Women’s Legislative Recruitment: no simple explanation, no single panacea

By Rosie Campbell & Sarah Childs

PR: neither necessary nor sufficient

It is a widely held view that the first-past-the-post electoral system disadvantages women and that electoral reform would improve the representation of women in the UK Parliament. In Westminster elections party candidates are selected constituency by constituency – too often women are selected for the party’s less winnable seats. Only on election-day does it become obvious that the House of Commons is once again over-represented by men. Proportional representation is, however, neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for improving the political representation of women. This is not to say that a more proportional system is not desirable but the surest and most immediate way to guarantee a fairer representation of women in elected bodies is to apply quota rules, irrespective of the electoral system.

Evidence from the UK and around the world clearly demonstrates that operating under a more proportional electoral system is no guarantor of women’s political representation. Whilst at first glance the Scottish Parliament appears to be an example of electoral reform working in women’s favour, when we look more closely at the figures we see that the high numbers of women returned to the Scottish parliament can be largely attributed to the Labour party’s use of twinning in its single member constituencies rather than high numbers of women in the party lists. We don’t wish to argue that electoral reform is of no benefit to women, moments of constitutional change often provide a window where women can disturb the political order and demand space in the new institutional arrangements. But the choice of PR is important. In OSCE countries with a party list system of PR there are on average 4-6% more women in lower house. List systems can make initiatives to improve the representation of women easier to implement, and harder to ignore. Certainly in a closed list system parties can ‘zip’ men and women candidates, alternating them on the party list, and therefore greatly increasing the likelihood of women getting elected and not just selected. Should a party place all of their women candidates at the bottom of the list the distribution of seat winnablity by sex of candidate would be plain for all to see.

Global Trends: the case for quotas

When it comes to the global league table of women’s representation there are some surprising countries in the top ten. In fact if you ask undergraduate students of politics to rank order countries by the percentage of women in the legislature fail they invariably fail to get the right order.

Top 10 Percentage of women in lower or single house in rank order

  1. Rwanda 56.3%
  2. Andorra 50.0%
  3. Cuba 45.2%
  4. Sweden 44.7%
  5. Seychelles 43.8%
  6. Finland 42.5%
  7. South Africa 42.3%
  8. Netherlands 40.7%
  9. Nicaragua 40.2%
  10. Iceland 39.7%


Their expectations – and no doubt others – is that established democracies will do best. In fact this is rarely the case. The UK House of Commons does particularly poorly, with just over 20% women MPs, coming in at an embarrassing 49th place. It is beaten by other European countries, including Spain, Portugal and Belgium even as it is ahead of France and the US. The scale of women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is often met with surprise; perhaps because women MPs often wearing bright jackets are highly visible against a background of grey suits, and perhaps too because they are used strategically by party leaders – ‘doughnutting’ the Prime Minister on the Parliamentary benches, or on the campaign trail, or at press conferences.

Around the world the single most important factor related to higher levels of women’s representation is the use of quotas. About half of the top 20 OSCE countries registering sharpest growth in women’s representation have used legal quotas; of the bottom twenty none had such constitutional requirements. Sure, there has been overall improvement in women’s representation over time, but there is no simple linear trend, with stagnation in some countries and regions, for example, Scandinavia, and fall back in others, such as those countries that make up the post-soviet space, and in Scotland and Wales.  In other cases there has been substantial and steady growth (Switzerland, Spain, Austria) and in yet others sudden rises (Belgium and the  Netherlands). In all this, there is no clear unambiguous relationship between electoral system and the proportion of women in the lower house.

