UK elects most diverse parliament ever but it’s still not representative

This post was contributed by Dr Rosie Campbell, reader in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and Dr Jennifer Hudson, senior lecturer in Political Behaviour at UCL. It was originally posted on The Conversation on May 13

Ahead of the 2015 election, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argued that voters were being given a choice “between one man who was at primary school with Boris Johnson and one man who was at secondary school with him – both of whom did PPE at Oxford”.

SNP's Mhairi Black smiles after defeating Labour's Douglas Alexander for the Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat at the Lagoon Leisure centre, Paisley.

SNP’s Mhairi Black smiles after defeating Labour’s Douglas Alexander for the Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat at the Lagoon Leisure centre, Paisley.

Throughout the campaign, we’ve been gathering data on the parliamentary candidates to see if this lack of choice plays out across the board. Do the people elected to represent the UK, bear any resemblance to the public they represent?

Women on the rise

This year saw 48 more women elected that in 2010 – bringing the total number of women MPs to a record 191. Women make up 29% of newly elected MPs, up from 22% in 2010.

The Green party had the highest percentage of women candidates selected at 38%, but with chances in only a handful of seats, they had little chance of affecting parliamentary gender balance.

Labour has the highest proportion of women in its parliamentary party. Its record number of 99 women MPs is the result of using all-women shortlists and the decision to put a majority of women candidates (53%) in winnable seats. So Labour’s conversion rate was higher, despite its poor performance in the polls.

Party breakdown (percentages are rounded). Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided

With 26% of women candidates selected, the Tories have 68 women MPs, up from 47 in the last parliament. Although there was no equivalent of the A-List David Cameron used in 2010 to increase the number of women put forward for winnable seats, the Tories did place women in 38% of their retirement seats.

One of the key reasons for the increase in the number of women MPs is the performance of the SNP. The Scottish party came second and tied with Labour in terms of the percentage of women candidates selected (34%) and added 20 women MPs to the overall total – as well as the youngest in Mhairi Black.

Ethnic diversity

Perhaps surprisingly, given accusations of racism within the party, 6% of UKIP candidates were black or from an ethnic minority group. That’s more than the SNP, the Greens and Plaid.

The vote on May 7 saw 41 BME MPs elected to parliament, and increase on 2010 where 27 MPs were elected. MPs from non-white backgrounds make up just 6% of Parliament.

BME MPs. Percentages are rounded. Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided

Prior to the election, it was suggested that the Conservatives had closed the gap with Labour when it came to the proportion of black and ethnic minority candidates in the running. Our data show that the Tories led the way with 10% of BME candidates selected to stand in 2010, compared to 8% for Labour and LibDems.

But this is not the success it seems when you look at winnable seats. While 13% of Labour’s black and ethnic minority candidates were placed in winnable or marginal seats, just 5% of those standing for the Conservatives found themselves in similar positions. Labour had 16 black and ethnic minority MPs in 2010 so the increase to 23 in 2015, despite poor polling, shows the importance of where candidates are placed.

The Tories were able to boost BME representation by selecting candidates in very safe retirement seats, including Rishi Sunak in Richmond, Yorkshire – a 44% Tory majority seat – and Suella Fernandes in Fareham, a seat with a 31% majority. The Tories now have 17 black and minority MPs – an increase of six from 2010.

True representation?

The increased diversity in Westminster after the 2015 election is a success worth celebrating, but we should be careful not to lose sight of the big picture. Paxman’s general premise – that there isn’t a great deal of diversity amongst the candidates of the different parties – still holds.

Women MPs make up just 29% of the new parliament, that’s less than a third for a country where women make up 51% of the population. It also puts Britain behind many of its European counterparts (Germany, France, Sweden), and well behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba and Kazakhstan. And black and ethnic minority MPs make up just 6% of parliament, despite representing 13% of the population.

To put the progress made in perspective, the UK would need to elect 130 more women and double the current number of black and ethnic minority MPs to make its parliament descriptively representative of the population it serves – and the political parties are still not offering enough candidates from these groups in the right places to make that happen.

