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.

Margaret Hodge on inappropriate conversations and fingering civil servants

By Professor Philip Cowley (originally published on his blog, Revolts)

Birkbeck’s Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life hosted a very enjoyable seminar yesterday with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge.  The ‘conversation’ ranged widely, covering her transformation from loony left Islington councillor to her current role as defender of the taxpayer battling multinational tax dodgers (‘they love you now, said the chair Tony Wright, ‘but they used to hate you’).  It included her contest with Nick Griffin in Barking in 2010, an experience she claims has transformed the way she now does local politics, to make more of an effort to connect and engage.

There was, as you would expect, lots of her time chairing the PAC, a job a former chair David Davis once described as the ‘second best job in Opposition’.  She rejected the charge that she ‘grandstands’, although there was an acceptance that she does need to be high profile. As she put it: ‘I don’t grandstand, but… I have few other tools’.  But she’s aware that other select committee chairs get annoyed with the PAC for treading on their toes. Members of the PAC seem distinctly unbothered by this. ‘We can go anywhere’ one of them said.

Professor Tony Wright and Rt. Hon. Margaret Hodge MP. Image credit: Total Politics/John Russell

She complained, as most select committee chairs do, about a lack of resource – although most other chairs would look enviously at the massive resource of the National Audit Office which backs up the PAC.  It took about a year for Hodge to establish a good working relationship with the NAO, who were not initially keen for her to investigate HMRC’s tax deals, for example.  She was full of praise for whistle-blowers and investigative journalists, who provided her with much of the material she needed; the Impetus for the tax-dodging inquiry came from an HMRC whistle-blower and a Reuter’s journalist. And she was full of praise for the work done on the issue by Private Eye.  Before each major evidence session, she spends lot of time MPs coordinate questioning by members of the committee. The BBC enquiry, for example, with multiple witnesses, would have been a ‘train crash’ otherwise.  In those sessions where that has not been done, the quality of questioning usually dropped.

She was less full of praise for civil servants, who ‘never become accountable for anything’.   She gave the example of a witness from HMRC, with whom the committee was getting nowhere, when one of the Conservatives on the committee (from her description, I assume Richard Bacon) had the idea to put him on oath.  The only problem was that it took Commons officials 20 minutes to find a bible.

On Universal Credit, she was exasperated: ‘I haven’t a clue who’s telling the truth’, and complained of ‘inappropriate’ conversations from both senior civil servants (trying to get her to blame ministers) and ministers (trying to get her to blame civil servants).  But a remark that Hodge should ‘finger’ the responsible civil servants proved too much for some in the audience, and giggles began to break out.

Reforming the Labour Party: is Miliband Redistributing Power?

The true test of Miliband’s proposals for reform of the Labour Party’s relationship with trade unions and candidate selection will be the extent to which they empower or disempower ordinary members and supporters.

By Dr Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck College

It may have been an immediate crisis that forced Ed Miliband’s hand but the consensus appears to be that, in his speech on 9 July setting out his response to the news that the trade union Unite had been manipulating the candidate selection process in Falkirk, the Labour Leader has been bold in proclaiming an end to the ‘politics of the machine’ that was, in his words, rightly ‘hated’.  His proposals to reform the Labour Party’s link with the Trade Unions and the means by which candidates for office are selected are potentially far-reaching.  Henceforth, members of affiliated trade unions will have to directly opt-in if they want to support the Labour Party (currently they are automatically enrolled unless they opt-out) and Labour will begin using primaries, in which all registered supporters can participate, as a means of selecting candidates, beginning with the selection for the London mayoral candidate in 2016.  There will be strict spending limits and a code of conduct for candidates to go with this.

If the point of Miliband’s proposed reforms, as he has suggested, is to ‘open up our politics’ then the test has to be the extent to which it empowers voters, ordinary members and activists.  On the face of it, requiring individuals to directly choose  to affiliate to the Labour Party as individuals would seem to be a blow in favour of empowering ordinary union members as political activists and against the dominance of elites (in the form of union leaders) making decisions on their behalf.  Furthermore, the proposal to select candidates by means of primaries (initially in London) in which registered supporters can participate, along with ‘strict’ spending limits and a code of conduct, would appear to spread power (in this case the power to select candidates) more widely than before.

