Renewing the Case for Electoral Reform: The Issue of Women's Representation

Article excerpt

The undeniable outcome of the referendum as to whether the Alternative Vote (AV) should be used for elections to Westminster, held on 5 May 2011, was a resounding 'No'. The turnout was low at 42.2 per cent but, of those, 68 per cent voted against the proposal. This may mean that electoral reform is likely to be off the political agenda for the foreseeable future at least, if not for a generation.

This could, however, be a myopic standpoint given that there are many who still cite the inconsistencies of the incumbent First Past the Post electoral system and bemoan its continued existence for elections to Westminster. AV may have been decisively defeated in the referendum; but what of the case for Proportional Representation?

Some have suggested that the cause is not lost and that there may be further opportunities, perhaps sooner than we think. Analyses of the referendum result include many who believe that those in favour of electoral reform did not do a particularly good job of explaining and setting out their case. Chris Huhne, for example, believes that no reform now may mean bigger reform later.

  The problems to which electoral reformers are responding have not
  Gone away and will continue to demand an answer. British society
  is increasingly pluralist, and the
  trend to diversity is accelerating. (Huhne, 2011)

Other proponents of reform believe that the issue should not be buried, and that advocates should continue to flag up the inconsistencies, anomalies and unfairness of the current electoral system whilst flagging up the merits of proportional representation. John Harris, for example, states that his belief 'that so many of the failures of British politics are down to our creaking voting system remains as strong as ever'. He cites 'a very British refusal to embrace a change' compounded by 'an equally British failure to convince people otherwise' as being responsible for the referendum outcome (Harris, 2011).

There is also a strong case for electoral reform at other levels of governance, for example at local level and even on many school councils. Anthony Butcher highlights that reform of the Commons would only affect 650 seats whereas local councils elect 22,736 district level seats, mostly using First Past the Post; and he sets out a clear case for electoral reform at local level (Butcher, 2011).

Clearly, there is continued relevance for electoral reform post referendum. There is, moreover, the ongoing possibility of another hung parliament at the next general election with no clear victor.

Certainly, the AV referendum demonstrated that reformers will need to make a more convincing case for electoral reform as something that can address the problems of the existing system and genuinely foster a 'new politics', and thereby assemble a more powerful alliance for change. One of the ways the argument for electoral reform might be renewed and the campaign rebuilt is by highlighting the prospects that (some forms of) proportional representation can improve the representation of women. Using evidence from the case of New Zealand, this article sets out the case that proportional representation for elections to the UK Westminster Parliament would improve female political representation.

The issue of female representation in the UK

Female political representation remains a contentious issue in the United Kingdom. The Equal Opportunities Commission (2006) highlights that, thirty years after the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act was passed and after the inception of the Equal Opportunities Commission, women are still a long way from achieving gender parity - especially in the political sphere (Carvel, 2006, 4). One of the key recommendations of the Power Report (as well as the replacement of the First Past the Post electoral system with a form of proportional representation) was that the 'Electoral Commission should take a more active role in promoting candidacy so that more women [and other under represented groups] are encouraged to stand' (Power Report, 2006, Recommendation 15). …