Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

Submission from Lesley Abdela (SC-64)


  I have campaigned, lobbied and worked as a professional journalist and Consultant on equal representation of women in politics in 40 countries, including the UK, over decades.

  For a Democracy, the British House of Commons currently rates very poorly, at 69th in the global league table of women in politics.

Countries globally with over 30% women in their legislatures

  Rwanda 56.3%, Sweden 47.0%, Wales 47%, Cuba 43.2%. Finland 41.5%, Netherlands 41.3%, Argentina 40.0%, Denmark 38%, Angola 37.3%, Costa Rica 36.8%, Spain 36.3%, Norway 36.1%, Belgium 35.3%, Mozambique 34.8%, New Zealand 33.6%, Iceland 33.3%, Scotland 33.3%, Nepal 33.2%, South Africa 33%, Germany 32.2%, Belarus 31.*%, The FYR of Macedonia 31.7%, Uganda 30.7%, Burundi 30.5%,Tanzania 30.4%, Guyana 30.0%.

  Countries with over 30% women in parliament share three things in common:

    All countries with over 30% women in parliament have introduced equalising strategies such as gender-balanced quotas as a "break-through" (ie short-term/temporary) measure.

    — In all these countries, women (often with supportive men) inside and outside political parties mobilised and campaigned for quotas. Women's groups also provided training for women in political participation.

    — The electoral system is some form of Proportional Representation.*

  *  the exceptions are Scotland and Wales—see section on quotas

  Governments and political parties have often been reluctant to introduce quotas.

1.  Obstacles

  The obstacles break down broadly into two categories: institutional obstacles, and obstacles caused by cultural stereotypes and attitudes. Any person or commission seriously seeking to increase women's participation will have to consider the extra challenges faced by women from ethnic and religious minorities and women with disabilities. Women are not a homogenous category. Issues which impinge on women are cross-cut by other particular factors affecting their status: marital/widowhood status, parental background, religious grouping, ethnic minority/race, class and economic ranking (millions of women are on low pay, no pay, or up to a third less than men doing the same job), urban/rural. It is important to discuss strategies and actions to enable them to have full participation in politics. There are, nevertheless, common challenges to overcome. (See annex 2).

  As an aside—Parliamentarians on the Speaker's Conference may be interested to note that violence in politics and elections is a main challenge in a considerable number of the countries where I have worked, including Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Happily this is not a major issue in British politics.

2.  What actions could be taken by the Government to address disparities in representation?

2.1  Introduce Temporary Special Measures

  From these many years campaigning and working professionally to increase women's political participation I can state that if the Speaker's Conference members were truly committed to increasing the number of women in Parliament from a diverse range of backgrounds (as I believe you are) there is only one way to achieve it, full stop—that is by introduction of Temporary Special Measures in the form of quotas for a period of 4 elections. Everything else may be seen as a cynical effort to avoid a real increase in women's numbers.

2.2  The most democratic choice of Quota

  At least 122 political parties globally use some form of quota for women when selecting their candidates for elections. There are differing types of quota systems—some are more democratic than others. The type I believe has the greater merit for the United Kingdom are Gender-balanced quotas with equal rules for both women and men and in which everyone has to stand for election. Examples are "zipping" and "twinning". (see Annex 1 for explanation of zipping and twinning).

  Another example of a Gender Balance quota is to stipulate that at least 40% candidates have to be men and at least 40% candidates have to be women, with the remaining 20% either. This means there can be no more than 60% representation by the one sex.

  A variety of different quota systems has been used successfully for elections at all levels: regional, national, local, district, provincial, and municipal.

  Gender Balanced Quotas with equal rules for women and men retains democratic credibility because once they have been chosen to be candidates by their political party, both female and male candidates still have to get elected by the voters. A Gender Balance quota with equal rules for men and women cuts down the risk of the "Quota Queens" syndrome in which women elected on a quota system are somehow perceived by colleagues and the media as "second class" representatives.

2.3  Rationale for introducing quotas as a Temporary Special Measure

  Introduction of quotas can be attacked on some theoretical ground, but practice demonstrates their true worth. The principal feature in every country in the world where there are at least 30% women in the primary legislature, starting in Sweden, followed by other Nordics, and most recently Rwanda is some sort of quota.