However, in order to make a proper judgement about this, we need a means by which proposals like this can be assessed for whether they are likely to be empowering or disempowering (and for whom). By lucky coincidence, this is precisely what I have been thinking about recently.  The following is an initial sketch of how this might be done.

This kind of assessment can be made by thinking more carefully about organisations with political or social goals in the context of theories about and approaches to power.  In order to do this, it is important initially to make a distinction between two basic kinds of power:  a ‘negative’, constraining form – sometimes called ‘domination’ but which I will refer to henceforth as ‘disempowerment’ – and a positive, enabling form of power which can be understood as ‘empowerment’.  Whilst the first of these indicates means by which groups or individuals have had their power diminished in different ways (because they are prevented from acting, lack capacities to or are denied opportunities to do so), the latter is concerned with who have had their power enhanced and by what means.

These two key kinds of power can be examined in five different dimensions which in my assessment relate to the key dimensions of power operating in organisations with social or political goals.

Each of these different dimensions of power directs attention towards different aspects of an organisation and serves as a means of identifying questions designed to illuminate how power operates within it.  Using these questions, analysts and students of organisations will be able to make their own judgements about the extent to which organisations of different kinds empower or disempower those who are participants in it, including their members, supporters, leaders, administrators and so on.

The first dimension, which I call Individualistic Power, focuses on how people use the resources they have (money, information, connections and so on) to realise goals, aims and preferences they might have.  An individual has power to the extent that they are equipped to achieve these goals. The question is which (if any) individuals will be more likely than before to achieve their goals – such as becoming a candidate, or ensuring the selection of another –  as a result of these reforms, for example because they are provided with resources that help them garner the appropriate support or that others are denied the ability to ‘out-resource’ them.  Thus, it would be possible to argue that strict spending limits for candidates seeking a nomination and for the organisations supporting them could potentially open up the field of possible candidates and make it more likely that a candidate not supported by a big pressure group or union could break through.  In other words, it makes certain kinds of ‘machine politics’ less viable and thereby empowers individuals at the expense of organised internal interests.

Of course, the capacity for those individuals to achieve selection assumes that they have access to the appropriate arenas in the first place.  This is a point that the second dimension, Strategic Power, focuses on.  Someone may have a wealth of talent and experience to become a candidate and yet fail because they are denied access to the process in the first place.  Conversely, knowledge of the rules and the capacity to manipulate them in one’s favour confers on some the ability to circumvent barriers in one’s own favour and block opponents, in other words to exercise Strategic Power.  The question, therefore, is whether reform proposals will make it easier or harder for (positionally powerful) individuals to block or frustrate others from accessing the process (or further change).  It would appear that these proposed reforms make it less likely that well-organised interests like trade unions within the Labour Party can manipulate the selection process.  On the other hand, it does not necessarily diminish the capacity of the party’s leadership and executive to interfere with, manipulate or take control of selection processes.  This will really depend on how the new rules are designed.  It is one of the benefits of this approach that it provides relatively simple tools with which such potential outcomes can be identified.

Shifting focus from individuals, the third dimension of power, Bureaucratic Control, is one in which organisation itself can be understood as powerful:  potential candidates can be disempowered by bureaucratic routine and organisational imperative (like having to complete lots of paperwork or the requirement for certain qualifications or experience) or hierarchies may deny those lower down the freedom to act as independent political agents (by for example controlling the selection process from the centre).  More positively, organisation empowers individuals to act politically and act in concert because it generates capacities and provides organisational back-up that makes them more effective than they would be alone.  The questions that arise here are, firstly, whether reform will therefore free activists or members from organisational constraints and allow them to express and realise their political goals, and secondly, the extent to which reforms remove power from the hierarchy and redistribute it amongst ordinary members, activists and supporters.  Once again, this will depend a great deal on how the reforms are designed and implemented.  Certainly it appears that allowing trade union members a direct relationship with the party and bringing potentially more people into selection processes, both as electors and, through primaries, as potential candidates could achieve both these things.  Once again, however, the knock-on effects are currently unknown.

