Could a Gender Balanced Parliament Exist in the UK?

AGORA moderator's picture

Our parliamentary system is described as 'a representative democracy'. 'Unrepresentative democracy' would be more accurate. Whether it is gender, race, sexuality, religion or political leaning, the House of Commons grossly misrepresents the public's characteristics and persuasions. It is no wonder that controversial legislation such as the so-called 'Tampon Tax' managed to make its way through Parliament when 71% of MPs have never needed a tampon in their life.

This Friday, the UK Youth Parliament will sit in the House of Commons for our annual debate. Members of the Youth Parliament are between 11 and 18, elected by their peers, and the only individuals aside from MPs that are allowed to sit on the green benches. For the first and only time this year, an elected body in the House of Commons will be balanced 50:50 by gender. The last time this happened? One year ago at the Youth Parliament's 2014 sitting.

When confronted with the idea of a balanced parliament, reactionaries will leap to the defence of the status quo. 'What about democracy?' they bleat 'The people had the choice to vote for a woman, let the best candidate win!'

I agree, let the best candidate win. There are no quotas or shortlists in the Youth Parliament and yet every year a cohort of MYPs are elected which are almost exactly representative of the young people that elected them. The issue with general elections isn't that male candidates are any better than female ones, or that people would rather vote for male candidates, but a deep structural inequality in our electoral system.

Firstly, in many constituencies women had no chance of election. 26.1% of candidates at the general election were female. In many hundreds of seats, both of the front runners for election were male. In 120 seats, all of the candidates were male. Should we expect someone to compromise on their views in order to elect a woman from a party they did not agree with? Should we expect someone to move house in order to vote for a female candidate? The reality is that in the vast majority of seats, the best candidate was male. This wasn't because men make better MPs, or because men are better candidates, but because there just aren't as many women in politics.

Before the nomination of candidates has even begun, the system is rigged against women. Elections are expensive and time consuming whilst women earn less and work more than their male counterparts. Many women are priced out of running for political office, unable to afford time off of work and away from children/families.

Then there is the issue of our voting system. First Past the Post does not only mean that the views represented in parliament are not diverse, it also makes it far more difficult for female candidates to win. Safe seats are most often held by male MPs, in many cases they have been for decades. For women who are relatively new to politics and have less money or time to spend than their male counterparts, it is very hard to win the candidacy in a seat which is winnable. In a proportional voting system, MPs who have held their seats for many years would no longer be so secure. Politics would become a lot more accessible.

However, things are getting better for gender balance in parliament. This year's general election produced the most equal parliament in its history. 29% of MPs are female. Unfortunately, that's still almost half the number it should be. The lack of women in parliament makes for bad policy making and a disengaged electorate. The House of Commons cannot make decisions in the interests of the people whilst it is so unequal. When I sit on the green benches on Friday, there will be an even split of young men and women. Let's hope that the House of Commons catches up within my lifetime.