Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

Submission by the Centre for Women & Democracy (SC-44)


  This submission:

    — deals specifically with the representation of women in parliament

    — in particular addresses what actions could be taken by the Government, political parties and others to address disparities in diversity (in this case in terms of gender)

    — looks in some detail at these issues in the context of experience both in the UK and abroad

    — proposes that the UK adopt, for parliamentary elections, a quota system which requires political parties to ensure that a given percentage of their candidates are women

    — proposes that there should be effective sanctions if the quotas are not met

    — proposes the establishment of a Democracy Diversity Fund to support parties in finding, training and selecting good candidates of both genders from all communities

    — proposes that such a system should be subject to review after each election, and that, if there is evidence to suggest that it is no longer necessary, abolished.


  1.1  This submission deals specifically with the representation of women in parliament, and in particular addresses what actions could be taken by the Government, political parties and others to address disparities in diversity (in this case in terms of gender). It looks at these issues in the context of experience both in the UK and abroad, and makes recommendations which include proposals for the monitoring of success.

  1.2  The Centre for Women & Democracy (CFWD) was established in 2007 to research and campaign on issues of women's representation at all levels of public life. Based in Leeds, CFWD works predominantly in the north of England, but also has a national remit.


  2.1  Women have been able to stand in General Elections since 1918, but to date progress in integrating women into the parliamentary system has been painfully slow. There are currently only 126[104] women MPs (19.5% of the House of Commons). In 1918, one woman was elected (and 706 men), and the percentage of women MPs did not reach 5% until 1964. In 1992, it rose to 9%, and in 1997 reached 18% (120).

  2.2  The two charts on the following page below illustrate both the figures and the percentages for each party between the 1987 and 2005 General Elections.[105]

  2.3  Internationally, the UK is in the upper half of the "league table", but is falling steadily down it. In 2007 there were 49 countries with a greater percentage of women in their legislatures than the UK; there are now 68.[106]

  2.4  Figures from the Electoral Reform Society have already demonstrated that—regardless of the result—there is already very little possibility of increasing the number of women MPs at the next General Election, and that it may well actually decrease. This will result in the UK falling even further behind internationally, especially since other countries will continue to overtake us as their elections are held.


  3.1  The current political system is one which has developed very slowly over centuries, making very slight adjustments—usually slightly behind the times—to take account of social, political and economic change. From time to time this incremental process has been punctuated by major change brought about after considerable debate and some upheaval—the 1832 Reform Act, for instance, or the enfranchisement of women in 1918.

  3.2  This incremental approach worked reasonably well while Britain was one of the few stable democracies in the world, but today many aspects of the way in which the democratic process works—both inside the House and outside it—are seen as outdated and obstructive.

  3.3  It is not reasonable to suppose that matters such as the physical arrangements inside the chamber—which encourage adversarial debate—are likely to be changed as a result of this or any other process, and we are therefore not making recommendations along those lines, and although there may well be some sense in examining the way in which debates work, it is not proposed to examine this in detail here.

  3.4  It is also the case that the very poor reputation of politics as a profession is discouraging to many sections of the population, and this will require major change—in the culture of the press and the tone of society as well as in the behaviour of some MPs themselves—if it is to be mitigated. Again, this submission does not make detailed recommendations, but notes that any structural, constitutional or electoral changes will have to be accompanied by a significant improvement in culture and perception as well as a public debate.


  4.1  It is proposed that the UK adopt, for parliamentary elections at least, a quota system which requires political parties to ensure that a given percentage of their candidates are women, which enforces effective sanctions if the quotas are not met, and which backs them up with a Democracy Diversity Fund to support parties in finding, training and selecting good candidates of both genders from all communities. This system should be subject to review after each election, and, if there is evidence to suggest that it is no longer necessary, abolished.

  4.2  It is accepted that these proposals will need further discussion and debate, and the variety of models available (see below) means that much of the detail is deliberately being left open so as not to inhibit this. However, it is also the case that, if the principle is accepted, the space for the debate on the detail will be created.

  4.3  It is recognised that the UK already uses one particular kind of quota system, and this is dealt with in Section 5 of this submission, as well as being illustrated in the charts in Para 2.2

  4.4  The remainder of this section explains the rationale for the proposal in Paragraph 4.1, drawing on the experience of other countries as well as devolved institutions in the UK.

  4.5  In considering the record of other countries in this area,[107] it is accepted that not all are comparable. Some are effectively single-party states (eg, Cuba, on 43.2%) or have very different social and political cultures from the UK (eg, Afghanistan where 27.7% of MPs are women). In some cases—for instance Rwanda (56.3%), Angola (37.3%) and South Africa (33%) significant constitutional change or civil wars created clear space in which to develop new democratic institutions. Even in Europe, many countries had to re-invent their democratic institutions after the Second World War —or, in the case of countries such as Spain (36.3%), Portugal (28.3%), and Bulgaria (21.7%) after the removal of single-party dictatorships.

  4.6  In the UK, the opportunity to create new institutions was offered by Scottish and Welsh devolution, and, to a lesser extent, by the Northern Irish settlement.