One of the key sources of power in political organisations is the ability to make and influence policy.  This was emphatically not the subject of Miliband’s speech on 9 July and is unlikely to be so for the time being.  Some years ago Robert Katz and Peter Mair argued that party hierarchies and members were involved in a trade off in which the latter would be given more power over candidate selection in return for relinquishing their say in policy to the centre.  This arguably has already happened with the restructuring of the party’s decision-making structures during the early years of Tony Blair’s leadership, but what Miliband’s new proposals may also mean is a devolution of that power of selection away from members to a category of ‘registered supporters’.  Thus members have lost one power to the centre and another to the political periphery.  It is a version of what the leader’s brother, David, once described as ‘double devolution’.

With the fourth of these dimensions of power I move away from the formal party structures, rules and processes and towards aspects of party life that might often be overlooked in an analysis of power.  Constitutive Power is concerned with the culture of party life, and the everyday practices that go with it.  The everyday behaviour and customs that are usually taken for granted – like the conventions of language and speech that people follow – are important in shaping and producing the ‘practical consciousness’ of agents which are the basis of their everyday instinctive behaviour.  This kind of power, embedded in day-to-day practices, has a deep effect on the capacity of individuals to be effective political agents and is the means by which existing structures of domination are reproduced and accepted by those subject to it.  At the same time, however, actors can become conscious of these everyday practices through critical reflection, which means structures of domination can be challenged and recast in ways that invest in them capacities for their realisation as political agents.  The key question here, therefore, is to what extent will reforms affect party culture so as to facilitate the capacity for political (self) realisation i.e. does it invest members with useful political capacities?  The extent to which this question can be answered at this stage is moot.  However, a test for the success of these reforms will doubtless be the extent to which not just the rules change, but the culture and practices of the party’s internal politics which Falkirk has exposed.

Fifth, and finally, Disciplinary Control is focused on the minutely detailed techniques of control that are applied in areas of party life that are frequently overlooked in these contexts.  Often mundane, these are aspects of party life that nonetheless have an important role in how political agents are shaped and produced.  This, for example, includes the organisation of individuals into tasks and roles during election campaigns where the activity of individual canvassers and candidates is often carefully circumscribed, even down to the words used, at what time and in what place as well as the means by which activity is recorded, measured and assessed.  Discipline is also internalised through the imperatives of marketing and public relations which are so important to modern party politics. The appearance, gestures, words and looks of individual politicians and candidates in particular are carefully monitored, adjusted and corrected in line with expected norms.  But as well as being a clear source of domination this can also be understood as empowering and productive in the sense that it produces agents with the capacities to be effective actors in the current political milieu.  In modern politics, candidates will generally fail to advance or be elected if they are not in some sense ‘media friendly’ and conform to clearly accepted norms and expectations (such as certain kinds of clothes and hairstyles).  In other words it produces individuals with the right capacities – right down to gestures and voices – to succeed in politics.  To translate this into practical questions means having to ask two things about potential reforms: to what extent do they advance or set back mechanisms of control?  Does it mean more or less detailed organisation  and does it means more or less external scrutiny of individuals and, in particular, their bodies.  In this case, since primaries – even so-called ‘closed’ primaries – are likely to be more open to scrutiny, perhaps more likely to be covered in newspapers, blogs, social media and websites, it can only further expose candidates to the kind of surveillance and discipline to which professional politicians are already subject.  In this respect, it will perhaps be good training.  It is more than possible, however, that this will have an effect on the kinds of individuals that get selected in the first place and perhaps have the additional effect, therefore, of disempowering further those activists and members who are not appropriately attuned, whilst strengthening the influence of media, commentators and professionals.

In summary, therefore, as ‘brave’ and ‘radical’ as Ed Miliband’s reforms have been claimed to be across the political spectrum, the real test of whether they are truly empowering (and for whom) will depend on how the reforms are designed and implemented and how they work in practice.  It is vital to a meaningful assessment of these reforms that analysts are able to employ the right kinds of tools with which to examine them.  What I have set out here is my contribution to the development of such tools.