  Back in 1980, I was totally opposed to any form of quotas, but after some years working on the issue of women's participation in politics in the UK and overseas I became convinced that training, lobbying and similar activities on their own are helpful but are not enough. Progress is too slow. I have seen that in country after country in Europe, Africa, Asia, and it has been documented elsewhere that other actions without some form of quota will not succeed.

  Introduction of these Temporary Special Measures (endorsed and shortened in UN-speak to "TSMs") is designed to introduce a level playing field enabling women to compete fairly at the candidate selection stage. Women make up over 50% of every nation, more in post-conflict regions, and yet, under current political systems in which selection processes are controlled by political parties, it is unlikely that women will be nominated as candidates for winnable seats in sufficient numbers, let alone reflecting their number in the population. Until hidden systemic barriers to women are removed, or overcome by special if short-term measures, women do not, in reality, have equal opportunity. Equalising action is required to make the break-through.

  In an ideal world Quotas/Equalising Action would not be needed, but people opposed to quotas in politics endlessly attack this remedy but never seem to have any answers on how to change things, except the same old "slowly, slowly, patience, patience" argument that has been used for centuries.

Lacking Equalising Action, it is like waiting for fish to grow feet. More generations of excellent women will come and go, as they have over the past 90 years.

  In support of my recommendation I have attached a Question and Answer briefing on using quotas in political candidate selection as Annex 1.

  The Q and A is excerpted from a Trainers Manual for Women in Politics I wrote in 2005 titled "Communication Skills for Women In Politics", sponsored by the Research Centre for Gender Equality, funded by the EU. The manual was targeted at Greece, Italy and the newly-emergent democracy Hungary. I was Consultant to the project aimed at increasing women's representation in politics. These three countries had some of the lowest representation in the European Parliament.

2.4  Three Ways to legitimise quotas

  There are 3 main ways to legitimise quotas:

Permissive quotas

  In the UK we have "permissive" legislation which allows political parties to use quotas if they wish to do so. Other countries with "Permissive" legislation include Norway, Denmark, Germany and Sweden.

Mandatory Quotas

  1.  Other countries have passed legislation to make quotas mandatory.

  These include:

  Belgium, France, Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Costa Rica, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Indonesia, Jordan, Macedonia, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Sudan, Serbia, Montenegro, Tanzania, Uganda, Venezuela.

Quotas enshrined in the Constitution

  Some countries have enshrined quota procedures at national or local level in their Constitutions.

  These include:

  France, China, Eritrea, Guyana, Kenya, Nepal, Philippines, Taiwan, Tanzania, Uganda, Argentina, India.[173]

3.  Further Issues impacting differentially on women—Access To Funding

3.1  Rationale

  In the Canadian Royal Commission study on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, women said financial factors were the biggest obstacle to electoral success.[174]

  At first sight it may look as though the funding challenges are the same for women and men. The reality is that women generally have far less access to funds than men for political participation and seeking office. Election campaigns and building a track record in politics can be expensive. In research for my book "Women with 'X' Appeal" in which I interviewed over 30 women in British politics I established that even as far back as the 1980s that costs in extra personal expenses incurred by being a political activist and prospective candidate can easily amount to several thousand pounds per year—and women historically have found it much harder to raise these sums for personal political activism.

  Costs include:

    — travelling to meetings and conferences.

    — the cost of participating in regular Party social and political events

    — the cost of taking part in internal party nomination and competitions as part of the political party candidate selection process

    — clothes to wear in public life

    — child-care or elder-care if needed when attending political meetings

    — membership fees to political party and other political groups

3.2  Suggestions for Funding Reform

  1.  Make provision for childcare expenses to be included in the personal expenses of a candidate in nomination and election expenses.

  2.  Provide incentives through public funding: the amount of funding a party receives could be linked or dependent upon the number of women candidates it puts forward for election.

  3.  Provide "early money" to women contestants. Establish networks for the financing of women's electoral and nomination campaigns. This is particularly important for women in systems where there is no access to public funding.