  4.7  In a number of quarters, there was a demand for these new institutions to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and although none of them produced a blueprint for the delivery of equality objectives, it was accepted on all sides—to varying degrees—that there was a collective responsibility for achieving them.

  4.8  The table below shows the percentage of women members for each of the main relevant parties in devolved institutions in the UK.



*  Includes Independents and smaller parties not listed.
**  2 largest parties only.

  4.9  The effect of the actions of those parties which took positive steps to increase the representation of women is clear. Famously, Wales was the first legislature in the world to have 50% women members in 2003.

  4.10  Internationally, a variety of different approaches has been taken, but a common feature is the use of quota or other systems to ensure the election of women in those countries with (relatively) high levels of women MPs.

  4.11  Of the 24 countries in which women's representation in the national parliament was at or over 30%, the majority employ quota systems in one form or another, and even in the Scandinavian countries, where quotas have been highly contentious (and are further discussed below), they have played a part in increasing the numbers of women, with the result that Sweden (currently at 47%) looks as though it will be the first European country to reach parity.

  4.12  In all, 97 out of 189 countries employ one or more of the various forms of quota available (see below). Some use more than one, and several use different types of quota for different kinds of election.

  4.13  There are three basic types of quota:

    — Constitutional—in which the requirement for there to be a certain percentage of women in the legislature is part of the constitutional arrangements.

    — Electoral—in which the electoral laws of the country require quotas to be implemented. This is the type of quota system which CFWD is proposing should be adopted in the UK.

    — Party—in which some or all of the political parties in the country voluntarily apply some form of positive action or quota requirements. This is the type of quota system currently in use in the UK, and has the drawback of leaving the burden of creating actual improvements on the shoulders of a small number of parties.

  4.14  In some countries, both the first and second kind are used, with the provisions of electoral law being consequential to the constitutional arrangements. In addition, the ways in which quotas are set, implemented and enforced varies greatly, with each country setting up whatever system will suit its requirements best.

  4.15  The Nordic countries Sweden (47%), Denmark (38%), Norway (36.1%) and Iceland (33.3%), together with Finland on 41.5% are the most obviously successful and comparable group of countries. They have stable political systems and their democratic and party structures are not dissimilar to the UK's.

  4.16  Of these countries, Sweden, Norway and Iceland all use party quotas—in Norway most of the parties have a 40% quota, in Sweden the centre left parties have a 50% quota, whilst the centre right parties used quotas in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, but do not use them now. In Iceland the three centre left parties (which between them have about half of MPs) all use quotas.

  4.17  In Denmark, on the other hand, quotas were used until 1996, when they were abandoned. In 1997 33% of Danish MPs were women, in 2001 the figure had risen to 37.4% and it currently stands at 38%. There has been much debate about this, particularly in academic circles, and although there is not space to rehearse these here, the quote below from Professor Drude Dahlerup of Stockholm University (Para 4.25) suggests lines of thought.

  4.18  Finland has no quota system for parliament or for local councils, but the Act of Equality of 2000 requires all public committees, and all municipal bodies (other than councils) to have a minimum of 40% of both men and women. It is worth noting here that Finland's very high standing in the world's ranking is historical—in 1906, 12 years before British women were granted even a limited parliamentary franchise, 16 Finnish women MPs were elected.

  4.19  In the remaining European countries with 30% or more women MPs:

    — the centre left parties in the Netherlands (41.3%) operate quotas

    — Spain (36.3%) has both electoral law (the Equality Law of 2007 introduced the "principle of balanced presence" into electoral law, and party lists which do not comply with its requirements are ruled out by the Electoral Commission)

    — Belgium (35.3%) has an electoral law (2002) which requires party lists to be composed of equal numbers of women and men, with places not so filled left vacant

    — Both of the main parties in Germany (32.2%) operate quota systems.

  4.20  It might be argued that, given that a number of European countries have managed to increase women's representation using party rather than electoral quotas, the situation in the UK should be left unchanged. However, the Westminster parliament is now so far behind similar legislatures with which it ought to be comparable that it will be impossible for significant progress to be made unless all parties are made equally responsible for achieving it.

  4.21  Constitutional quotas are not generally found in Europe, and are more likely to be in operation in countries which have recently-written constitutions, or where the severity of the problem is agreed to warrant such a step.

  4.22  There are currently 15 countries using constitutional quotas, 44 using electoral law quotas, and 169 political parties in 69 countries (including the UK) using party quotas. In total, 97 countries (out of 189) use either one or a combination of quota types (see Appendix 3 for a breakdown).

  4.23  In many cases, quotas are used in conjunction with proportional representation in one form or another, and, indeed, first-past-the-post is probably the most difficult electoral system to make work with quotas. This submission does not specifically argue for electoral reform, but notes that there is a strong case for it to be considered, and anticipates that this case will be made very effectively by other submissions.

