held a public debate about Colin Crouch’s new book Making Capitalism Fit for Society.

Video from the event has now been published on the UCL Department of Political Science website, and can be viewed here.

Hot MPs or not? Attractiveness worth 2.3% in vote share (and other things learnt on Friday)

This post originally appeared on Revolts, the blog of Professor Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart, and it reports on the Centre’s recent conference on MPs and their constituents in contemporary democracies.

Friday saw a fascinating day-long seminar at Birkbeck college, on ‘MPs and their constituents in contemporary democracies’.  There were nine formal papers:

  1. Nick Vivyan & Markus Wagner: House or Home? Constituent preferences over representative activities
  2. Rosie Campbell & Philip Cowley: Designing the perfect politician: exploring desirable candidate characteristics using hypothetical biographies and survey experiments
  3. Vincent Tiberj: Yes they can: An experimental approach to the eligibility of ethnic minority candidates in France
  4. Michael Marsh: Parish pump and the preferential vote in Ireland
  5. Jocelyn Evans and Kai Arzheimer: Living in the wrong part of town: voter-candidate distance effects in the 2013 English local elections
  6. Caitlin Milazzo: Attractiveness and candidate popularity
  7. Andy Eggers, Markus Wagner & Nick Vivyan: Partisanship and punishment for MP misconduct
  8. Wolfgang Müller & Marcelo Jenny: Who MPs think their principals are
  9. Rosie Campbell & Joni Lovenduski: What characterises a good MP?  Public and Parliamentarians views compared

Amongst the many things you’d have learnt had you been there was that candidate attractiveness can be worth up to 2.3% in vote share (and this in proper grown up Westminster elections, not Mickey Mouse ones like Police Commissioners…); that British MPs basically spend their time doing the things that voters say they want them to do, and in roughly the right proportions; and that, out of an 18-country study, the country in which MPs were most likely to say that their primary representative role was to represent their constituents – as opposed to their party, or their country, or a particular social group – was Britain.  That last finding was from the Müller and Jenny paper.  One might quibble with the interpretation of this – MPs may say that, but do they mean it? – but even so it is still revealing as the thing that they think they must say.  The country with the most party-centred representatives was Denmark; that with the most country-focussed was Estonia.

Parliamentary Puzzle 3: What Do Peers Do?

By Dr Ben Worthy reports on an visit by Baroness Bakewell to the Department of Politics Parliamentary Studies course

This post originally featured on our sister blog, 10 Gower Street.

In our Parliamentary Studies course, Baroness Bakewell of Stockport, the President of Birkbeck, spoke to the class about her experience as a Peer in the House of Lords.

Baroness Bakewell spoke of how it felt to be appointed to the House of Lords in 2011. As you would expect, the House of Lords is a very traditional place. The tradition is contained within the buildings and space as well as the ceremonies and rituals, from the grand state opening to the forms of address between members (called ‘Peers’).

It is also a rather calm and ‘nice’ place. Politics and debate is conducted in an ordered way and Peers regulate themselves in discussion. Unlike the House of Commons down the corridor, members are often towards the end of their professional career with less ambition and, most importantly, no pressure to be re-elected. For a great exploration of how it feels to be there, I’d recommend a look at Dr. Emma Crewe’s anthropological study.

Yet, as Baroness Bakewell explained, the House of Lords is more than this ‘nice’ place. First, it is a highly expert place. Baroness Bakewell pointed out that the Lords contains a high number of the very people you would want in any ‘revising chamber’ – lawyers. It also has academics, surgeons and members of the military (as well as plenty of ex-politicians), many of whom continue with their professional careers part-time.  Sitting in on debates, she said, means you always learn something.  To get an idea of the variety, see this table of expertise from 2010 study by Meg Russell and Meghan Benton.

This means that discussion in the House of Lords is often backed up with knowledge. This expertise means the Lords can and, increasingly, will question and, ultimately, temporarily block government legislation. Baroness Bakewell had just returned from debate around the  Anti-Social, Crime and Policing Bill. In this case, the House of Lords rejected the government proposals after a lengthy analysis of its clauses.

Second, the House of Lords is also changing. The composition is shifting . In fact, up until the last General Election in 2010 there were more women in the upper (unelected) House of Lords than in the lower (elected) House of Commons. Not only is it changing in terms of numbers. Its opening up to the world and spending more time explaining what it does-see this great collection of House of Lords bloggers. There’s also the brand new Lords Digital Chamber which brings together the tweets, blogs and videos of all the Peers.