Going ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’: How Effective was the Backbench Business Committee in the 2010-2012 Parliamentary Session?

By David Foster

During the 2010-12 parliamentary session the Backbench Business Committee (BBBC) demonstrated its potential to become the most important reform of the House of Commons since 1979. However, changes made at the end of the session may prove its undoing.

A criticism of the previous system for scheduling business was that it generated long, predictable debates of little concern to the outside world. In its inaugural session, the BBBC went a long way to changing this, increasing the topicality of, and public interest in, Commons debates. Not only did MPs frequently remark on the interest backbench debates generated amongst their constituents, viewing figures for BBC Parliament and Parliament TV show that on occasion they attracted 3-4 times more viewers than average. The numbers of signatures on petitions that became the subject of debates are also indicative of heightened public interest – 674,000 people signed the petition on the Fish Fight campaign, for example.

The Committee also went a long way to correcting another common criticism the former system for scheduling business – that important issues were kept off the agenda because they were uncomfortable for the government – by scheduling a number of debates that ‘would absolutely never have come to light in government time’ (Peter Bone).[1] These included a debate on Afghanistan, which allowed parliament its first vote on the subject since the conflict began, and debates on immigration and membership of the European Union. As the Leader of the House claimed, the Committee went ‘where angels fear to tread…in choosing subjects that the government…would not have chosen’.[2]

Backbench debates contributed to some notable policy changes; the Hillsborough debate obliged the government to clarify its position on the documents it held and, following the debate on contaminated blood, the government announced a review that resulted in measures comprising an additional £100-130m of support for victims. If nothing more, the existence of the BBBC meant that ‘the government… [couldn’t] any longer impose its will entirely without consequences’ (Natascha Engel).

The BBBC’s effectiveness may be partly explained by the less partisan atmosphere engendered by backbench debates. The Committee routinely asked for evidence of cross-party support for a proposed debate and, as a result, 82.6% of the substantive motions debated in backbench time during the session had sponsors from more than one party. This may go some way to explaining the impact such debates had on government policy.  As Jane Ellison stated, ‘if you looked at backbench debates, for the most part you’ll find the government is being pushed much harder by its own backbenchers…because you’ve taken that tribal element out of the debate’ (Ellison 2012).

A criticism of the BBBC during the session was its perceived emphasis on substantive motions and controversial topics. Scrutiny is, however, a ‘contentious and controversial activity.’[3] If backbench debates were uncontroversial this would simply be evidence of the BBBC’s ineffectiveness at holding government to account. Furthermore, ‘increasing the volume of backbench debates…means little if…not linked…to specific outcomes with consequences for government.’[4]  A key component of the BBBC’s effectiveness was to do just this – to table substantive motions with ‘consequences for government’.

Overall, during its inaugural session the BBBC made a significant impact and showed itself to be highly effective; in fact the Committee’s establishment could justifiably come to be seen as ‘the most important reform since the select committee system was established.’[5] However, this potential is at risk due to changes made at the end of the 2010-12 session. On 12 March 2012, in a vote in which government members were whipped, the Commons agreed that in subsequent sessions BBBC Members would be elected within party groups rather than by the whole House. Additionally, Parliamentary Private Secretaries were allowed to vote for the Conservative Party’s BBBC members (Hollobone 2012). These changes amount to a significant strengthening of the power of the party machines to influence the make-up of the BBBC, and give rise to the concern that such power will be used to engineer the election of more pliable members to the Committee. It does appear that MPs elected for the 2012-13 session were less independently minded than those who sat on the Committee during its first session. For example, Philip Hollobone, Peter Bone and Philip Davies defied the whip a total of 230 times during the 2010-12 session, whilst Bob Blackman, David Amess and Marcus Jones, their replacements for the 2012-13 session, defied the whip a total of 5 times during the same period.[6] Suspicion that these MPs will be less willing to schedule debates uncomfortable for government is granted further credence by Blackman’s claim to Conservative colleagues following his election that ‘we will all benefit from 1 line whips on Thursdays!’ (Hollobone 2012), and David Amess stating that he ‘would probably be erring towards the balance of general debates’ (Amess 2012). 