The way forward for the UK: time for quotas too

A change in the electoral system in the UK might well have pushed Britain up in the international ranking by a few places. But if we want to see sizeable changes then sex quotas are a better – and arguably post the AV referendum, the easier – choice. Recall that in 1997 there was a big jump in the number of women MPs:  the figure doubled overnight from 60 to 120. This had nothing to do with the electoral system per se. Instead, it was the Labour party’s use of a quota system, in the form of all-women-shortlists, that accounts for the rise, and explains too their continuing higher levels of women’s representation. In the 2011 parliament they still have more women MPs than all the other parties added together Quotas are, for sure, by no means a simple panacea, they need to be well designed and robustly implemented or some parties will find ways to circumvent them, but they provide nonetheless the most effective means to improve the political representation of women. As one of the recommendations of the 2008-10 Speaker’s Conference made clear, it is time for Parliament to consider legislative quotas for women.

Lies, Statistics and Eric Pickles on Transparency

By Professor Deborah Mabbett

Transparency in government sounds like a good thing. Surely more information is better than less, and an informed public will make more accurate judgments about government policy. However, in complex policy areas, transparency often means selecting and highlighting some presentable facts, while omitting the contextual information needed to interpret those facts. In extremis, the facts become so decontextualised that the public is likely to be misled.

Consider the efforts of Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), to enhance transparency about local government finance. This has brought us some eye-catching statistics. Perhaps one of the most striking was the claim that funding per head for Hackney in 2011-12 will amount to £1043 per person, while in Wokingham it will be a mere £125. Google ‘Hackney 1043 Wokingham 125’ and you can see how many newspapers found this factoid worth repeating from the DCLG press release.

How is this figure arrived at? Using detailed information available for 2010/11, we can get some idea. Hackney spent more per person than Wokingham: 33% more on education, twice as much on social care, 80% more in expenditure on services overall. With various convoluted  pluses and minuses to get to the important if oxymoronic figure of ‘Revenue Expenditure’ (translation: expenditure that has to be financed out of local authority revenue), the gap widens further: Hackney spends 95% more overall. A substantial difference, but not enough to explain why Hackney would get more than eight times the central government funding allocated to Wokingham.

But of course Hackney is not only needier than Wokingham, with more children in local authority schools and more elderly people needing care; it is also poorer, so we would expect lower council tax receipts. Sure enough, council tax per capita in Hackney was about £340, in Wokingham just over £500. The difference which had to be financed by central government in 2010/11 was £2,260 per person in Hackney and £830 in Wokingham. You’ll notice that these figures are higher than those given out by DCLG, and nowhere near as disproportionate: it would seem that Hackney got 2.7 times as much funding from central government as Wokingham, not 8.3 times.

So what accounts for the difference? Funding for local authorities from central government comes in two main forms: specific grants routed via departments, and ‘formula funding’. Mr Pickles’ version of transparency is to shine the light on formula funding, and cast a veil over specific grants. What should we make of this? It is tempting to say that ‘Hackney 1043 Wokingham 125’ is not so much a factoid as a lie: one element of funding was left out in order to deliver a strong message with the other element.

But Mr Pickles is an astute operator, and I assume that he has a defence, which might go like this. A complete measure of central government support for an area would be difficult to produce. It would be difficult to include NHS and Social Security spending, for example, because these are not allocated by local authority area. For transparency aficionados, this is a well-known strategy: selectivity in presenting the data is rationalised by pointing to the difficulty of giving a comprehensive view.

Comprehensiveness is indeed difficult and complicated, so transparency has to be pursued in good faith. The selection of the formula funding number looks like bad faith. DCLG routinely produces statistics on the financing of local authority expenditure broken down into the three elements of council tax, specific grants and formula funding, so why leave specific grants out on this occasion? Perhaps DCLG has not yet got the estimates from other departments for specific grants in 2011/12, but in that case, the honest announcement would have been that Mr Pickles did not know how much support from central government would be received by each local authority. Perhaps the temptation to pacify the LibDems by highlighting the formula funding figure was too great, but it is risky: they will tumble to the fuller story sooner or later. In the meantime, the Tory heartlands are cultivating their grievances against the sponging inner cities. Mr Pickles’ selective illumination has not  helped the quality of public debate.