Academic Writing

Representativeness and Public Perception in the United Kingdom Parliament

The British Parliament has long been criticized for being an institution of old, white, upper-class men, a group that no longer represents the composition of the United Kingdom as a whole. Recent decades have seen efforts by most political parties to increase the diversity of their parliamentary representatives. In effect, they are trying to establish representativeness, which Byron Criddle defines as the state in which “the composition of the elected legislature conforms to the political wishes of the voters.” Thus introduces the crux of parliamentary efforts to diversify their members. By seeking ideological representation, many party organizers assume demographic similarity is the most efficient way to achieve this, leading mainly to the implementation of quotas and mandated diversification of shortlists. However, there is no guarantee that increased diversification of Parliament will reflect in policy implementation, prompting the question of what type of representation citizens in the United Kingdom value most and how much does it matter to their perceptions of the efficacy of the government. The conflict of diverse representativeness in Parliament plays out in a series of balancing acts between descriptive and substantive representation, demographic accuracy and party supremacy, and actual and perceived success. By looking at the history of quota programs in the UK Parliament, this paper will attempt to evaluate the successfulness of these programs to determine the extent to which representativeness actually matters.

When discussing the representativeness of Parliament, it is important to delineate the difference between descriptive and substantive representation. Descriptive representatives are “individuals who in their own backgrounds mirror some of the more frequent experiences and outward manifestations of belonging to the group.” At its core, proponents of descriptive representation assume that demographic and experiential similarity will lead to a shared ideology, an idea very much indicative of essentialism. However, this assumption is just that, as it assumes that one particular characteristic constructs a codified ideology, disregarding the multiplicity of group identification that most people experience. When critiques of Parliament or other governmental institutions focus on the demographics of their members, it ignores the more relevant issue of substantive representation—an accurate embodiment of political wishes—which may not always fall along singular characteristics such as gender or ethnicity. This is one of the key obstructions in determining the successfulness of increasing representativeness through demographic diversity, as one characteristic does not guarantee a crystallized policy position. As Criddle explains, it is “likely that the specificity of party prevail[s] over sex to prevent any uniform definition of the ‘substantive representation of women.’” Such a phenomenon is evident in the historical voting patterns of women between the two dominant political parties in the United Kingdom, Labour and Conservatives. Labour’s first implementation of quotas to increase women membership in Parliament in 1992 largely reflected “an electoral goal of reducing the Conservatives’ historic advantage among women voters.” Conservatives still have a slight majority of “the women’s vote,” but the discrepancy has largely evened out in recent years, with most hypothesizing that the advantage “is probably partly down to the fact that women live longer than men, and older voters are more likely to be Tories.” Evidently something other than simply shared gender influences the voting patterns of these women. In fact, even with the decline of strictly partisan voting predictability, party identification remains important and adds another component to the dilemma of accurate and substantive representation.

While there is credence to the argument that government representatives should function as voices for their constituents, MPs also have a responsibility to their party that complicates the call for a representative Parliament. Arguably, an MP’s partisan identity overrides all other representative duties, as “the prime purpose of electing an MP is to determine the political complexion of the government.” As the majority party decides the Prime Minister for the UK, which party has the majority in Parliament holds greater significance than other representative democracies such as the United States. Thus, each MP is important in giving the party greater power. For this reason, parties manipulate the candidates they put up for election in each constituency. Most evidently, the Labour Party has been implementing quotas since the 1992 election and all-women shortlists (AWS) since that of 1997, with Conservatives recently joining the trend. As of yet, there are no universal government programs to ensure increased diversity of MPs; individual parties thus far have implemented all efforts. Though parties’ active attempts to diversify their candidates are likely an appeal to voters and greater popularity, there are examples of such actions having backlash. In the 2005 election, the Labour Party adopted an AWS in the constituency of Blaenau Gwent, “a traditional Labour heartland seat with a 19,000 majority,” and put forth Maggie Jones in lieu of the incumbent Labour MP Peter Law. Law ran instead as an independent and won, losing Labour the seat. While this is the most salient example of the risks parties take in such diversification schemes, it is useful in illustrating the point. Additionally, the British Parliament encourages and even relies on a system of party unity, so a demographically similar MP is more guided by party ideology than their characteristics, as it has been found that their likelihood of breaking with partisan tradition is likely unrelated to personal factors such as gender or ethnicity. There is a tension between maintaining party supremacy with assured candidates and gaining popular support by encouraging diverse demographic representation.

