How many female MPs and MSPs should there be?


A House of Commons committee proposes changes to increase the number of women MPs:

The government has rejected all six proposals to give parliament more equal female representation, prepared by the Commons’ women and equalities committee, including fines for parties that do not select enough women as candidates.

The women and equalities committee chair, Maria Miller, said the response showed a lack of ambition by the government, which she said was “content to sit on its hands with an approach” which had yielded “depressingly slow progress so far”.

The proposals included:

legislation to force parties to have a minimum proportion of 45% female parliamentary candidates in general elections, with the option to consider fines if targets were not met.


At the same time, Engender have put forward a series of proposals that includes gender quotas for MSPs and Scottish councillors:

Legislate for 50 percent candidate gender quotas and sanctions for non- compliance.

in the 2016 Holyrood elections, only 35 percent of members elected to the Scottish Parliament were women, every one of whom is white and non-disabled. This represents regression for Scotland, from a high of 4th place in the global rankings in 2003, to 27th place at present. At local authority level, the 2017 local council elections in Scotland returned 71 percent men.

Women are not underqualified for the demands of political office, but political parties serve as gatekeepers to elected representation. Legislated candidate quotas legally require political parties to field proportional numbers of women and men as candidates for election to parliament or local government. To be effective in practice, these must be matched by mechanisms to ensure that women not only stand as candidates, but have a strong or guaranteed chance of being elected. [my emphases]


So, what proportion of MPs, MSPs and councillors should be women? How many should be disabled? How many non-white? For that matter, how many should have green eyebrows (or any other characteristic not especially protected in the legislation)?

The answer is very simple: in a democracy, for any characteristic X, the proportion of elected representatives who are X’s should be whatever the voters want it to be.

Anyone who disagrees is against democracy. We know Maria Miller is against democracy — she’s a Tory who support FPTP. And anyone who thinks people should be “guaranteed” being elected has about as much respect for democracy as Vladimir Putin.


Engender note that “parties serve as gatekeepers to elected representation”. This is true, and it’s a lot truer under FPTP than under PR. Under the best forms of PR, it is the least true.

What sort of voting system ensures that the proportion of elected representatives who are X’s is whatever the voters want it to be? STV is a good one. A better one would be for 90% of the seats to be elected by STV and the other 10% as top-ups, in much the same way that AMS works. There should be no artificial thresholds — if a party gets 1% of the votes, they should get 1% of the seats; so for example in the Scottish parliament, with 129 seats, a party would need about 1/129th of the vote to get elected. Therefore under true proportional representation, the hurdle of forming a new party and getting elected would be a lot less than at present.

(Alongside this, another reform that would allow new parties to compete on an equal footing with established parties would be for, in every election, the authorities to print a booklet and distribute it to every household; it would contain details of the election, and give each party 1 page to explain their policies).

So if some people think that not enough women are being elected, and the existing parties don’t want to do anything about that issue, people could set up their own party, (they could call it the “Women’s Equality Party”), with an all-female list of candidates, and if at least 1 in 129 of the voters wanted more women MSPs, they would get people elected. The same would work for people who are disabled or ethnic minorities.

But the biggest advantage of my proposal over Engender’s quotas is that it would work automatically for any group that feels itself to be under-represented and for which they can get voters to agree with them — such as our hypothetical people with green eyebrows.

And I suspect that’s why Engender and Miller don’t support this proposal — it’s too democratic for them. Miller supports an undemocratic voting system, FPTP, that allows the Conservative and Labour parties more influence than their vote shares would warrant.

And Engender, I suspect, would wish half of MSPs to be women even if they cannot persuade voters (most of whom are women) to vote for that outcome. Nor would Engender wish to give a helping hand to groups other than those they approve of (such as women, the disabled, and persons of colour) — for example I doubt if they would want men’s rights activists to get an MSP if they got 1/129th of the vote.


One final point: if you want a body to be demographically representative of the population, elections are a bad way to achieve that outcome. The purpose of elections is to elect a body that is representative of what the voters want, not what the voters are. For example, a higher proportion of MSPs  are university-educated than the general public; this probability reflects the public’s desires, since many people might feel better represented by a more educated person.

If you want a body that is representative of what the voters are, sortition is the answer.

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Explanation of workfare

Here’s a cartoon explaining the government’s policy on workfare (via Reddit):


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6-8 inches of snow?


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Contra Munroe on Free Speech

There’s a popular xkcd cartoon explaining free speech:


I think Randall Munroe (who writes xkcd) is wrong here, or at least not entirely right. Munroe thinks of free speech in terms of laws: you have free speech if the government won’t punish you for saying something. But free speech isn’t about laws, it’s about social norms: you have free speech if you live in a society where people are not afraid to speak their mind. Munroe is therefore making a category error — thinking something is one category of thing when it is in fact a different category.

Scott Alexander puts it more pithily; Munroe is like a stupid libertarian strawman:

I have a friend who grew up gay in a small town in Alabama, where “faggot” was the all-purpose insult and the local church preached hellfire as the proper punishment for homosexuality. He unsurprisingly stayed in the closet throughout his childhood and ended up with various awful psychological problems.

If you’re a very stupid libertarian strawman, you might ask whether that town had any anti-gay laws on the book – and, upon hearing they didn’t, say that town was “pro-gay”. If you’re not a very stupid libertarian strawman, you hopefully realize that being pro-gay isn’t about boasting how progressive your law code looks, it’s about having a society where it’s possible to be gay. Not having laws against locking up gay people is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless on its own. You only get good results if good laws are matched by good social norms.

Likewise, the goal of being pro-free-speech isn’t to make a really liberal-sounding law code. It’s to create a society where it’s actually possible to hold dissenting opinions, where ideas really do get judged by merit rather than by who’s powerful enough to shut down whom. Having free speech laws on the books is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless in the absence of social norms that support it.

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Ha! Anal!


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Effective vs. Harmful Anti-war Activism


  • A lot of activism comes too late to be productive
  • Stopping adaptation at the bottom of an adaptive valley is bad
  • Activism which is not deeply intellectual and versed in real politics is a blunt instrument which may take away globally optimal policies as options inside democracies
  • Policy is complex, the history of anti-war activism is not only good, there are times it has caused harm and supported the strategic advantage of less democratic world actors.
  • Attempts to limits arms of one sort will lead to disproportionate investment in arms of another sort.
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The Young Vote

Whatever the result of the election — and the BBC are currently forecasting a Tory minority government with 322 seats — is it looks like young people have turned out in greater numbers in this election that they have done in previous ones.

This is likely to have a big long-term effect on politics. In the past parties have cared about older voters, because they actually turn out to vote, and not cared about younger ones, because they don’t.

If that’s changing, politicians will have to change too. They will have to give a shit about issues that affect younger voters, such as affordable housing and tuition fees.

This will be a positive development.

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