Chrysa Lamprinakou, Marco Morucci, Sally Symington, Sam Sharp and David Ireland also contributed to this article.

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Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914

This post was contributed by Dr Louise Hide, Honorary Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology.

In July 1905, a young draper’s assistant from south-east London was admitted to Bexley Asylum. Gertrude L. was 25 and this was her third admission into a lunatic asylum.

Initially, she was described as ‘strange and irrational in manner’. But by January 1906, she was corresponding with her friends on the outside. One letter that was copied and left in her case file provides an intriguing insight into asylum life from the patient’s point of view:

in this so called asylum … you are … treated like the worst form of cattle … We work all the hours God sends without proper nourishment or a proper bed … our hours of work are from 8 in the morn to 20 or 30 minutes past 7 in the evening … and you never see the colour of a copper coin.

From the 1960s to the late ‘80s, Marxist and feminist scholars set out to disabuse Whiggish historians of the notion that the understanding and treatment of mental illness had followed an uninterrupted upward trajectory called ‘progress’ from the late 18th century. As a result of this work, we know a great deal about why and how people were admitted to asylums, but far less about what actually happened to them once the ward door had been shut and the key turned.

What was life like inside these vast ‘monster’ institutions? And how were relationships between doctors, nurses and attendants, and patients constructed by shifting ideas around masculinity and femininity?

Book coverMy book, Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914, sets out to answer these questions through a detailed analysis primarily of asylum case notes, committee minutes and annual reports. I have focused on two institutions, Claybury and Bexley. Each was built for 2,000 patients by the newly formed London County Council and opened in 1893 and 1898 respectively.

The turn of the century was an important moment in asylum history. Late Victorian psychiatry was experiencing a ‘clinical turn’ away from the old prison-like asylums towards the new mental hospitals, from the ‘lunatic’ to the mental patient, the attendant to the nurse. That, at least, was the idea even though the reality took some time to catch up.

Location is important, too. London had far higher lunacy rates than any other part of the country. Why?

Migration into the city was one reason. Lack of space and desperate poverty was another; families were simply unable to look after members who could not contribute to the household budget. But there was another reason, too: the abhorrent notion of degeneracy, which claimed that physical, mental and moral ‘defects’ (criminality, prostitution etc.) were passed on from one generation to another, creating an increasingly ‘unfit’ population. And this hereditary ‘taint’ was believed to be particularly prevalent in large, overcrowded urban areas, such as London.

Indeed, degeneracy theory fed directly into eugenics, making the early 20th century one of the darkest periods of psychiatric history.

My book looks at the impact of some of the overarching ideologies that were circulating at the time – degeneracy, feminism, socialism, science and the medicalisation of madness – on people in the asylum.

General hospitals had a powerful influence on the faltering discipline of psychiatry. Gradually, a new generation of well-qualified and scientifically-minded physicians, including a handful of women, started to take up asylum posts. Nurses began to receive formal training and gain recognised qualifications. And, perhaps most controversially, female nurses were moved into male wards shaking up these men-only bastions.

As a result, the highly gendered male doctor/female nurse binary was reinforced, marginalising many male attendants and reducing some to little more than nursing auxiliaries.

To return to Gertrude L., the patient experience is an important part of the book. During a period when virtually every aspect of asylum life was intended to act as ‘treatment’, I endeavour to reveal the effects on patients of the admission process, drugs, seclusion and restraint, the ward environment, work and amusements.

Why, for example, were the ‘rougher’ women put to work in the laundry? How were ward interiors designed in order to distract patients from their dark and troubling thoughts? In what way was food rationed according to a patient’s sex? And what were the consequences of forcing pauper patients to wear communal clothes?

There was, of course, no single patient experience. However, my book does, I hope, provide greater insights into how wider social and medical discourses influenced the lives of men and women living and working inside London’s late Victorian asylums at the most quotidian levels.