If uncontroversial, general debates become the norm then much of the BBBC’s effectiveness will be nullified. This may well be the rationale for the change, of course. As Philip Hollobone stated, ‘I think the Committee was so effective that the government decided to nobble it for the subsequent session’ (Philip Hollobone). In its first session the BBBC went ‘where angels fear to tread’ in terms of holding government to account. In doing so, it may have had its wings clipped to ensure it never goes there again.

To read the full article in Parliamentary Affairs, click here.

David Foster is a recent graduate of the Birkbeck MSc in Government, Policy and Politics. Email: df519@live.co.uk


[1]  Quotes attributed as such are taken from interviews conducted by the author.

[2]  Procedure Committee (2012), Review of the Backbench Business Committee – corrected evidence – 20 June 2012, HC168-iii, Q144

[3]  Kelso, A (2009), Parliamentary Reform at Westminster (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp62-63

[4]  Kelso, A (2009), Parliamentary Reform at Westminster (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp62-63

[5]  Procedure Committee (2012b), Review of the operation of the Backbench Business Committee – written evidence (House of Commons: London), Q17

[6]  Cowley, P and Stuart, M (2012), The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions, available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/92816338/Bumper-Book-of-Coalition-Rebellions, pp107-112

Reflections on Thatcher

By Dr Benjamin Worthy

The discussion following the death of Margaret Thatcher has quickly moved from a fragile peace to a divisive debate (see these ambiguous local press headlines). I don’t remember much about Thatcherism but I have vague memories, as Russell Brand wonderfully put it, of a woman on the TV telling people off and constantly saying no.

Having taught British politics I find it fascinating to see the differences between myth and reality in leaders from across time. Thatcher appears to be one leader who will be as wrapped in myth and controversy as Churchill. As Richard Vinen points out his great book on Thatcher, both left and right had an interest in creating a straw Thatcher, a repository of virtue or evil. Added to this, academics, supporters and others, including Thatcher herself, have piled on further layers of mystique. Her comments about there being ‘no such thing as society’, for example, are quoted out of context while her comments about immigration in 1978 are often forgotten.

Take Thatcher’s background as the famous ‘grocer’s daughter’. As Simon Jenkin’s (see a good article here) and biographer John Campbell argue in their works on Thatcher, Alderman Roberts was an important local politician – but Grantham gave her a ‘hinterland’ and an ‘outsider’ story to tell. More importantly the ‘outsider’ Thatcher developed her real contacts at that most establishment of places Oxford, where she gained the friendships that eventually found her a seat. An outsider perhaps but with at least one foot firmly in the establishment.

More interesting is Thatcher as a politician. Her portrait as an ideology driven ‘wrecker’ needs to be qualified. Vinen is not certain she ever read any of the ‘classic’ texts that were supposed to have inspired Thatcherism or that she regarded them as anything more than ‘polish’ (though this is not to underestimate her formidable intellect). Nor was she the first to privatise parts of government or acknowledge the financial arrangements were unsuitable-the prize for both of these goes to her ‘socialist’ predecessor. Her golden rule of politics was said to have been ‘always leave yourself a way out’ – not a very Thatcher thing to say.

As a politician Thatcher is seen as a model conviction politician. But, as John Major and Jon Snow both tried to point out, the same Thatcher signed the Single European Act of 1986 and agreed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Her privatisation began slowly and she backed away from reforming the NHS or privatising the Post Office. Only when she truly became an ideologue did she lose power.

Vinen highlights her famous 1988 Bruges Speech, seen now as the founding moment of the UK Eurosceptic movement in Britain, as one of the most misunderstood parts of her career. As a statement of Euroscepticism it leaves a lot to be desired. Parts of the speech are very pro-European, peppered with phrases such as ‘And let me be quite clear…Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community’-she even begins the speech with a gentle joke about her supposed ‘anti-European’ views.

