Politics: Representing the nation

What will it take for parliament to reflect the people it serves?

By Russell Hargrave

In 2016, the UK parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee made six recommendations on how to improve the representation of women in the House of Commons. This included relatively small steps to guarantee a more diverse parliament, such as enforcing existing rules so that political parties collect and publish data on who stands for election. e committee also wanted confirmation that all-women shortlists would be allowed beyond 2030.

The government rejected the lot.

Little wonder that Maria Miller, who now chairs the committee, accused the government in which she was once a minister of “a complete lack of action and ambition to bring about real change.”

And that change is badly needed. Officials in parliament are keen to point out that the institution is growing more diverse, but the latest statistics show just how much ground it still has to make up.

The House of Commons simply doesn’t resemble the country it is supposed to represent. According to data collected by the BBC, of the
six hundred and fifty MPs elected in 2017, there are twice as many men than women. There are currently just fifty-two ethnic minority MPs (which is 8 per cent of the Commons, when ethnic minorities make up 13 per
cent of Britain as a whole). There are forty-five MPs who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, again well below the proportion of LGBT people across the country. And 29 per cent of MPs were privately educated, more than four times the proportion of the general population.

Reliable data on the number of disabled MPs is more scarce, although Philip Connolly of Disability Rights UK told LEAD that “the numbers [of politicians with disabilities] are alarmingly low, especially in the Commons.”

On top of this, support for disabled people entering politics has been stripped away in recent years. Connolly points out that the Access to Elected Office fund, which provided financial help to people with disabilities who wanted to stand for election, was abolished in 2015 having existed for only three years.

Bex Stinson, from the gay rights charity Stonewall, is cautiously positive about the increasing diversity of the Commons, but agrees that there is much more to do. “It’s good to see an increase in the number of openly lesbian, bi and gay candidates elected,” she said, but “unfortunately there are still no openly trans MPs and the number of openly bi MPs is also small.”

This sort of representation is vital, Stinson continues: “Having LGBT people visible in public life also helps foster an inclusive society, and provides strong role models for those who don’t yet feel able to be themselves, and for young LGBT people.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission agrees. “Britain needs and deserves a parliament that reflects its electorate,” argues its Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath. (The EHRC also backs the call for political parties to publish their diversity data).

“MPs are best placed to make decisions in the best interests of the country where the greatest diversity of perspectives is represented in that decision-making process,” she says. So while the EHRC welcomes the fact that diversity in parliament is increasing, “we know more needs to be done.”

If that progress is made, thanks will be owed to the trailblazing work done by parliamentarians in years gone by.

Connolly mentions Jack Ashley, who lost his hearing in an accident shortly after being elected as MP for Stoke-on-Trent in 1966. Ashley was “a significant figure in getting disability [rights] onto the statute books,” and the Disability Discrimination Act was passed into law shortly after he left the Commons, after years of campaigning.

This legislation required employers and service providers to make “reasonable accommodation” for disabled people, shifting responsibility for fair treatment onto employers, and it was incorporated into the 2010 Equalities Act. Ashley’s example has paved the way for a generation of politicians who followed him, like the Conservative MP and former minister Robert Halfon, who has cerebral palsy, and Marsha de Cordova, who is blind and sits in Labour’s shadow cabinet with responsibility for disabilities.

Sadiq Khan, meanwhile, is one of the most powerful politicians in the country, afforded a range of powers over housing, policing and more as Mayor of London. He rose there from very modest origins, the son – as Khan’s campaign never failed to mention – of a Pakistani bus driver. He is the Muslim mayor of the world’s most diverse city, and embodies the hope for many that future British political leaders will be drawn from communities across the country.

Khan could be joined in this sort of role by Diane Abbott. If a few thousand votes in key seats end up propelling Labour into government at the next election, Abbott would be Labour’s top pick as Home Secretary. This would be an extraordinary pinnacle to a 30-year political career: the first black female MP when she arrived in the Commons in 1987, Abbott would become the first black woman to head up the Home Office.

The importance of this goes beyond what happens to a few hundred members of parliament. As Rebecca Hilsenrath puts it, if parliament improves its performance on diversity this in turn will provide more role models to whom young leaders-in-waiting can look up.

“Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths,” she says, “we will be a stronger and more effective society where we see it echoed in all levels of leadership. The leadership of Parliament is where we see the most significant impact and the most significant role modelling.”

Recent high-profile events have dented this sense of hope. Research by Amnesty International showed that 25,000 abusive tweets were sent to women MPs and candidates in the run up to the 2017 election, with ethnic minority women most likely to be targeted. Abbott herself was sent thousands of pieces of racist abuse.

Inevitably, it means some candidates from diverse backgrounds are more hesitant about putting themselves forward as potential political leaders, depressingly just as the abusers intended. Another parliamentary committee, this time on Standards in Public Life, has started an inquiry into the way candidates are treated. Lord Bew, who chairs the committee, told The Independent newspaper that “we cannot afford to lose people of quality in our public life, and we may be approaching a tipping point.”

In the meantime, some candidates and politicians are taking matters into their own hands.

Both Conservative and Labour party conferences hosted events for young councillors, to advise and encourage anyone planning their first steps towards a political career. These were very different meetings from those going on elsewhere during party conference season: the panels and audiences were predominantly under 30, more racially diverse, and overwhelmingly female.

Young politicians “transform the face of the council,” one speaker explained proudly. The question is how widely this transformation, and optimism for the future, can spread across political life.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of LEAD.