Our ideas about the House of Lords come from the images and ideas about privilege, tradition and aristocracy. But it isn’t all like that. The House of Lords is changing. As Baroness Bakewell pointed out, it’s more professional, more knowledgeable and more assertive. Governments should beware.

The Department of Politics would like to thank Baroness Bakewell for taking the time to speak with the staff and students.

Cracks in the glass ceiling: mentoring programme evalution report

By Christine Megson, coordinator of the Fabian Women mentoring programme.

This post originally appeared on the Fabian Women blog

glassceiling_FWN_web.inddToday the Fabian Women’s Network and Birbeck, University of London launch Cracks in the glass ceiling: Assessing the Fabian Women’s Network’s mentoring programme.

A timely but chance encounter led to the creation of the Fabian Women’s Network (FWN) Mentoring and Political Education Programme. When I met Felicity a student studying politics and French at an annual FWN reception, I asked the obvious What Next question. For women interested in politics without role models at home or local networks there is no easy way of knowing what answers you can give to this question. Even if you are clear on what you want to achieve, the route can be difficult to navigate and particularly so if you live outside London.

As I looked round the room of Fabian women and saw members of the cabinet, MPs, the prime minister’s wife, peers, chief executives of charities and a campaigner against child poverty, I realised the answer was in the room. Within the FWN there exists massive social and intellectual capital just waiting to be tapped and Fabians tend to share the same values. I was a mentor at the time and realised how powerful the process could be. Felicity and I approached Seema Malhotra, FWN director, and the planning of the first mentoring programme began. 75 amazing women in three cohorts have benefited to date.

The aims of the programme are to increase women’s political understanding and the impact and influence of women in politics and public life. There are many women who we see as having “made it” in that they have got to the “top” in their chosen field, but the common theme they relate to us is that it was a harder journey than it should have been and took a longer period of time. They recount the difficulties of navigating choices, often without empathy from work colleagues, not knowing who to ask for advice, and the challenges of work/life balance that women tend to face more than men at different stages of their lives.

We knew that in addition to mentoring we needed to organise a flexible skills training programme based on a robust political skills framework Seema devised from her own experience. We use the power of place so participants can feel what it is like to sit round the Shadow Cabinet Room table or gain confidence in talking about Europe from sitting in the European Parliament. The model needs consistent support with invaluable input from Caroline Adams from the Parliamentary Labour Party but draws on expertise from within the group.

The strength of the peer network is the backbone of the programme and is what will sustain it for years to come. At each induction there is immediate respect of the sheer wealth of experience and diversity in the room. As planned, we have attracted women from their 20s to their 60s, from different social class and ethnic backgrounds and all sectors of employment. This remains a strong objective so we widen the range and appeal of the scheme. A ‘buddying’ system from earlier cohorts allows new mentees to extend their networks.

Since the programme began nearly 30 women have put themselves up for selection at local, national and European level, often earlier than planned; a number have become trustees of charities and many have rapidly gained promotion at work. They have published articles and spoken at conferences and in the media. Each of these has acted as a role model and inspiration to the rest of the group. There are regular opportunities to manage or support each other’s campaigns.

On 21st January we are delighted to be launching the evaluation report produced by Professor Joni Lovenduski and Dr Rosie Campbell of Birkbeck, University of London. They have measured the progress made by the women in the first two cohorts, analysed the success of the programme through focus groups and interviews and their observations on the challenge of funding and the need for a wider geographic pool provide us with a clear steer for an even more successful future.

Additionally we have been capturing the views of mentees to illustrate their progress:

“The programme came at a really timely moment as I was considering standing for election as a local ward councillor. The elements of the programme were excellent for educating and empowering me to take a route into public life. My mentor taught me how to do it on my own terms. More than that, it facilitated a brilliant network of like minded women who have continued to be a valuable sounding board and source for motivation to continue in public life”. Eleanor

“The FWN mentoring scheme had a really significant impact on me. As a young woman who had recently moved to London doing a commercial job I didn’t love, the knowledge sessions, networks, and relationship with my mentor gave me the confidence to switch careers into politics. To have a shadow cabinet minister give me an hour of her time to update my CV and practice interview questions was amazing!” Kate

“Without a doubt I would not be the Labour candidate for Manchester city centre in next year’s local elections or the co-founder of Fabian Women North West without taking part in the FWN mentoring scheme. The scheme provided me not only with essential skills to run for public office, but most importantly the confidence and support to actually carry it out. From walking the halls of European Parliament to eating Pringles in the shadow cabinet office in Westminster, the mentoring scheme gave me an invaluable insight into the real world of politics and opened the seemingly closed doors that surround public life. Being part of the FWN mentoring scheme taught me that if you want to see progress and change you have to be part of that yourself. The scheme points to the glass ceiling and hands you the hammer to break it down.” Beth.

