Our MPs barely represent anyone - and that’s a big problem for democracy

The news this week illustrates that minorities and women are still not treated equally in business, politics and wider society: A treasury report found that female entrepreneurs receive 157 times less funding than their male counterparts and the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries mixed up two British Asian women -both active in politics.

Our current parliament, while historic in many respects (a record 32% of MPs are now female and it is the most diverse Parliament yet in every way), is still far away from properly representing all groups. And that is a big problem, not just because it signals the continued discrimination, exclusion and oppression of women and minorities, but because it undermines democracy itself.

First, some uplifting and less uplifting facts about Parliament;  

  • A record 52 ethnic minority MPs, so 8% of MPs compared to 14% across the UK.

  • 45 openly gay, lesbian or bisexual MPs, so 6.9% compared to 6% of Brits.

  • 9 transgender candidates stood in 2017, none were elected.

  • 32% of MPs are female, as are 26% or Lords, 26% of government ministers and 0% of metro mayors.

  • 29% of MPs attended private schools, in comparison to 7% of the total population.

Perhaps the largest discrepancy between the makeup of the UK Parliament and the electorate is found in the number of MPs from a working class background. Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, Diane Reay says that working class representation in politics is worse now than it was in the 50s, 60s and 70s. As the statistics above show, this is partially due to educational inequality. However, even if working class pupils make it to university and onto the party candidate list, standing as an MP, and the campaigning and canvassing involved to have a fair chance at winning, costs at least £30 000. Thus, working class MPs face obstacles which are rather deeply embedded into our political system.

The same applies to aspiring female MPs. Women still do the majority of the care work in society, and the money and time necessary to run a successful campaign, as well as the need to ‘live in two places’ once elected, prove to be real obstacles for many women.

But does it really matter?

Some argue that  representation isn’t about sharing specific characteristics - black, gay, working class - with your constituents anyway, it’s about knowing and defending what they care about.

Firstly, the fact that these groups are underrepresented in our political class proves not only that structural disadvantage is still with us; it actively perpetuates continued discrimination. A lack of MPs of a certain marginalised group increases the chance that parliament will be a hostile environment for those who do manage to make it in. To illustrate this point, Labour MP Laura Pidcock’s first words to the Commons were that the place ‘reeks of the establishment and of power’.

Moreover, ‘many female candidates and MPs reported experiencing hostility, harassment and threats of violence from the media, the public and from members of their own party.’ We only have to listen to Anna Soubry and Diane Abbott to understand the abuse MPs who are female or BAME have to endure to be in politic. If despite this, they still dare to stand for election, minority candidates face an ‘ethnic penalty’ according to a recent study by the Guardian.

But even Parliament and political parties are spaces of harassment and discrimination. Many women report that at some point in the selection process they will be asked about their (plans for) children and marital status, and most MPs report that connections (established in spaces occupied primarily by those with most privilege) often trump merit.

While the number of LGBT MPs actually corresponds to the number of LGBT Brits, this doesn’t mean the culture in Westminster is free of homophobia. Still today, the majority of Conservative members are against same sex marriage. To make matters worse, discrimination combined with the financial barriers already mentioned can exacerbate the barriers facing people who don’t already look like politicians.

A lack of MPs of a certain marginalised group increases the chance that parliament will be a hostile environment for those who do manage to make it in.

Narrow representation means narrow decision making

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But what of all those citizens who have no interest in being part of the political class? How does all this affect the choices made on constituents’ behalf?

Chances are that who you voted for will frequently make decisions which could actively disadvantage you. Political philosophers have argued for decades that a politician whose life is fundamentally different from yours will have trouble really understanding what you want and need.

The Brexit vote is commonly referred to as one against the ‘out of touch’ political elite. Conservative MP Justin Tomlinson’s suggesting families could simply ‘take in a lodger’ to make up for cuts to Universal Credit payments is just one example which vindicates that sentiment. As a Labour MP pointed out, the families in question often saw 4 children being forced to share one room. And while MPs have a responsibility to try to empathise, such ignorance can’t be blamed solely on them.

Empathy stretches as far as our imagination and if they’ve never had to go to the foodbank, or have never even run in the same circles as someone who isn’t white, how could they understand what a working class family needs to avoid poverty, or a black man to feel safe in their neighbourhood? Politicians with such a privileged background often cannot truly represent a significant part of the population.

And having those perspectives represented is essential to a democracy. Firstly, because a democracy is different from a dictatorship precisely in that it puts the people themselves, or someone who truly represents them, in charge.

Secondly, a democracy is better than a dictatorship at making decisions that are best for the country.  Aristotle, sometimes called the ‘father of democracy’, believed in ‘the wisdom of the multitude’, the idea that large groups make better decisions than individuals or small groups because they have more information.

If all those who get to make decisions in the UK have similar knowledge and life experience (the type you get at Oxbridge, for example) then the decisions made will be based on too little information. Many businesses have already realised that diversity leads to better decisions, and the same applies to our government.

But don’t just take an ancient philosopher’s word for it; when members of a certain group get elected, they really do highlight the issues that affect their community and fight for their interests.

But don’t just take an ancient philosopher’s word for it; when members of a certain group get elected, they really do highlight the issues that affect their community and fight for their interests. It was black MP David Lammy who lead the campaign to guarantee the citizenship of Commonwealth nationals after the Windrush Scandal, and Labour MP Stella Creasy is one of the main fighters for Northern Irish women’s access to abortions.

Ensuring the growing representation of marginalised groups in our Parliament is thus not a matter of appearances, or political correctness, but of the proper functioning of our democracy itself. In a democracy, citizens have the power to decide over their own lives. In a representative democracy, citizens in all their diversity should hand that power only to those who truly understand and defend their interests and opinions, and democratic decisions should be informed by as many of those perspectives as possible.  

Ensuring the growing representation of marginalised groups in our Parliament is thus not a matter of appearances, or political correctness, but of the proper functioning of our democracy itself.

How to represent everyone

So, to go against the grain of our current news cycle, let’s end on a hopeful note. Descriptive representation matters, so how can we do better?

Firstly, our first past the post system, with only two major parties able to command a majority in elections, thwarts the representation of women and minorities; any group that cannot command a majority, can often be ignored without real consequences at the ballot box: where else will those voters go? With proportional representation, more diversity among the parties and MPs within those parties could ensure that even groups who only form 5% of the electorate, have their voice heard. Secondly, it is vital that we change parliamentary rules, procedures and culture to equalize opportunities for all citizens, and don’t create extra obstacles for those MP’s from underrepresented groups we so desperately need.

Most importantly, perhaps, we need to change the way we do politics. Politics shouldn’t only be about conflict and ‘destroying’ your opponent, because in such politics only those with money, power, historical advantage, or those who scream the loudest get heard. Instead we need a politics where there’s space for personal experiences and empathy,  changing your mind is not a weakness but a strength, and consensus the goal. Jacinda Ardern, the new prime minister of New Zealand demonstrates that an empathetic politics is possible. With empathy, politics could revolve around deliberation rather than debate.

Deliberative processes in places such as Ireland show that ordinary citizens are capable of making political decisions without hurling insults at one another. Rather, deliberation makes citizens’ opinions move closer together, increases their empathy towards those they perceived as ‘their opponent’, and leads to decisions that are more popular among the public than those taken through adversarial political processes.

So we need to push for increased deliberation among non-elected citizens and elected citizens alike to create a kinder, more equal and truly representative politics which delivers for all Brits, not just those at the top.


Tessa van RensComment