  4.  Conduct more research into the effects of campaign financing on women, and explore more avenues for reform.

3.3  Funding. Case examples

  1.  The Canada Elections Act makes provision for childcare expenses to be included in the personal expenses of a candidate for election contest but not for the expenses incurred in the initial campaigning to get the nomination by the party. The Royal Commission in Canada noted that the cost of childcare imposes an unequal burden on many women seeking elected office. It proposed that childcare is a necessary expense in seeking nomination by a candidate and should be considered a legitimate tax deduction.[175]

  2.  In French elections, including those to the Lower House, parties are required to put forward a gender-balanced slate of candidates or pay a financial penalty. The balance does not need to be mathematically exact—a party putting forward 49% of candidates of one sex and 51% of the other sex pays no penalty. If the discrepancy is any greater than this, the party's State funding will be cut by an amount equaling half the percentage difference. A party which puts forward 45% women and 55% men—a difference of 10%—will lose 5% of its state funding.

  3.  EMILY's List in the UK (based on the American EMILY's LIST) is a special fund which raises seed money for prospective Labour Party women candidates at the time they seek party nomination. This money can be put towards clothes, petrol, telephone bills, training courses, or any other items a woman feels will help her to win her seat.[176]

  4.  Britain's Liberal Democrats set up a diversity fighting fund to help more women and ethnic minority candidates.

4.  Networks of women and campaigning groups inside and outside parties need funding to be effective.

  Politics has been a traditionally male domain. Because of this history, in most countries women lack an understanding of the political system. They may even perceive politics as "nothing to do with us".

  NGOs, Networks, and campaigning groups in the UK and overseas have played a role in increasing women's participation in politics. With sufficient funding women's NGOs (such as Fawcett) and political parties can:

    — lobby for the introduction of gender-balanced parity quotas

    — encourage more women to come forward and take an active role in decision-making at all levels in politics and public life

    — train women candidates and their campaign teams

    — create a market demand for women as a new fresh force politics and public life at all levels of society—village, province and national. At the same time, satisfy this new demand with well-prepared and trained women, equipped with the necessary skills for active leadership roles in political life

    — help to change the culture in public life, politics and the media to become more inclusive and "woman-friendly"

    — raise awareness among the nation's women about their rights and responsibilities as citizens

    — raise funds for women candidates

The all-party 300 GROUP UK

  The 300 GROUP had over 40 branches across England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Members and Supporters were from diverse ethnic backgrounds and across the political spectrum. During the five years 1980-85 when I founded and developed the all-Party 300 Group for Women in Politics, we conducted useful activities, including debates on major subjects in Committee Rooms of the House of Commons; familiarisation meetings between prospective Party members and representatives/prospective mentors of those Parties; skills-learning sessions, often in association with entities such as the Industrial Society, Women's Institutes or major magazines like Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan (of which later I became their first Political Editor).

  The all-party 300 GROUP formed from a grouping of women from about 10 women's organisations plus the women's wings of political parties. They met to confront the fact that at that time, in the United Kingdom's Parliament men outnumbered women 97% to 3%. The campaign developed a twin-track strategy. In marketing terms, it created a market demand from the public (ie voters) for women candidates; at the same time it prepared and provided good products by training potential women candidates and helping them to raise their public profile in the media.

  The 300 GROUP pioneered a full range of activities for its members, from debates in committee rooms of the House of Commons, to annual workshop-conferences, "Town Hall meetings", Saturday skills training throughout Britain (sometimes sponsored by major women's magazines), and a quarterly newsletter which went to 5000 people.

  Through this activity, the 300 Group laid the ground for several thousand women to participate fully in Britain's political life. It pressured the political Parties to encourage more and more women to seek candidacies rather than only play a traditional supportive role. It also encouraged women to lobby hard within their parties for a better gender balance.

  The activities we conducted in the 300 GROUP were very successful—indeed a number of women who started out in the 300 GROUP went on to become MPs, Peers, Ministers, Mayors, Local Councillors and front-bench spokespeople and to hold other senior posts in public life. After 20 years the 300 GROUP ceased activities because of lack of funds.