Even Thatcher’s ‘iron resolution’ over the Falklands war may not be all that it seemed-these papers from the National Archives reveal Thatcher open to the idea of a negotiated settlement (borrowing from Churchill again who said ‘jaw jaw is always better than war’).

The most confusing aspect is her legacy, which can be less a verdict and more an on-going debate. Thatcherism shaped the views of what the state, the economy and society should do. In 2004 this all seemed to have been settled. Post 2007 light touch approaches to banking and food safety seem more questionable.

Thatcher herself spoke of her key achievements as being variously the creation of Tony Blair or the changing of ‘values’ and ‘common sense’. None of these take us very far in understanding what it was Thatcherism did. The difficulty is that debate is on two levels. One level we can (and are) discussing economic and social changes Thatcherism created. On this one I broadly agree with Ken Livingstone’s assessment.

But on another level, the argument is about something harder to define-this may be what Thatcher meant about ‘values’. Both left and right believe Thatcher did something less tangible. To the right Thatcher made Britain ‘great’ again as Cameron said, saving us from a terminal sort of ‘spiritual’ as well as economic decline-though some interesting and much debated research points to 1976, that year of terrible economic crisis, as being the time when the UK was ‘happiest’. To the left Thatcher ‘broke’ something about Britain and what Alexei Sayle called her ‘prejudice wrapped up as policy’ destroyed something worth keeping- a sense of community as difficult to measure as happiness.

The events of the last few days have showed that she has one unarguable legacy. Her idol Winton Churchill spent much of his life a divisive and contrary figure but, a year shy of his 70 birthday, transformed into a figure of national unity and ‘the saviour of his country’ (as a very left wing historian said). By contrast Thatcher, who claimed quoting St Augustine she sought unity, has left division and conflict.

Dr Benjamin Worthy is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck.

Taming the PM?

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

The classic essay question asks: what are the powers of the Prime Minister? Graham Allen’s Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee has been wrestling with this issue since 2011. The driving force for this debate can be traced back to the 2003 parliamentary debate on the war in Iraq. There is recognition now that any prime minister would find it impossible to commit troops in similar circumstances without a substantive vote in favour in the House. Codifying the prime minister’s war making powers has never made it to the statute books, but maybe it should as an additional safeguard to convention. We now have fixed term parliaments, a Cabinet Manual, a Coalition Agreement and a more formalised cabinet system under this coalition government. Why not fix the Prime Minister’s power in law too?

In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Mark Bennister cautioned against codification. Prime Ministers gain power from a range of sources, both formal and informal. It is not only the institutional resources associated with leading the executive that empower a Prime Minister, but also the ‘skill in context’ or ability to shape situations to the leader’s advantage. Personal is indeed political. A dynamic and charismatic figure, whilst clearly not imperial in parliamentary democracies can stretch resources to support and enhance predominance. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, also giving evidence, argued that the Prime Minister needed more partisan resources to do the job.

Mark Bennister warned against direct prime ministerial election, a particular interest of the Committee Chair. The only case of direct prime ministerial elections political scientists have to study occurred in Israel from 1996 to 2000. This form of presidential parliamentarianism or ‘presidentarianism’ proved a disaster, causing fragmentation of the party system and sclerosis as the prime minister’s position was weakened. The experiment was quickly shelved.

There are however perhaps better areas for reform and greater clarity. Prime Minister’s Questions could certainly do with an overhaul. It may be great political fun, but longer sessions with supplementary questions may reduce the Punch and Judy aspect. The Liaison Committee which questions the Prime Minister twice a year could meet more frequently with fewer members to provide a more focused and forensic probing. Another option could see an investiture vote in the Commons to confirm a new Prime Minister in post. Such a shift to positive parliamentarianism would locate the Prime Minister firmly within the legislature.