Despite inherent difficulties in measuring substantive representation, the demographic changes in Parliament do illuminate patterns of preference and growth, which can be helpful in judging opinions on representativeness. The main push for greater diversity in Parliament has focused on increasing the number of women MPs. Labour led the way with quotas and shortlists for women candidates, and following the passage of the 2002 Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act that legally enabled such action, the number of women MPs has seen a marked uptick. As of the 2010 election, women comprise 22% of the Parliament, marking a 4% increase since 1997. However, as women account for 52% of the British voting population, the Parliament is still not a “microcosm” of its populace. Is progress for progress’s sake enough, or should there be better ways of increasing and measuring effectiveness of demographically targeted representatives? The common criticism of microcosmic representation is that it will force the election of less qualified candidates, but the candidates on the Labour Party’s all-women shortlists go through a pre-approval process to combat just these types of claims. Nevertheless, the popular opinion and belief about the competency of candidates selected by quotas or shortlists is often much more skeptical and critical, likely because voters feel these candidates have been forced upon them. Contrarily, electing MPs with apparent shared demographic characteristics may cause public perception to be more positive about the government, as “descriptive characteristics of a representative can lull voters into thinking their substantive interests are being represented” whether true or not. Both of these situations illustrate the influence of perception on government, a point that is essential in measuring the importance of representativeness and parliamentary diversity.

Perceptions of a government’s efficacy and legitimacy are essential to its continued power; thus, politicians are highly sensitive to public opinion, and tailor their actions accordingly. The United Kingdom Parliament governs based off of a mandate model, in which the vote of the public is assumed to be giving elected representatives a mandate to act in their interests, yet this is highly dependent on an established level of trust. Currently, society is “in an era of declining confidence in, or even disillusionment with, democratic institutions,” putting even more pressure on the government to appear to fulfill all needs of the people. When it comes to representativeness, demographic diversity in Parliament is often a symbolic measure, though arguably one that comes with tangible results, as shown in the results of the 2010 parliamentary election. However, the process of instituting more diverse candidates falls under harsh critique for competency. This duality of wanting diversity yet distrusting the methods of ensuring it illustrates another paradox that political actors must seek to balance. Moreover, it is perhaps the most important, as public perception of the government is an essential component for its continued legitimacy and authority. In evaluating the success of party efforts to increase diversity and representativeness in Parliament, it is important to distinguish actual numerical progress from its perception among voters. Furthermore, the perceived success holds greater implications for how much representativeness is actually valued by British society.

Diversity and representativeness are two topics that, though they are distinctly different, are often conflated in campaigns to increase minority representatives in Parliament. While they are not unrelated, it is still dangerous in practice to assume the essentialism of one characteristic shaping an entire political ideology. In the United Kingdom Parliament especially, party officials as well as other government actors are placed in the position of balancing such concepts along with ensuring their partisan political advancement and the continued belief in the legitimacy of government. Quotas and all-women shortlists cannot by themselves “reform the culture and practices of political institutions;” it must be a joint action between the electors and the elected. Ultimately, no matter what measures are put into place and with what results, representativeness only matters so far as the electorate votes for their representation and communicates belief in the system. Admittedly, diversity in the UK Parliament is still low for the demographics of the nation as a whole, especially for black and minority ethnic (BME) representatives. In the House of Commons and the House of Lords, only “6% of Members of both Houses are from an ethnic minority background,” in contrast to 13% of the population of the United Kingdom. Most current scholarship regarding parliamentary representativeness focuses primarily on gender parity in Parliament, largely ignoring BME representation. Especially considering the current tumultuous social and political time, further research would do well to focus on the changing nature of efforts to increase minority ethnic diversity. Evolving opinions on the importance of social identity and partisan rebellion will continue to shape the extent of representativeness called for, but it is fundamentally a decision made by the voters; unilateral party actions hold little authority on the larger scale without it.

poli sciSarah Burk