Applications for the next cohort open in March

This Ludicrous Obsession, Parents in Parliament: The Motherhood Trap

By Dr Rosie Campbell and Professor Sarah Childs

Men’s over-representation and women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is pretty well known, even if the public sometimes over-estimates just how many women MPs there are, bedazzled by their bright clothing in the Chamber.[1] In fact, men outnumber women by more than 4:1.

Some people may not find this particularly troublesome. Lord Hurd has recently been cited saying that there is a “ludicrous” obsession with ensuring there is equal representation of men and woman in parliament and other areas of public life.[2] We believe very strongly that a diversity of background and experience does matter.[3] And there’s another serious flaw with the Hurd line of reasoning. He says that if voters didn’t want a “good looking chap from a public school” as prime minister they wouldn’t keep choosing them. But the reason feminists have campaigned for All Women Short-lists as a means to get more women at Westminster is precisely because it’s political parties not voters who choose our candidates and party leaders. We the voters don’t get to choose our parliamentary candidates, and therefore who our MPs, are. The reasons there are too few women in politics stems from both a lack of demand for and supply of women candidates: voters don’t punish women candidates. But in the absence of equality measures such as Labour’s All Women’s Shortlists, parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats, even if fewer women seek selection as parliamentary candidates overall.

Having children is frequently cited as a barrier that holds women back from seeking parliamentary selection. But of course not all women are mothers. And both men and women are parents. So we need to question whether the problem is less about the equal representation of men and women – or parents and non-parents – and perhaps more about the exclusion of mothers?

Until now, the UK Parliament simply did not know how many mothers or fathers sat on its green benches. During the new Labour years, and again since 2010, a number of women MPs have given birth: the latest being the Liberal Democrat Minister Jo Swinson, who is currently facing criticism for wanting to have her child with her in the division lobby.[4] We doubt that the vocal hostility to the needs of a new mother, that her comments have generated, are likely to increase the supply of mothers seeking selection for the 2015 general election.

In our survey of MPs in 2012 we found a startling set of facts about mothers and fathers in Parliament[5]:

• 45% of women MPs have no children, compared to 28% of male MPs, and compared to an average of about 20% of the population who remain childless[6]
• Of all MPs with children, male MPs have on average 1.9 children, whilst women MPs have on average only 1.2
• The average age of women MPs’ eldest child, when they first entered parliament, was 16 years old ; the average age of men MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament was 12 years old
In sum: women MPs are (1) less likely to have children than male MPs; (2) more likely to have fewer children than male MPs; and (3) enter parliament when their children are older than the children of male MPs.

These staggering differences are clear evidence that there are serious barriers to Parliament for those with caring responsibilities, most often mothers.

Reactions to these statistics will likely vary depending on whether you believe that the House of Commons should look like the society it represents for reasons of justice; or whether you think that good-looking public school educated men are equally capable of understanding the complexities of juggling work and family life. There will be those who have no fear that without mothers in Parliament the soaring costs of childcare and the disproportionate effect of the economic crisis on women in low paid and part-time work (mostly mothers) will reach the top of the political agenda. We’re not so sure. And that’s why we want more mothers in Parliament.


[1] In his 2009 survey conducted by YouGov Professor Phil Cowley (Nottingham) asked respondents what they thought was the correct percentage of women MPs was. At the time the average response was 26% when the actual figure was closer to 20%.

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/01/14/lord-hurd-feminism_n_4598256.html?utm_hp_ref=uk

[3] For more information on this see http://www.psa.ac.uk/insight-plus/blog/whistling-dark-conservative%E2%80%99s-strategy-winning-women%E2%80%99s-votes-optimistic-and

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2014/jan/07/breastfeeding-workplace-jo-swinson-cathy-newman

[5] The survey was supported by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Commons Diversity and Inclusion Unit.

[6] According to the Office for National Statistics 20 percent of women born in 1966 remain childless.

Time for All-Men Shortlists?

By Dr Rainbow Murray

This post originally appeared on the PSA Political Insight Blog.