Does comparative research in this area help? In most countries we find ambiguity surrounding the role and powers of the prime minister. In Australia the Prime Minister is not even mentioned in the written constitution. Cabinet formality is stronger and more structured in Australia, but on Iraq John Howard could boldly state that it was ‘an executive decision’ to commit troops. However as Kevin Rudd and Bob Hawke found to their cost, Australian Prime Ministers remain in post at the gift of heir parliamentary parties and can be removed swiftly if the numbers in the party room or caucus swing against them. By contrast in Japan the Prime Minister is written into the constitution with their powers mapped. But this is no guarantee of stability; since 2006 Japan has had 7 Prime Ministers.

As Machiavelli would perhaps point out, codification may clarify but it is political power that counts.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.

Poor Women’s Representation – ‘Shocking But Not Surprising’ – Don’t Blame the Women

By Dr Rosie Campbell and Professor Sarah Childs

Women’s under representation in Parliament has well and truly hit the headlines: Samantha Cameron isn’t happy about it; job-shares are suggested as the new solution; the Lib Dems face allegations of sexual harassment; and the 2013 Sex and Power Report confirms the ‘shocking’ but not surprising absence of women from public life.

Enough is enough, the recommendations of the 2008-10 Speaker’s Conference should be implemented immediately: it’s time for legislative sex quotas.

Party leaders have said it before, and no doubt they’ll say it again:

“… political parties… need to actively go out and encourage women to join in, to sign up, to take the course, to become part of the endeavour” – David Cameron

The problem is that exhorting women to participate in politics will not address the ‘scandalous’, as Cameron also put it, under-representation of women at Westminster. Men are nearly 80% of MPs; women are not even half-way to equal presence. Labour does the best with a third of its MPs female. The Tories at 16% come second, more than doubling their number in 2010. The Lib Dems trail in last, at just 12%, with fewer women candidates and MPs in 2010 than in 2005. The situation is depressingly familiar at other levels of government. Despite Nordic levels of women’s representation when first created, overall trends in Scotland and Wales are of stalling or falling numbers with campaigners there calling for legislative quotas too.

The reasons why fewer women seek parliamentary selection need addressing and greater diversity is required overall, but the most pressing problem is not that women aren’t putting themselves forward but that the parties fail to select and support qualified women to stand in winnable seats

Cameron again: “Just opening up and saying ‘you’re welcome to try if you want to’ doesn’t get over the fact that there have been all sorts of barriers in the way”.

These barriers were examined extensively in evidence given to the Speakers Conference. Yet only some of its recommendations have since been introduced. The coalition opted for a voluntary approach to one key recommendation – publication of candidate diversity data. Without this the public can’t see what is going on.

The barrier of party demand on the ground was widely cited. Equality and Human Rights Commission research shows local parties frequently pick candidates who fit an archetypal stereo-type of a white, male professional. The parties have addressed this barrier in different ways – with only Labour using a party quota, All Women Shortlists. The Speaker’s Conference recommended that Parliament should consider legislative quotas in the absence of significant improvements in the numbers of women in 2010 – there was none. Indeed, there is talk of declining numbers of Conservative and Lib Dem women in 2015.

The global evidence is clear: well-designed and properly implemented quotas are the most effective way to address the under-representation of women. The coalition could act. Legislative quotas – ensuring all parties use quotas – provide ‘political cover’. And both leaders’ positions on quotas are on the record. Clegg isn’t “theologically opposed”; Cameron said he would use some AWS in 2010, although he didn’t. We are pretty confident that Labour would be supportive, given its record.

We acknowledge that most people are hostile to quotas, but if we want real change they are the only mechanism proven to deliver. Quotas are not the electoral risk that some activists suggest. Studies show that being an AWS candidates does not cause electoral defeat; current selection processes are not meritocratic – Cameron said so himself. Nor do quotas produce unqualified or poor quality MPs – Labour’s 97 AWS women were equally as successful in being promoted. For some, the bottom line is what local parties regard as top-down measures. But if the truck is with ‘outsider’ women ‘being imposed’ then local parties should recruit local women to stand for selection.

Candidates are being selected as we write – the time to act is now. So, Messrs Clegg and Cameron, please be constitutionally radical and leave a legacy of gender equality from this Coalition Government. Let’s have a Parliament that closer approximates the sex balance of the UK in 2015. At a minimum, set up a second Speaker’s Conference to implement the recommendations of its predecessor, and to work with other institutions across the four nations. Or be even more radical: to expedite women’s representation introduce a bill establishing legislative sex quotas. The alternative is for us to wake up the day after the 2015 election and find the party leaders once again bemoaning the under-representation of women at Westminster.

