Lynne Featherstone MP writes… We do not just elect individuals, we elect people to be members of a team

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 was the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green from 2005 to 2015, and served as a minister in both the Home Office and Department for International Development. She is now a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and blogs at www.lynnefeatherstone.org.

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5 Comments

  • jenny barnes 25th Jan '12 - 8:22pm

    There seem to be a very large number of public school/ Oxford educated, millionaires in Parliament. A light dusting of women and ethnic minorities isn’t likely to make a lot of difference.

  • Richard Swales 25th Jan '12 - 10:53pm

    I agree with Jenny. The under-representation of ethnic minorities is just the most visible symptom of the way parliament reflects middle-class users of maternity wards circa 1950 to circa 1975. Cure the underlying problem, not just the symptom. Oxbridge being overrepresented would be fine if it hadn’t become so unrepresentive itself.

    I tend to think that the problems lie further outside candidate procedures though – particularly state schools do not prioritise high-flyers – their key metric is how many people get at least 5 A-Cs at GCSE, not how many get into Oxbridge. At my state school the two top streams had 32 students, about 5 more pupils than average; the school assumed those pupils were nailed on to get 5 A-Cs, and instead focussed resources on the borderline cases. Nobody went on to Oxbridge (from my or most years) or parliament (from the school ever). Of course, probably, the key metric of how many get 5 A-Cs is a much better one, and measuring how many get to Oxbridge (thus encouraging the setting up of a smaller Oxbridge stream, and raising the average class size for the rest) is the wrong one – but be aware that when we say that, we are making a choice, and it does have consequences.

  • Spirit of 56 26th Jan '12 - 9:55am

    I strongly agree with Jenny. Parliament is vastly over represented by people with similar backgrounds. There is a need for a huge increase in state school educated people, which will also have the effect of lowering the Oxbridge dominance. Parliament should be populated by talented people but those talented people should reflect the diversity of the population in gender, ethnicity, age, education etc. One of the reasons this Government is so out of touch is they represent a small privately educated, politically educated clique, where are the Scientists , entrepreneurs, workers representatives. In fact most of them have not even had real jobs before parliament: Cameron, Osborne, Millibands etc.

    We would get better answers to our current economic problems if people who had actually created jobs were sitting in the cabinet.

    Another bee in my bonnet is the preponderance of the same narrow group in Journalism , I read that 70% of journalists are public school educated which slants how opinion is formed.

    In answer to Richard’s comment about state schools I should point our both my daughters were state educated both ended up with 3 A’s or better at A Level, only 1 applied to Oxbridge (the other felt that the Oxbridge applicants were people she didn’t want to associate with, actually she was ruder than that!) The one who did apply was not made to feel welcome by the whole interview process which is geared to select a certain type of middle class person. The eldest one now has a first from a red brick university and is studying for a PhD.

  • Dinti Batstone 26th Jan '12 - 10:14am

    Lynne’s final paragraph hits the nail on the head – it’s up to ALL OF US to encourage and support capable women…. and to fight ‘one size fits all’ views of how a parliamentary candidate should do the job. When standing for selection as a Euro-candidate in 2007 a couple of weeks after giving birth to my second child, the most frequent question I was asked was not ‘what makes you the best candidate?’ but ‘how will your family cope?’ A male candidate who also had a newborn baby was never asked that question – the unspoken assumption presumably being that it was a matter for his partner rather than for him… This is just one example of the barriers faced by women in politics and one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about changing perceptions about how the job can be done. Evidence from business and professions such as law and medicine shows that presenteeist work cultures drive women away, while flexible working is a powerful tool for retaining talented women and enabling them to progress, on merit, into senior roles.

  • David Allen 26th Jan '12 - 7:15pm

    How about an off-the-wall idea which would get completely away from that unhappy debate, viz “positive discrimination and favouring an inferior candidate on grounds of gender is evil, illiberal, shooting ourselves in the foot, and vote-losing” versus “but if we don’t do it, men will continue to win out for ever”?

    Everybody gets two votes. You vote for one male MP, and in a separate and parallel election, for one female MP. Parliament becomes automatically 50/50 balanced between the sexes, which is of course entirely fair. The government does not have to be a 50/50 balance, the winning party can choose a cabinet who are all men or all women if they so wish, that’s up to them to sell to the electorate like any other policy.

    All the parties face the same electoral system. No party is shooting themselves in the foot by encouraging female candidates – in fact, they all have to do so.

    You prefer STV? Fine, then everybody has two STV votes, etc etc. This principle can easily be adapted to any preferred voting system.

    OK, we would have to have double-sized constituencies (or else double the number of MPs). Is that a serious drawback?

    Sitting male MPs would fight against this tooth and nail. Fine, let’s have a transitional arrangement. Any man who is actually an MP when the Bill is passed (but only those men) can qualify as a lifelong honorary female and can stand again for a “female” seat. Opposition is then guaranteed to evaporate. Then, OK, it will take a decade or two before actual 50/50 equality emerges, but that’s breakneck speed in this game.

    Shouldn’t this be considered seriously?

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