Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone writes a monthly column for one of her local newspapers. Here is the latest edition, looking at Parliamentary representation.
Our Parliament has come a long way in recent years. In fact, watching ‘The Iron Lady’ with Margaret Thatcher sticking out like a blue female sore thumb amongst the total male greyness of the then chamber – it reminded me of how recently in history this establishment was nearly all male.
However, despite real progress, it is still nowhere near reflecting the percentage of women in the country – and that is without even starting to talk about other aspects of diversity such as ethnicity, class or disability…
It is in everyone’s interests to have a Parliament that is made up of the best people for the job, and that includes a range of people who can best represent the diversity that exists in our communities – and who bring the benefits of a diverse set of experiences.
We do not just elect individuals, we elect people to be members of a team (their party, government/opposition, Parliament overall) – and, just as in sport, good teams have the right mix to be more than simply the sum of their parts. Good teams need variety and diversity.
We all suffer if that is missing because we end up with worse decision-making if Parliament is made up of a monochrome slice of uniformity.
There have been tremendous strides made in recent years. Whatever your views on how best to get there – Labour’s all women shortlists made a massive change in the culture of both the Labour party and parliament. The Conservatives, using a very different mechanism, have also made great strides in terms of their diversity. And we (Liberal Democrats) had worked incredibly hard on mentoring and monitoring and had succeeded in getting women in winnable seats in 2010 – but sadly we didn’t win them.
In our case we now have the Leadership Academy which will support a small, but ambitious and able cohort of under-represented groups as key candidates for the future. Winnable seats will have to have two of the graduate candidates from the Leadership Academy on their shortlists. Members will still have the final choice of course – but we will not just be sitting on our hands thinking that nothing needs doing.
I responded for the Government in the recent debate on representation in Parliament last week. The Speaker’s Conference a couple of years back made a number of recommendations – for Government, for the House and for political parties in terms of improving the diversity of their elected representatives.
Some of the recommendations have been introduced to date – including the holding of this debate s. It is legal until 2030 to employ all women shortlists if a political party wishes so to do. The Equality Act now allows us to balance our shortlists with people from under-represented groups if we wish. There is an ‘access to elected office’ plan and fund to support those with disabilities in being candidates about to be announced in detail and a raft of other measures.
What was clear from the debate – and very heart warming – was that everyone across the political divide is working hard to improve our representative quality.
Each party has its own traditions and beliefs, so each party has to find its own solutions for the shared problem we have of how unrepresentative Parliament. The political system needs to give parties the options to pick their own solutions – which it now does.
But as ever in politics – as it should be in a democracy – what matters is not only what the system permits or what politicians want, but what the public demands.
You do not have to wait until an election though. If you know someone talented, why not encourage them to get stuck into politics and stand themselves? The readers of these columns are a wonderfully diverse group – and I’m sure that the people you know and could encourage would be more diverse than the current make-up of Parliament!
* Lynne Featherstone is a minister at the Department for International Development and blogs at www.lynnefeatherstone.org.