Despite the 2015 Parliament being dubbed “the most representative yet”, it still remains disproportionately pale, male and representatively frail. With the Conservative Party manifesto stating that “equal treatment and equal opportunity for all in a society proud of its tolerance and diversity”, equality is clearly a topic at the forefront of British politics. Yet, despite these claims, we fail to achieve this even at the basic level. When only 29% of MPs are female (compared to 51% of the population) and only 6.6% of MPs are from an ethnic minority (compared to 12.9% of the population), our Parliament is clearly not representative of the population. Indeed, the need for greater descriptive representation is a controversial issue, with one leading professor of political science, Iris Marian Young, arguing “having such a relation of identity or similarity with constituents says nothing about what representation does”, however, the importance of having a socially representative Parliament goes beyond traditional means of representation. Not only is it vital in banishing stereotypes of white males being the “dominant” socio-economic group in society, it is also vital for encouraging greater participation from minority groups. This white male dominance in Parliament has become stale and fails our minority groups.
Of course, there are those who argue against the idea that government needs to be representative of the country. Indeed, many argue that it is an MP’s job to use their political experience to act as a trustee of the people, making decisions they feel are in the best interests of the electorate, thus meaning their social background is irrelevant. In other words, if an MP has been elected, then they have been trusted by the people to represent them how they feel best. This argument serves some weight when realising that it was a Congress filled with only white men that passed amendments to the American Constitution that abolished slavery and established entrenched civil rights for African Americans. It was also a Parliament which had only 26 openly gay or bisexual MPs out of 650 that passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. Just because a politician hasn’t necessary lived through the hardships of the minority group, this does not mean they are instantly ignorant of these issues, especially with the work of pressure groups and the rise of the internet. However, while it has been claimed that “more black faces in political offices will not necessarily lead to more representation of the tangible interests of blacks”, this is not necessarily the point.
What is important, however, is that descriptive representation encourages greater voter participation amongst minority groups. If a member of a minority group feels they are not represented, then they are less likely to vote. It’s simple. Take the 2008 American presidential primaries, for example, where members of the public vote for each party’s presidential candidate. With the first ever prospective African-American presidential candidate running (Barack Obama) and the first ever prospective female presidential candidate running (Hilary Clinton), the turnout for these primaries soared to 58 million people while the average turnout for these is a measly 28 million. In the presidential election itself, the non-white vote increased by a total of 5 million votes. These revolutionary candidates thereby clearly increased participation, leading to a healthier democracy.
The importance of descriptive representation therefore questions what we traditionally view as ‘representation’. Surely, if having a more ethnically diverse government increases voter enfranchisement, then this is democracy at work. Democracy is healthiest when the entire population feels they are being listened to; one only needs to recall the claims of the “illegitimate Tory government” that were being thrown around following the Conservative’s win of the 2015 election (who won the election with 36.6% of the vote on only 66% turnout) to realise the anger in which people feel about under-representation.
Indeed, while the percentage of female MPs has been steadily increasing over the years (increasing from 22% in 2010 to 29% in 2015), the number of women turning-out in each election is declining, which can perhaps be attributed to the still disproportionately low levels of representation. What is important about this is not that women’s views aren’t being listened to because, let’s give it credit to men where it’s due, Parliament has ensured the rights of women have been protected in legislation. It’s important to remember that this “trustee” style representation has not been completely redundant. It was a male dominated Parliament that passed the 1918 Representation of the People Act that gave the majority of women the vote; it was a male dominated Parliament that passed the Equal Pay Act and it was a male dominated Parliament that passed the Sex Discrimination Act. Despite contrary belief, not all men have been totally useless throughout history. However, now that women have achieved these legislative rights, it is important is that we take the next step to prove that women truly are equal to men.
At the minute, despite around 5% more women earning a first or 2:1 degree at university, only 14.5% are CEOs and female representation has only just surpassed a quarter of all MPs. Rather than sit back, we need strong female representatives who can act as role models for young girls. We need strong female leaders who can challenge ingrained notations that women are subservient to male dominance. This female representation of women at the highest levels works psychological wonders for young girls: it banishes ideas of patriarchy to the dim and distant past, providing girls with powerful role models who are valued for their intellect rather than their appearance.
Ultimately, if politics was pushed equally as a career for all members of society, then naturally we would have a roughly proportional representation of all social groups. This is why descriptive representation is important. The levels of inequality in Parliament can be seen as a reflection of the levels of inequality in society, as it highlights how it is still middle class, “pale males” who are being given the greatest opportunities to succeed not only in Parliament but in all courses of life. Perhaps the biggest problem here is that white, middles class men face no discriminatory challenges in society. They face no social obstacles that have to be overcome. It is this privilege that is damaging politics as women and ethnic minorities are still having to overcome the prejudice and legislative challenges they faced throughout history. While the rise of the female leaders in recent years and the “girl power politics” was a heart-warming addition to the 2015 election, we should not be satisfied until all sections of society are equally, and proportionally represented, without the need for positive discrimination as seen through Labour’s use of all female short-lists. What we need is greater political education from a young age to ensure that politics is pushed to all sections of society in equal amounts – rather than just posh boys at even posher private schools.
So, the UK Parliament: pale, male and failing democracy, but by encouraging greater participation from people from all scopes of life, these stereotypes should soon become historical relics of the past.
Words by Juliette Rowsell