International Women’s Day: How PR could address the gender imbalance in our politics

To mark International Women’s Day this year, we wanted to draw attention to a piece of the puzzle that upholds sexism in politics: the role our archaic voting system plays in keeping women out of power.

While the UK has made some steps towards equality in parliament, the numbers speak for themselves – political power is still largely the preserve of men. 

The 2019 general election returned a record 220 female MPs, but this is still only one third of the Commons’ 650 members – and things begin to look even worse if we take the Lords into account.

There are some brilliant campaigns doing great work to close the gender representation gap in our politics, such as 50:50 Parliament, which works with all the political parties to help women become MPs.

The UK clearly has an inclusivity problem – and there are a plethora of reasons for it. But an overlooked factor in our inability to welcome women to the top of government is our unrepresentative and outdated voting system, First Past the Post (FPTP).

FPTP has been named ‘the world’s worst voting system for achieving gender balance’ and every single country with more than 40% female MPs in the primary legislature eschews it in favour of a proportional voting system.

Under PR, women are nearly twice as likely to get elected than they are under a majoritarian system like FPTP.

So, it would seem, the UK’s voting system is a major factor holding back representation in our politics – but why is this?

FPTP benefits an overwhelmingly male status quo and forces parties to abandon debate and diversity in favour of lowest common denominator politics.

This is no mistake – it’s built into the system. Majoritarian systems like FPTP were designed precisely to create a ‘strong government’ at the expense of excluding a range of opinions. 

FPTP creates safe seats that people can hold for decades, comfortably preserving the jobs of myriad MPs and protecting them from the ebbs and flows of public opinion.

And while recent election results show the gender balance of newly-elected members is beginning to even out (with some parties admittedly performing much better than others), the overall gender split is skewed by a significant group of long-serving male MPs who are unlikely to relinquish their positions anytime soon.

Another argument for the apparent strength of proportional representation over FPTP and other majoritarian systems in welcoming greater gender diversity is explained on the European Parliament website:

Under a single-member constituency system [such as FPTP], the candidate selectors might be reluctant to pick a woman as the party’s sole candidate, using the excuse, genuine or otherwise, that they believe some voters will be less likely to vote for a woman instead of a man. But when several candidates are to be chosen, it not only is possible but also positively advantageous for a ticket to include both men and women, for an all-male list of five or more candidates is likely to alienate some voters.”

It’s demonstrably unfair for a political system to advantage one gender over another, but this isn’t just a question of fairness – it’s also one of effective policy making. 

It’s crucial that our politics represents and seeks to engage all those it purports to serve; our democracy is only made stronger by greater engagement with it and representation within it.

Research shows that legislatures with greater female representation are more likely to address issues of particular concern and importance to women, leading to the development of positive policies on issues such as parental leave and pay equity.

Evidence also suggests that countries with proportional representation have higher voter turnout overall, but especially among women, suggesting such reforms could also lead to a higher level of public engagement in politics.

When we cut off voices from other sections of society in the interest of so-called ‘strong government,’ this inevitably leads to weak policy-making decisions that privilege some voices over others and as a result aren’t fully able to grip issues in the round.

Our politics needs to comprise a chorus of voices from all backgrounds and all sections of society if we want to truly tackle the big issues of our time, from the climate crisis to the housing emergency.

But we can’t just sit back and accept the status quo, hoping our politics will improve without our input – the forces of inertia are too strong. Without action, things will continue on the same track and we won’t get the change that could transform our country for the better.

There is some hope though: many of the guiding lights of the UK’s progressive movement are women – Caroline Lucas, Layla Moran and Nadia Whittome, to name a few. 

All are keeping the progressive flame alive by championing climate justice, supporting radical political change and working towards greater equality for all – the only problem is there aren’t more of them.

Electoral reform must come as part of a larger package – we can’t rely on transforming our politics with the voting system alone – but it would be a crucial step towards overcoming some of Westminster’s embedded biases and building a politics that better represents, and serves, all of us.

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