Drawing on rare party and survey data, Jeanette Ashe challenges many long-held assumptions about why some aspirant party candidate types are successful over others. She explains how quotas are key to addressing women’s and other marginalised groups’ descriptive underrepresentation.

Parliaments are becoming more diverse with each election. Still, no established democratic legislature, including the UK’s, descriptively represents the society it serves. From the political to the corporate world, there’s no disputing why diversity in organisations matter, with ‘good’ parliaments seen as those that better reflect the general population. Why elected bodies are so unreflective is a longstanding puzzle, but it’s generally agreed party candidate selection processes offer the key to understanding the persistent underrepresentation of women and other politically marginalised groups. But there is less agreement as to whether candidate pools fail to reflect the population from which they are drawn due to an undersupply of certain types of aspirant candidates or lack of demand by party members and officials. It is far and away time to admit low demand due to bias is the cause of ‘bad’ parliaments and quotas are the cure.

Parties are the main gatekeepers to the UK Parliament as getting elected depends on first getting selected as a candidate by a major party. Unfortunately, parties’ selection processes mimic the patriarchal and heteronormative relationships found throughout society. If this wasn’t the case, legislatures would more closely match the intersectional diversities we see in society rather than ‘standard model’ candidates who, amongst other things, are white, straight, able-bodied, men.

Expectations were high that this might all change in the lead-up to the 2019 election. Its expedited nature put parties in a rare position to bypass often biased local selection contests and simply appoint more underrepresented groups to winnable seats. However, while the 2019 election produced the most diverse parliament to date, with historically high numbers of women and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) MPs, these results dramatically failed to live up to the pre-election hype. Women’s proportion of seats increased from just 32% in 2017 to 34% (still 39th in the world according to the Inter-parliamentary Union). The BAME community, especially BAME women, continues to hold a lower proportion of seats than their proportion in the general population with no BAME candidates elected in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. The number of LBGTQ+ MPs remains stagnant with none identifying as trans or non-binary or finding room on the Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, Green, or Northern Ireland party benches. The number of MPs living with disabilities also decreased from 7 to 5.

Those searching for explanations as to why it seems impossible for the House of Commons to reflect the larger population absurdly claim it’s simply because women and candidates from other underrepresented groups are in short supply. Even a cursory look at the path to office shows the fault instead lies more with lack of demand by parties. For example, women need hold only 325 of the 650 available House of Commons seats to achieve parity. There is certainly no shortage of potential candidates as tens of thousands women are card carrying party members. Of these women party members, over one thousand came forward to stand in candidate selection contests – over three times the number required. Yet only Labour, the UK’s exemplar party when it comes to implementing progressive equity policies, managed (for the first time ever) to present a candidate slate with 50% women candidates in 2019. Importantly, this outcome was only achieved by using sex quotas in the form of all women shortlists (AWS) – a voluntary party quota put in place to overcome the rampant sexism existing among its officials and membership. In 2019, Labour finally reached its goal of sex parity by electing 51% women MPs (104 of 202). The Liberal Democrats also elected more women (7) than men (5) by using AWS for the first time, being only the second party in the UK to use them.

Global women’s marches and She Should Run campaigns make it more difficult for parties to outwardly discriminate against the increasing number of diverse women aspirant candidates. But the internal, less-visible, workings of political parties still rely on discriminatory practices to select candidates. Worse still, not only do all parties know their processes are discriminatory, they also know quotas are the fix. However, opponents continue to smear quotas claiming they are ‘undemocratic’ or produce candidates who ‘lack merit’. Not only are these claims unfounded, they also serve to reinforce gender and racist stereotypes. Indeed, women aspirant candidates often tend to be more highly qualified than men for the job of MP. Yet, women aspirants have a much harder time than men getting selected as candidates in winnable seats.

In Political Candidate Selection: Who Wins, Who Loses and Underrepresentation in the UK I use rare party data to examine why some and not other aspirants secured Labour candidacies over several elections. Comparing winning and losing aspirants at multiple selection stages confirms party selectors disproportionately eliminate women, BAME aspirants, and those living with disabilities from the selection process. Controlling for over 40 variables associated with candidate success and performing additional testing at multiple stages and in various seat types shows being a man is one of the most important predictors of winning a candidate selection contest, especially in winnable seats – for example, in open (non-AWS) seats men are four times more likely than women to get selected. It’s no wonder that women aspirants forgo open, de facto ‘all men shortlists’ seats for AWS seats. Residing locally and serving on local council also matters, with local selectors much more likely to select aspirants with these traits over those with fewer local connections. Not only does preference for local aspirants hold in AWS, it is the only variable related to success. That over 70% of women seeking AWS are ‘non-local’ creates a problem of inefficiency insofar that highly qualified women are competing against each other for the candidacy.

Now that Labour and the Liberal Democrats have achieved sex parity in their parliamentary parties, some question the need for AWS, but they shouldn’t. Men still make up 66% of MPs, and there’s little diversity within this pool. Feminist leaders and activists continue to challenge a deeply entrenched culture of masculinity and fight against anti-AWS backlash. Without quotas, women will lose ground. Rather than abandon or weaken AWS, parties should maintain and even strengthen them. They should be more evenly distributed throughout the country and be expanded to include transwomen and non-binary aspirants as well as all-women BAME and all-BAME shortlists, with measures in place for people living with disabilities. Consideration should also be given to increasing the representation of other groups, such as working class and younger people.

The renewal of Labour’s leadership makes it an opportune time for the Party to recommit to AWS and push for even greater equity measures. On this front, the Conservatives must follow suit and adopt quotas to ensure women and other groups’ representation doesn’t rely solely upon the policies and fortunes of other parties. With more ‘good parties’, the UK Parliament could be one of the first established democracies to meet at least one criterion of a diversity sensitive and ‘good’ parliament.


About the Author

Jeanette Ashe is the Chair of the Political Science Department at Douglas College, and Director of its Institute for Ethics and Global Justice.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Martin Adams on Unsplash

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