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Parents in Parliament: The Motherhood Trap

This post was contributed by Dr Rosie Campbell, a Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and Professor Sarah Childs (University of Bristol). It was originally published on the British Politics and Public Life blog.

Men’s over-representation and women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is pretty well known, even if the public sometimes over-estimates just how many women MPs there are, bedazzled by their bright clothing in the Chamber.[1] In fact, men outnumber women by more than 4:1. (In his 2009 survey conducted by YouGov, Professor Phil Cowley (Nottingham) asked respondents what they thought was the correct percentage of women MPs was. At the time the average response was 26% when the actual figure was closer to 20%.)

Some people may not find this particularly troublesome. Lord Hurd has recently been cited saying that there is a “ludicrous” obsession with ensuring there is equal representation of men and woman in parliament and other areas of public life. We believe very strongly that a diversity of background and experience does matter. And there’s another serious flaw with the Hurd line of reasoning. He says that if voters didn’t want a “good looking chap from a public school” as prime minister they wouldn’t keep choosing them. But the reason feminists have campaigned for All Women Short-lists as a means to get more women at Westminster is precisely because it’s political parties not voters who choose our candidates and party leaders. We the voters don’t get to choose our parliamentary candidates, and therefore who our MPs, are. The reasons there are too few women in politics stems from both a lack of demand for and supply of women candidates: voters don’t punish women candidates. But in the absence of equality measures such as Labour’s All Women’s Shortlists, parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats, even if fewer women seek selection as parliamentary candidates overall.

Having children is frequently cited as a barrier that holds women back from seeking parliamentary selection. But of course not all women are mothers. And both men and women are parents. So we need to question whether the problem is less about the equal representation of men and women – or parents and non-parents – and perhaps more about the exclusion of mothers?

Until now, the UK Parliament simply did not know how many mothers or fathers sat on its green benches. During the new Labour years, and again since 2010, a number of women MPs have given birth: the latest being the Liberal Democrat Minister Jo Swinson, who is currently facing criticism for wanting to have her child with her in the division lobby. We doubt that the vocal hostility to the needs of a new mother, that her comments have generated, are likely to increase the supply of mothers seeking selection for the 2015 general election.

In our survey (supported by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Commons Diversity and Inclusion Unit )of MPs in 2012 we found a startling set of facts about mothers and fathers in Parliament:

• 45% of women MPs have no children, compared to 28% of male MPs, and compared to an average of about 20% of the population who remain childless. (According to the Office for National Statistics 20 percent of women born in 1966 remain childless.)
• Of all MPs with children, male MPs have on average 1.9 children, whilst women MPs have on average only 1.2
• The average age of women MPs’ eldest child, when they first entered parliament, was 16 years old ; the average age of men MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament was 12 years old
In sum: women MPs are (1) less likely to have children than male MPs; (2) more likely to have fewer children than male MPs; and (3) enter parliament when their children are older than the children of male MPs.

These staggering differences are clear evidence that there are serious barriers to Parliament for those with caring responsibilities, most often mothers.

Reactions to these statistics will likely vary depending on whether you believe that the House of Commons should look like the society it represents for reasons of justice; or whether you think that good-looking public school educated men are equally capable of understanding the complexities of juggling work and family life. There will be those who have no fear that without mothers in Parliament the soaring costs of childcare and the disproportionate effect of the economic crisis on women in low paid and part-time work (mostly mothers) will reach the top of the political agenda. We’re not so sure. And that’s why we want more mothers in Parliament.

