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 probably 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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