  4.24  It is clear from even this very brief overview that quotas are not a panacea for the ills of under-representation, but on the other hand it is a fact that, of the 24 countries in which 30% or more MPs are women, 20 use quotas of one kind or another, whilst of the 53 countries where women constitute 10% or under of MPs only 11 use quotas.[108] Moreover, in some of these 11 the quota is very low (eg Jordan, where it is 6 seats or 5%); in others the sanctions are either weak or non-existent; and in others still only very small parties, or parties with no MPs have quota systems.

  4.25  However, it is also the case that none of the Nordic countries have strong sanctions either, and yet they are all well up the list. This quote from Professor Drude Dahlerup of Stockholm University provides some food for thought as to why this might be:

    "In a system with almost no institutionalized sanctions, not even in the political parties themselves, for non-compliance with quota rules, the question is what the incentives have been for the local branches to comply with the centrally imposed quota rules? Our investigations show that it is not the sanctions by the central party organization that make the local party organizations comply with the quota rules. Rather, parties have gradually nominated more women because they fear the sanction of the voters, especially the female voters, if they do not have a sufficient number of women among their candidates. However, what is considered a sufficient share of women has gradually increased in the Nordic countries from just one woman in the 1940s-60s, to one third in the 1970s and 1980s, to a new demand for de facto gender balance, notably in Sweden and Norway today."[109]


  5.1  The three main political parties—Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat—are at the heart of creating change in the political system. The degree to which these three institutions are either committed to change, or capable of delivering it within their structures, is therefore key to increasing the diversity of the House of Commons.

  5.2  Over recent years they have taken a variety of approaches to the challenge of increasing women candidates and MPs

  5.3  The Labour Party have used all-women shortlists (as well as twinning and zipping systems in Scotland and Wales). These have been relatively successful in raising the level of women's representation.

  5.4  The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have used various schemes providing encouragement, support and training, although both have rejected positive action as used by Labour. The Conservative Party has made changes to its procedures for this round of selections which have resulted in more women being selected in winnable seats. The Liberal Democrats have invested heavily in training and support, and this has also been rewarded with some success.

  5.5  However, despite this, the Electoral Reform Society figures[110] still show that there is now very little possibility of improving matters in any significant way at the next General Election. The concentration of women candidates and MPs in marginal seats for all parties means that each party's electoral fortunes has a very direct effect women's representation for each party, but hardly any overall, and it does seem that even the most optimistic (in gender terms) of realistic projections would only produce a very marginal increase.

  5.6  Whatever the outcome of the Speaker's Conference, it is likely that political parties will remain committed to the principle of increasing the numbers of women MPs; the question is whether or not they will be able to achieve it without external motivation and support.

  5.7  Both the parties, and the women's organisations connected with (but not run by) them (Women2win, Labour Women's Network, and the Gender Balance Campaign respectively), as well as a number of other external bodies concerned with issues around women's representation already provide training and support for women, and there is no reason why this should not continue. However, the whole process is under-resourced, with funding for candidate training and diversity competing with funds for other purposes.

  5.8  It is directly in the public interest for the quality of talent-spotting, training, development and mentoring by the parties to be as high as possible, and this applies to all candidates, not just to women.

  5.9  It does not seem reasonable to leave voluntary organisations effectively responsible for the quality of MPs without providing some support, particularly if quotas are to be introduced.

  5.10  It is therefore proposed that a Democracy Diversity Fund be established, to be funded by government but administered by the Electoral Commission. Political parties would be able to apply to the fund for specific schemes relating to candidate development, and the implementation and outcomes of such schemes would be monitored by the Commission. Grants could be made on a matched funding basis, and there could be a cap on the amount available to any individual party across the period of a parliament. Parties participating would be expected to meet certain criteria in terms of their commitment to diversity of all kinds, and there might be an argument for restricting grants to those parties securing a given percentage of the vote at a General Election—this would prevent small parties with no significant levels of support (and therefore unable to influence the make-up of the House) from absorbing resources without being able to produce the outcomes.

  5.11  The direct involvement of the Electoral Commission in this way would also enable the whole process to be monitored effectively, both in terms of candidate selection and the rate at which women are elected. The quota requirement should be abolished once an acceptable (and previously agreed) level of representation had been met, but the Democracy Diversity Fund should be continued to as to ensure that parties are able to find, train and field the best possible candidates from all communities and backgrounds.

104   Figures in this section relating to the numbers of women in the House of Commons are drawn from statistics collated by the Centre for the Advancement of Women in Politics at Queens University, Belfast. Back

105   For table see Appendix 1. Back

106   See Appendix 2 for a full list. Back

107   Figures related to the representation of women across the world and the use of quota systems are taken from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (www.ipu.org.uk) and the Quota Project run by the International IDEA and the University of Stockholm (www.quotaproject.org) respectively. Back

108   Kenya, India, Brazil, Ivory Coast, Malta, Armenia, Somalia, Algeria, Albania, Jordan and Equatorial Guinea. Back

109   Drude Dahlerup, Women, Quotas and Politics 2006. Back

110   Electoral Reform Society, Gender Representation in the Next Parliament, June 2008. Back

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