Claire Annesley, Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs, Catherine Durose, Elizabeth Evans, Francesca Gains, Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay, Rainbow Murray, Liz Richardson and other members of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) Women and Politics group.

Job-Shares for MPs: A Step on the Way to Resolving a Major Problem

By Dr Rosie Campbell and Professor Sarah Childs

In a blog on Wednesday, Ruth Fox from the Hansard Society argued that job-shares for MPs are a marginal solution for a major problem. Dr Fox is right, introducing job shares will not solve the significant under-representation of women in the House of Commons overnight. To do that, international research clearly demonstrates, parties need to employ equality guarantees.

These can take the form of all-women-shortlists, zipped lists in proportional representation list systems, or reserved seats for women. So far, for the UK Parliament, only Labour has been prepared to adopt such measures; unsurprisingly they are the only party to deliver more than 30% women MPs. Women in the Conservative parliamentary party constitute 16% and in the Liberal Democrats just 12%.

The need for equality guarantees is acknowledged in the Liberal Democrats’ proposals, but given past division on this, we’d be surprised if they moved to adopt them. But in the absence of such measures – indeed even when a party uses equality guarantees – job sharing is another measure that should help deliver more women into politics.

Ruth Fox outlines some of the challenges of adapting the role of an MP to accommodate job-share. How will conflict of how to vote be resolved? As any job share team knows, there must be clear expectations, set out at the point of interview (and in politics at the point of election), as to how the job will be divided; who will work on what day, who will take responsibility for what, and how decisions will be made. Different job shares might approach the issue of voting differently, by either agreeing that ‘who is there on the day makes the decision’ or by agreeing a position in advance, or in respect of different policy areas.

In any case, we doubt very much that job-share candidates from either ends of a party’s ideological spectrum, or taking opposing views on conscience issues, would put themselves up for selection as a team in the first place. Crucially, and just like other MPs, job share MPs are accountable for how they act: both to the party selectorate and ultimately to the electorate. If they failed to make the partnership work – for whatever reason – they would be unlikely to be reselected or reelected.

Dr Fox also questions what would happen in the event that one member of the job-share stepped down. We do not think this need be particularly problematic, given that both MPs in the job-share will have been elected. If one should be removed from office then the other could choose to continue as a full-time MP until the next election, or they could choose to stand down with their job-share partner. Accordingly, job-shares need not increase the likelihood of by-elections

Furthermore, it is our belief that job-share MPs may prove to be more attractive at the ballot box than critics imply. The professionalisation of politics and the narrowing of the political class is an issue that resonates with many.

Philip Cowley’s work with Rosie Campbell shows that voters respond negatively to candidates without local connections, those with high incomes, and those who have only worked in political occupations. Job-sharing might encourage the local GP who wants to maintain a reduced practice, or someone who runs a family business, or the parent who wants to do the school run a couple of times a week to consider standing.

The challenges for job-sharing at Westminster are by no means insurmountable, as Dr Fox admits. And we believe them to be worth the extra cost. We do not imagine that Parliament will suddenly become dominated by job-share MPs, just as other organisations that allow job-shares are not; neither will they double the numbers of women in the House. But they would facilitate people, men and women, who make a contribution to society beyond their ‘day jobs’, through caring for children or dependent adults, sustaining a professional career or contributing to their local community, to stand for election to Parliament. Crucially, job share enables them to do so without having to put aside all of their other commitments.

Job-shares should be strongly supported by those who want to see more women elected to Westminster. This support need not be dependent upon job-share delivering a large number of women MPs at the next election. And their value is not limited to women. Job-share is about enabling both women and men who currently feel unable to participate in politics but have a significant contribution to make. The value of job-share is also symbolic – about making it clear that being a representative is a job not just for the professional or unencumbered politician but a job open to all.

This post was originally published on Huffington Post.