  Groups such as the all-party 300 GROUP in the UK in the 1980s widely succeeded in mobilising and actively encouraging women to step forward and participate in the political arena. Women should have access to training in the skills and understanding of democratic politics, their civic rights and responsibilities as voters, activists and representatives. There are now a number of new groups dedicated to increasing women's participation in politics. They need and deserve proper funding.

  A group of well-organised women activists within a political party can make a difference. In the early 1990s, women's networks inside the British Labour Party mobilised, lobbied, and used their voting strength within the party to get a quota introduced. The Labour women's networks analysed which seats their party expected to win at the following election and groomed individual women candidates to apply for each of those vacant winnable seats.

  Women in the Labour Party formed the Labour Women's Network. They persuaded the party to introduce all women short-lists for half the winnable seats in which there was no sitting incumbent. The leap forward in 1997 was mainly due to the big swing to Labour combined with the fact that Labour introduced their then-controversial all-women short-lists. This was about the only type of quota system available in our first- past-the-post electoral system.

  The pressure from outside the parties and inside the parties meant that within 4 elections the number of women in the House of Commons went from 19 to 122.

  But that was and is still only 18% of the British House of Commons. There are 4 men to each woman MP (and as bad a ratio in the Lords). The real break though came when Labour introduced quotas for elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament.

  Women activists and supportive men in the Labour Party seized the chance and lobbied hard for quotas to be introduced into the Party candidate selection system for the new legislatures in Wales and Scotland. Until recently 50% of the Welsh Assembly Members were women and half the Ministers were women, but until the late 1990s only one in 20 Welsh local councillors had been a woman.

  The British Liberal Democrat Party introduced a zipper quota for their party lists in the 2000 elections to the European Parliament with the result that five women and five men were elected.

5.  Future actions needed by British Political Parties

  Party Leaders have taken a few steps in the right direction to increase women's representation at Westminster. They need the courage to go all the way in both the Upper and Lower Chambers.

  The big challenge (and my question) is—do Party Leaders and the Speaker's Conference have the political commitment and courage to deliver equality for women in Parliament and a more democratic political system? There is only one way most of us will live to see gender equality in the British Parliament—reform of the electoral system to a more representative voting system combined with a gender balance quota, or by introducing a gender balance quota within the first-past-the-post system.

  David Cameron's first promise when he became Conservative Party Leader was to increase the number of Tory women from the current 17 MPs out of 180 Conservative MPs. Conservative Party Chair Teresa May has been touring the country working hard to carry out her Leader's pledge but at the current rate of candidate selection even a major swing to Conservatives would most likely result in at the most a handful more Tory women MPs.

  Lib Dems slammed the door on equal representation of women and men MPs at a Party Conference a few years ago when they voted against introducing gender-balanced quotas into their candidate selection system, despite the open advocacy of almost every senior Party member, including Shirley Williams and the then-Leader. To try to compensate for this set-back a few Party activists upped the amount of training and encouragement for women budding politicians and targeted extra cash and resources at constituencies with female candidates. The results have not been encouraging. Out of the present 63 Lib Dem MPs, nine are women. At the next General Election Liberal Democrats are likely to deliver little or no increase in women— given a fair wind they might increase their number of female MPs by a couple to 10 or 11.

6.  Transform and Reform

  Even beyond the quest for justice and fairness for women, the purpose of increasing women's participation in politics is not simply to increase numbers. It is also to support the creation of a new democratic agenda in politics that changes the lives of all people for the better.

  UK and the world faces daunting challenges: the Credit Crunch, climatic changes, terrorism, a resurgence of racism, sex trafficking (now estimated to be the fourth-largest "industry" in the world), growing unemployment, wars and endless conflicts, many involving the UK directly. If we are going to overcome these challenges, our future leaders need to be chosen from the full pool of talent—women as well as men.

  See also Guardian Comment is Free http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/07/women

173   International IDEA and Stockholm University Global Database of Quotas for Women. Back

174   Ballington paper on party Funding for International IDEA Back

175   Ballington Paper on Party Funding for International IDEA Back

176   www.emilyslist.org.uk Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 27 May 2009