Protesters in London holding up a banner saying 'equal rights'

Anne Phillips, winner of the 2017 APSA George H. Hallett Award, assesses what progress has been made on equality in politics and how much further we have to go. The award recognises a book, published at least ten years ago, that has made a lasting contribution to the literature on representation and electoral systems. Anne looks at what’s changed since her award winning book ‘The Politics of Presence’ was published in 1995.

For much of the twentieth century, the battles for democracy were primarily over the right to vote: the right, first, to have elections, and then the equal right of all citizens to participate in these, regardless of their sex, race, or class. These battles continued till pretty late in the century. Racial discrimination in voting was only prohibited in the US in the 1965 Voting Rights Act; Switzerland granted women the equal right to vote in 1971; South Africa held its first non-racial elections in 1994.

But even as these battles for political equality were continuing, a further question about democratic representation was coming increasingly to the fore. As well as the equal right to vote, isn’t there also a question about the ‘representativeness’ of our politicians, about whether they can be said to represent us in terms of their gender, ethnicity or class? If the political decisions that shape our lives are made by legislatures overwhelmingly composed of men, or overwhelmingly composed of those who have never experienced discrimination or economic insecurity, or overwhelmingly composed of those from a society’s ethnic majority, isn’t this also a problem?

The front cover of Anne's book 'The Politics of Presence'Many people continue to see this focus on what I call a ‘politics of presence’ as a diversion – what matters, we are told, is what our politicians do for us, not whether they are ‘like’ us in some significant way – but opinion on this has undoubtedly shifted over recent decades. Politicians, political commentators, and citizens now routinely comment on the gender and ethnic composition of elected assemblies, and take it as self-evident progress when an election generates a higher proportion of women representatives or a more ethnically diverse legislature. Initiatives to achieve the latter remain relatively rare, but some form of gender quota is now in place in more than 200 countries, and in many cases, not just as voluntary adoption by individual political parties but as a legislative requirement on all parties participating in elections.

In 1997, the year when the Inter-Parliamentary Union began collecting statistics on this, there were roughly nine men in the world’s parliaments for every one woman, the only significant exception at the time being the Nordic countries, where women’s representation had risen to 36.4%. At the beginning of that year, the UK remained below even the derisory world average, with only 9.5% of parliamentarians being women. By the end of the year, this had shot up to 18.2%, largely as a result of the Labour Party’s introduction of a policy of all-women short lists in a number of constituencies. Today, the global percentage stands at 23.5%, but figures in the high 30s or 40s are no longer so unusual, and Rwanda currently heads the list with 61.3% women (figures taken from Women in National Parliaments, Inter-Parliamentary Union).

The change, at least as regards gender, has been significant, though in the vast majority of countries, it falls far short of anything one could call equality. So does that extra push towards parity of representation matter, or is it enough to have challenged the more grotesque levels of under-representation, and achieved a bit more diversity? The answer to that depends partly on how seriously one takes political equality. For me, it is a parody of democracy when a parliament is dominated by one kind of person, for this inevitably suggests two categories of citizen: those who can vote and those more important ones who take the actual decisions. But there is a further part to the answer that focuses on how plausible it is to think of political parties as representing us along every dimension of our concerns; and what significance to attach to life experience as shaping the judgements individual politicians make.

Perhaps there was a time when political priorities fell into neat packages, and all that mattered was finding the party whose package of priorities fitted your own. Say, for example, political cleavages fitted simply around the axis of social class: you were on the side of capital or the side of labour, and what mattered was getting more representatives of your side into power. In those circumstances, perhaps it really would not matter whether your representative was male or female, white or black; what mattered was simply the party they stood for. But that depiction hardly fits our own period (and probably never fitted any previous one either). People’s priorities are shaped by a wide range of concerns, and you cannot easily predict views on abortion or multiculturalism or immigration from views on the nationalisation of the banks. Where this is the case, who the politicians are – what kinds of life experience they have come through, and whether they are able to give voice to your own – becomes an important component.

Fair representation is not only about ensuring that the distribution of the parties in parliament roughly corresponds to the distribution of votes between the different parties. It is also about achieving a rough correspondence between the range of experiences, perspectives, and concerns in the electorate, and the range among those who act and speak on our behalf. In the UK, as in many other countries, we still fall woefully short on both these measures.

Portrait photo of Professor Anne PhillipsAnne Phillips is Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government at the LSE.

The American Political Science Association’s George H. Hallett award recognises a book, published at least ten years ago, that has made a lasting contribution to the literature on representation and electoral systems. Previous winners include Hanna Pitkin, Kenneth Arrow, and Arend Lijphart.