It is now two decades since the Labour party introduced All-Women Shortlists (AWS) in an attempt to redress the serious gender imbalance within the parliamentary party.  These shortlists have been controversial, but relatively successful in their goal of increasing women’s representation.  They are the main reason why the percentage of women in Westminster doubled overnight after the 1997 election, even though the policy was temporarily scrapped in 1996 following a legal challenge. (It was reintroduced in 2002 after a change in legislation; the percentage of women in parliament actually dropped in 2001, demonstrating how much the parties have struggled to increase women’s representation without the use of mechanisms such as AWS).

Other parties have contemplated following Labour’s lead, but have hesitated for a mixture of pragmatic and ideological reasons.  David Cameron preferred the “A-list”, with mixed results, while the Liberal Democrats openly rejected the idea of AWS.  However, women who once proudly sported t-shirts saying “I am not a token woman” have since changed their minds. Jo Swinson, for example, has acknowledged that 147 out of 237 districts in 2009 had an all-men shortlist for the Liberal Democrats.  Although AWS have been contested on the grounds that they are unmeritocratic and unfair to men, the evidence suggests that parties do not incur a penalty for their use and they are widely acknowledged as being the most effective means of increasing women’s representation.  It is no coincidence that more than half of the women sitting in Westminster are on the opposition benches, even though Labour have a minority of MPs in parliament.

So why on earth am I advocating all-men shortlists?  The reason is simple.  They already exist in practice, and the failure to acknowledge this properly creates a host of problems that could be resolved by labelling them explicitly as constituencies for men.

At present, the Labour party has two kinds of seat: “open” seats, and AWS.  Where a “favourite son” wishes to stand, the party will avoid ring-fencing the seat for a woman.  AWS constituencies are those where there is a favoured female candidate, and/or there is no strongly favoured male candidate.  Given the high levels of competition for winnable seats, it is a struggle to find enough seats without male incumbents or favourite sons that can be reserved for women; as a result, almost every remaining “open” seat is in fact effectively ring-fenced for a man.  No women have won nomination in an “open” target seat since the last election.  This is not because women are not competitive, but because strong women candidates are given AWS districts, while open seats are considered seats for men in all but name.

As long as women are still getting selected via AWS, you might ask what the problem is.  The answer is threefold. Firstly, labelling seats for women as AWS and seats for men as open is stigmatising to women.  It suggests that women are less competitive candidates and can only win in constituencies reserved for them, whereas men can win anywhere.  This denies the reality that many “open” seats are effectively stitched up for men.  If open seats are renamed “all-men shortlists”, both men and women are selected on single-sex lists, with no claims of special treatment, inferior status or discrimination on either side.

This brings us to the second issue – currently open seats are not all-men shortlists, even though men almost exclusively win them.  In fact, there is an obligation to ensure that there is at least one woman on the shortlist.  This is not a good thing if it means forcing a token woman to contest the seat, at considerable personal expense, only to endure the humiliation of losing.  If these seats are not truly open – and I argue that they are not – then there is no point in maintaining the charade of having women on the shortlist.  Better to recognise that these are seats for men, label them as such, and spare good women from having to maintain a facade of gender equality that only serves to reinforce false beliefs that women are uncompetitive.

If gender equality is truly to be achieved, treating men and women on equal terms is necessary.  Renaming open seats as all-men shortlists (AMS) removes the differential terms for men’s and women’s selection, but leaves open the third issue, namely that AWS currently comprise less than half of all constituencies.  If seats become split into AWS and AMS, it then becomes rather more difficult to justify having fewer than half of the seats for women.  Anything less than a 50:50 split would reveal rather transparently the ongoing inequalities in candidate selection.  Replacing open seats with AMS would therefore serve as a trigger for dividing seats equally between AWS and AMS.  If the seats are divided appropriately – with each sex receiving an equal proportion of safe, target and unwinnable seats – this would be a huge boon for gender equality and for women’s representation.

The idea of reserving half of each type of seat for women and half for men is not new, in theory or practice.  Known as “twinning” – with seats paired in terms of winnability, one reserved for a woman and the other for a man – this concept has been applied successfully in elections to the Welsh Assembly, and is one of the reasons why women’s representation is so much higher there than in Westminster.  AMS would therefore not be a giant leap into unchartered territory for the Labour party (and for any other party that wished to follow suit).  What AMS would do is remove the stigma of AWS, promote an equal distribution of seats between the sexes, and remove the humiliating obligation for women to feature on the shortlists of seats they stand no realistic chance of winning.  The first step towards ending discriminatory practices is to recognise that they exist.