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Social Media, Protest and the Arab Spring

Blogging about new research just published in the journal Media, Culture & Society, Dr Tim Markham asks whether, when it comes to social media and political uprisings, we’re just seeing what we want to see.

social-media-1430522_1920When I travelled to Cairo last April, one of the first things I did was to visit Tahrir Square, scene of some of the most evocative and stirring events of what came to be known as the Arab spring of 2011. Not much was happening, and the banners and flags I spied at the opposite corner turned out to be knock-off Manchester United merchandise. It’s not uncommon for visitors to be met with encounters of extraordinary serendipity (“You’re from Nottingham? My cousin is a student there!”) as an opening gambit in the tourist trade, and I was quickly identified as yet another politics junkie and deftly plied with implausible yet seductive tales of intrigue and pending drama to soften me up for the inevitable invitation to buy something or other. Much has happened in Egypt since, but it was a useful reminder that revolutions are rarely a matter of unstoppable momentum or constant mayhem, and that the politics we identify in them isn’t lofty and abstract but the stuff of everyday life and work. I was in town to interview journalists at the newspaper Al-Ahram, who displayed all the bravery, cynicism, determination and frustration you’d expect. For them too political principles were heartfelt but rooted in routine, and when I asked one reporter how much things had changed for her over the previous two years, she captured this nicely by responding “Oh, I’m still optimistic but mostly I’m just busier”.

An awful lot has been written about the Arab spring (it’s okay to use this phrase in Cairo – everyone does, though it’s lathered in irony) by journalists, activists and academics, and much of it has been freighted with a combination of ideology and wishful thinking. Yet my trip wasn’t an attempt to scythe through the fictions swirling through academia and the twittersphere to get at the real truth of the Arab spring. Not really. It was part of a broader project aiming to better understand how we think about protest, political change and the role that different kinds of media play. Most commentators, whether western or Arab, seemed to agree that something unique was building in the Middle East a few years ago, but the way we talked about it reveals as much about us as it does about events on the ground. Specifically, the problematic picture that emerges from my research is one of fragile political shoots that need to be protected – not only from new forms of political authoritarianism or extremism, but also from mainstream media in the form of western corporate behemoths and regional broadcasters such as Al Jazeera, collectively characterised as clumsy or conspiratorial depending on personal preference. And not only from media but from ivory tower political analysts – Arab and western alike – deemed naïve, patronising or arrogant. For me, this is where it really gets interesting.

As for the media, as hard as it is to credit these days most journalists are well-meaning, and few wake up with a burning desire to delegitimise political dissent or to portray citizens of distant nations as backward, uncivilised or simply ‘other’. But there’s a prominent and longstanding argument in academia that individual intentions count for little when the whole media industry is programmed to churn out certain truths. That’s without reckoning, however, with what quickly became the only game in town for pundits and profs alike: the irresistible rise of social media. Now, we know of course that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all played a part, and there’s certainly a great deal of interest in the possibilities that these platforms open up, going on the number of articles winging about on academia.edu and many of the PhD proposals we receive (not that I’m complaining – keep them coming!). But too often it’s assumed that there’s something about social media – their perceived structurelessness, their apparent lack of hierarchy – that is naturally geared towards generating a new, dynamic, weightless form of politics, one that is preferable to the familiar sclerotic, decadent kind we increasingly look on with contempt.

There is a danger here of seeing what we want to see, not helped by the tendency to use biological and ecological metaphors to encapsulate the essence of social media, and then to let these metaphors (waves, viruses, organisms, ecosystems) act as a substitute for methodical, dare I say dry, analysis. Likewise there’s a predilection in the academic literature for creative, imaginative acts of dissent, and for reading something radical into seemingly apolitical things like, in one instance, dressing scruffily. Here, there’s talk of protest cultures emerging like fragile life forms that need to be nurtured, and not smothered by the strictures of conventional politics.

As much as I like the idea of living in a world where these ways of thinking about social media and protest ring true, it’s a world based on a fantasy of structurelessness – the idea that a more progressive, more authentic politics will emerge organically and spontaneously once we’ve stripped away the tired institutions and paradigms of politics, media and academia. But that’s not how it seems to the journalists at Al-Ahram, nor to the unfashionable band of activists and academics, myself included, who maintain that politics is a slog, and it often lacks the poetry we’d like to find in it.

The original article was published in Media, Culture and Society vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 89-104. You can also read it on academia.edu. Dr Tim Markham is Reader in Journalism and Media in the department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @TimMarkham.

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