Despite some progress over the last thirty years, following the 2010 General Election, national politics remains highly unrepresentative of the population with only 22 per cent of MPs are women and 4 per cent from an ethnic minority. The ‘archetype’ of a politician remains a white, middle class, middle aged man.
Recent research commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission conducted by De Montfort University and the University of Manchester has considered why diversity is so limited in national politics, questioned why this matters and explored what can be done to make national politics more representative.
The research looked across UK national political institutions from the House of Commons to the devolved assemblies considering the shared and different experiences of individuals from a wide range of under-represented groups looking at factors such as age, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and social class; and including those who were selected by political parties, elected andalso those who failed to achieve these goals.
The research found that certain groups are disproportionately disenfranchised through a series of mutually reinforcing factors: ‘prevent’ factors which serve to exclude individuals through discriminatory practices or prejudice; an absence of ‘push’ factors facilitating access to politics, for example university education and transferable professional skills; and a lack of action from political parties and institutions to ‘pull’ individuals into politics, for example through positive action or mentoring.
The researchers identified three implications which came from these findings. The first implication highlights the need to re-frame the debate about diversity; the second, emphasises opening up politics to encourage a wider range of candidates; the third, the need for radical debate.
The recent Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation argued that the case for widening representation of diverse groups in national political institutions was a matter of urgent concern for reasons of justice, to encourage greater effectiveness and legitimacy in decision making and to connect politics to a wider constituency. However, the purchase of these arguments in UK politics, which is dominated by party and most importantly, electoral concerns, needs to be questioned. A potentially more effective framing of the arguments about diversity would explore the potential electoral advantage - for example, through looking more progressive, relevant or modern - of fielding more diverse candidates and supporting under-represented groups.
For those individuals from under-represented groups who try to get involved in national politics, the barriers to difference are high, the pathways available are narrow, and the support they receive from institutions is limited. Significant change is needed to have an impact. While the composition of the House of Commons has become more diverse, those elected still conform closely to the model of the ‘archetypal’ politician. In order to encourage a more diverse range of candidates which will subsequently provide more diverse representation, it is important to widen the tolerance or acceptability of difference. One important way of doing this is to draw in candidates from a wider pool and encourage civic and issue-based activists into politics.
The recommendations put forward by the Speaker’s Conference focus on altering the existing political culture rather than transforming the structures which facilitate and perpetuate it. But the political system needs to be perceived as a whole in order for transformational change to take place. A debate about the scope and pace of change is required; arguably radical political change is needed to kick-start improvements in diversity.
Unfortunately the current proposals for electoral reform put forward by the Coalition government continue to neglect an explicit focus on diversity proposing a referendum on the electoral system and equalising of constituencies, but ignoring many of the reform options suggested by the Speaker’s Conference around opening up politics and supporting under-represented groups to become involved in politics and arguably more radical options, such as equality guarantees.
This research was commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and is published here and conducted by Catherine Durose (DMU), Francesca Gains (University of Manchester), Liz Richardson (UoM), Christina Eason (University of Sheffield), Ryan Combs (UoM) and Karl Broome.