Rainbow Murray is Reader in Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Her books include Parties, Gender Quotas and Candidate Selection in France and Cracking the Highest Glass Ceiling: A Global Comparison of Women’s Campaigns for Executive Office. She has published widely in journals such as Party Politics, Political Research Quarterly, West European Politics and Politics & Gender, and she is an editor of the EJPR Political Data Yearbook. Her article on ‘Quotas for Men’ has been conditionally accepted by the American Political Science Review. She tweets @RainbowMurray.

Valuing the work of women MPs

By Emma Crewe

Originally published on the PSA Political Insight blog.

Parliament Week was about women MPs this year. It is encouraging that Parliament is putting the spotlight on our women politicians but depressing that they need it. Since October 2011 I have been researching MPs’ multiple roles and how they are changing. All Westminster MPs face increasing demands in parliament, government, constituencies, civil society, and 24-hour media and internet, and not enough time to respond – new MPs reported doing a 70 hour week on average. When parliament sits, out-of-London MPs usually split their time: Monday to Thursday in Westminster and Friday and Saturday in the constituency, with Sunday off for some lucky ones. According to one it feels like Genghis Khan’s famous torture, four horses being attached to your limbs and told to pull.

There are additional pressures if you belong to a group of people who face inequality in society – women, ethnic minorities, elderly, disabled, LGBT. They will expect you to take special action on their behalf. As a black woman MP you not only have constituents looking to you as their representative, but you may also have both women and black people across the UK expecting you to champion their common cause with you. All will have different ideas about what is needed.

And you may face discrimination in our political system as a member of one or more of these groups. Women MPs in all political parties told me that when they are outnumbered in a meeting, which is the norm in Westminster, women struggle to be heard. A woman can make a point that is ignored but when repeated by a man – and especially a senior male politician – gets the response, “that is brilliant!” Equally, the media tend to report more favourably on men than women MPs. Lobby journalists, who are also over-represented by men, tend to get chummier with male MPs. Other journalists often report on women MP’s appearance, but men’s achievements and abilities. The misogyny and homophobia voiced by online and twitter trolls is unspeakable.

Women and men MPs report different experiences of discrimination – their party, position in the party and aspirations will all make a difference. For example, Labour men have complained to me about quotas and Conservative men that women have better promotional prospects than they do (although the numbers belie this). I have dwelt on gender, but equally observations could be made about other inequalities and assumptions. Younger and black MPs get their passes checked by security more often than older white MPs. Several women told me that it is hard to be taken seriously if you are a young woman; youth is associated with naivety. Older women struggle to get promoted if they have arrived in parliament late. If you are wheelchair-bound, a shocking proportion of strangers will talk to the person with you rather than address you directly and this happens to disabled MPs as much as anyone else. So assumptions about competence based on gender intersect with others based on age, race and disability.

MPs with dependents have a harder time than they used to especially if their constituency is outside London and they have no other source of income. The sitting hours of the Chamber have shortened, but if you include all their workplaces then the hours for MPs have got far longer in the last few decades. Running two homes – one in London and one in the constituency – and lower expenses for family travel and accommodation make it almost impossible to be both an MP and a conscientious parent.

Women MPs develop strategies to deal with these pressures. One of the most effective goes to the heart of political work: building alliances. Politicians need to win support, and it is not surprising that women MPs do this brilliantly. The relationship-building that is least visible takes place in the constituency. Most backbench MPs I interviewed put significant time into constituency work, especially surgeries, which are sometimes rudely dismissed by pundits as glorified social work; but these should not be ranked lower than policy work for three reasons. First, a high proportion of cases MPs deal with in surgeries are urgent. Of the thirty-two cases I listened to, fourteen were extremely serious: the person – or their relative – was destitute or about to lose their income, house, sanity or right to stay in the UK. Secondly, I found that MPs were making a difference: sometimes constituents felt that for the first time someone important was taking notice and treating them with respect. Often MPs speed something up or even transform a person’s life by ensuring their rightful access to housing or compensation, and so on. Where possible MPs worked in conjunction with local councillors. Thirdly, MPs develop an in-depth knowledge of the people, resources and latest changes affecting constituents and this, as well as seeing the impact of policy and law on people’s everyday lives, informs their work on select committees, in opposition and in government. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe write in their latest book, “the Blunders of our Governments”, that there is a disconnect between the lives of policy-makers and those they rule. Constituency surgeries are perhaps the most important way to create a human bridge between representative and represented that leaves both better informed. It brings MPs down to earth.

Constituency work has value and women not only do it willingly but with consummate skill. They use the empathy and listening skills that some psychologists suggest women tend to develop more fully than men. All the MPs I could find who rarely or never attend surgeries seemed to be male. For those few, their ambition was to get onto the frontbenches; constituency surgeries were a distraction. These MPs delegate all (rather than just most) casework to their staff. These caseworkers tend to be female, while policy advisers are more evenly split. So it is particularly fitting that backbench MP Paul Flynn in his book “How to Be an MP” writes of the relationship between MP and constituent,

The MP should be the living embodiment of the constituency, tirelessly promoting and defending the territory with the ferocity of a mother protecting her offspring.

I’m not arguing that women should spend less time in Westminster. And I don’t want to give the impression that men were necessarily bad at constituency work – one of the most skilled surgery MPs I observed was a man and the vast majority of all backbenchers take it seriously, but I think there is enough evidence to suggest that women excel at the less antagonistic side of politician’s work. There is nothing inevitable about women having greater emotional intelligence, but women become socially skilled in ways that are more useful in politics than many realise.

The denigration of MPs’ constituency work is as shortsighted as indifference to the care of their children. One measure to enable all MPs to accomplish their work, and encourage those with dependents to stand and stay in parliament, would be to improve expenses for those that depend on them. As 2015 looms, this is the moment to send a positive message to MPs that we value their work. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority are currently consulting about MPs’ expenses so an opportunity presents itself. After all, even if politicians are loathed as a group, polls show we mostly love our local MP.

Emma Crewe is a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London. She is currently researching the work of MPs in the House of Commons, a project funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. Further details can be found on her website.

How Well Does Parliament Scrutinise?

By Dr Ben Worthy

One of the key tasks of any Parliament is scrutiny. But what is scrutiny? What makes it effective and how does it work?

Jessica Crowe from the Centre for Public Scrutiny gave us an insight as part of our Parliamentary Studies course. Parliament has recently altered its scrutiny powers but what effect has it had? Many things can hold back Parliament from scrutiny from party loyalty to lack of resources or lack of tools. Jessica measured Parliament’s performance against the CFPS’s own key principles of good scrutiny: that it serve as a constructive ‘critical friend’, amplifies the voices and concerns of the public, is led by independent people who take responsibility for their role and that it drives improvement in public services.

In Parliament, scrutiny comes in different forms, from formal arenas to informal pressure. We often see the high profile, attention grabbing scrutiny, such as the recent questioning of the heads of MI5 and GCHQ. This grabs the headlines and can initiate change. Yet it can also be counter-productive. In a highly political and adversarial place like Parliament, such scrutiny may look like, and may be, an attack. The danger is that ‘political theatre’ and point-scoring can replace proper scrutiny that ‘voices concerns’. Moreover, such behaviour can provoke resistance rather than change.

Yet there is more informal, more subtle scrutiny. This may be picking up on gaps or pointing out mistakes. It is what the Centre calls the ‘critical friend’ approach-questioning but constructive. The legislative change around mobile homes in 2013, calmly pressured for by the Communities Select Committee, was a nice example of a more soft but successful approach. This is also an area where the House of Lords performs well, though it usually gets little attention, as Lord Norton points out here.

The Wright reforms of 2010 have strengthened Parliament’s scrutiny powers in numerous ways, giving backbenchers and Select Committees more power and control. However, problems remain, particularly in the involvement of the public where the new e-petitions site appears to have evoked sound and fury without too much to show. Other Parliaments such as the German Bundestag may offer a model.

Jessica pointed out that, closer to home, one place Parliament could learn from is local government. Since 2000 a series of reforms have sought to make local government scrutiny better (see this report). Local government is typically less partisan, managing to successfully balance voicing concern while remaining a critical friend. As with many areas, local government is also a site of experiments and public involvement. Jessica pointed to the success of Boston, where the controversial local issue of immigration was confronted through a wide ranging local government discussion with residents (see here and other examples here). Perhaps the future of scrutiny is local.

The department would like to thank Jessica for an interesting and thoughtful talk. Thanks also to Dr. Meg Russell for her help and input.  You can see Jessica’s blog and slides here and visits the Centre for Public Scrutiny here.