What next for the big problems of the UK economy?

Professor Simon Clark, Head of School of Economics, Edinburgh University

During the general election campaign remarkably little was said about Brexit, despite Theresa May calling the election in order to strengthen her negotiating hand. So it might be thought that the election result of a hung parliament would have done little to resolve any of the uncertainties around the Brexit negotiations. By conventional wisdom that’s bad for confidence and investment. But if we look harder the election has settled much.

Politically, sentiment in the House of Commons seems to have shifted away from a hard Brexit, and without an overall majority that will influence the Government’s negotiation stance.

However, there is a deeper implication to be drawn from this election that might affect how we think about Europe. Although little was said about Brexit explicitly, the campaign was all about Brexit. Or to be more precise, it was about those issues that in the referendum made people vote one way or another: austerity, public services, the fairness of the tax system, the perception of entrenched inequalities in UK society.

On 23 June 2016 the answer to these problems seemed to many to be to leave the EU, so that the UK could regain control over trade, immigration, and its laws. But the uncomfortable truth is there is no serious economic question to which the best answer is ‘Brexit’.

Many of the big problems of the UK economy have been around for decades: low productivity growth, poor transport links, the low level of housing starts, the lack of a coherent long term energy policy. The solutions to these problems lie entirely within the sphere of our own domestic policy and are only negligibly constrained, if at all, by our membership of the EU. Similarly, the blessing of increased longevity also brings its own problems, and the ‘dementia tax’ turned out to be a key issue of the election campaign. Again, the answer is nothing to do with the EU.

The focus during the campaign was understandably on what can be changed at Westminster: taxes, the NHS, social care, ownership of public utilities, affordable housing, who pays for higher education; i.e. how to fix Britain’s chronic economic and social problems. Of course, Europe was not absent from the debate, but it is remarkable how little EU membership would either help or hinder the actual implementation of many of the main parties’ policies.

So here are two questions, one for the leavers, and one for the remainers. If leaving the EU is the key to thriving in the global economy beyond Europe, how come the most successful exporter of machine tools to China is Germany, a country at the heart of the European project?  And to the remainers: we joined the Common Market over forty years ago, so why is productivity stagnant, why is economic mobility so low, why do we have an almost permanent current account deficit?

The answer to these questions lies in the educational and industrial policies that we have adopted, domestic policies decided in the UK. That is not to say the EU is irrelevant: it creates trade between members and diverts trade from non-members; and it is a source of both skilled and unskilled labour.

But the election campaign put Europe into perspective. It is neither the root cause of our problems, nor a magic solution to them.

 

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What next for Race Equality?

Nasar Meer, Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship, School of Social and Political Science, Edinburgh University

“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”, so Theresa May told us on the steps of 10 Downing Street as she assumed office in 2016.  Seems like a rather long time ago now, but in an effort to capture the mercurial centre ground thought to be vacated by a Corbyn led Labour Party, one of her first moves was to set up a race disparity audit.

As somebody who participated in this, and convened an expert group on Scotland to feed into it, with the best will in the world it will likely confirm what we already know. Namely, and as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) showed in statement that brought together lots of existing research, ethnic and racial disparities continue to be a fundamental part of the fabric of society in the UK.  Some contemporary and indicative EHRC findings include:

  • Significantly higher unemployment rates for Black and Ethnic Minorities (BAME) (as an aggregate about 12.9% compared with 6.3 % for White people).
  • BAME employees with degrees earn 23.1% less on average than White workers – confirming this is no longer a ‘supply side’ deficit.
  • Amongst Black-African and Black-Caribbean groups, just 6% of school leavers attended a Russell Group university (compared with 11% of White school leavers).
  • Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black adults are more likely to live in substandard accommodation than White people (around 30% compared with round 8%).
  • Rates of prosecution and sentencing for Black people are three times higher than for White people –18 per thousand population compared with six per thousand population for White people. For sentencing it was 13 per thousand population for Black people and five per thousand population for White people.

As if to demonstrate the law of unintended consequences, the only marked improvement under May’s tenure has been the increase of BAME parliamentarians that came with the 2017 general election (an increase of 9 for Labour and 2 for the Conservatives, taking the total to 52).

Beyond this most of the entrenched inequalities will remain in place; they might assume some prominence when events make them difficult to ignore, but a serious commitment to challenging institutional racism, for example, is likely to be politically unpalatable, if it is even recognised as a problem (not least because governing parties are often contributing to it – anybody recall May’s ‘Go Home’ billboards?).

What is especially dynamic at the moment and worth watching out for is the governance around race equality as public policy. This is something that spans public administration, and civil and criminal law, often forged through hard won anti-racist struggles.  We might divide this legislation into three kinds:

(a) that which was created in the UK

(b) that which flows from membership of the European Union

(c) that which is a combination of the two

With Brexit negotiations underway, the key question will to what extent withdrawal from the EU revises a, b, or c?  Whatever the current governments mandates, it will be difficult – although not impossible – for a post-Brexit administration to unpick the domestication of race equality components of the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999), especially since the UK was already compliant with race equality provisions (and indeed these came about at an EU level precisely because of the UK’s tested approach).  For example, the Equality Act 2010 is not merely about being compliant with EU directives, but reflects an endogenous trajectory in incorporating the existing race equality provisions.

This means that the sunk costs are likely to be sufficiently ‘sticky’ regardless of what James Madison termed the ‘mischief of faction’.  This should not be taken to imply that Brexit will not diminish race equality in the UK.  In terms of the politics, if the ‘policy image’ of race equality comes to be associated with an EU imposition, rather than an endogenous creation, it becomes much more contested by those seeking to uncouple as much as they can from the EU.  Put in other terms, if race equality becomes part of the ‘collateral rhetoric’ of Brexit, rather than a longstanding – though unsettled and incomplete – UK development, then the symbolic politics of this would do great harm.

Equally, in the area of trade agreements there may well be economic incentives to reduce equality protections that would bear either a direct or indirect discriminatory outcome for BAME groups.  Trading off race equality in the name of efficiency and competitiveness is a very real concern, but to some extent this would mark an accelerated roll back on commitments already bearing a precarious status.  For example, the Coalition Government (2010–15) significantly undermined features of the Equality Act 2010 in the name of deregulation and competitiveness.

The point being that UK governments already have the capacity to roll back from race equality commitments, and have shown the political will to do so, independent of other developments. As such the status of existing settlements are subject to their own dynamics too, in a way that cannot be explained by Brexit alone.

If nothing else, Brexit is a reminder that anti-racism is an unsettled, incomplete and on-going pursuit. It requires sustained mobilisation through actors, institutions and ideas, now as much as ever.

 

 

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What Next for English Votes for English Laws?

Stephen Tierney

This post asks: what, if any, impact is a hung Parliament likely to have upon the relatively new House of Commons procedure known as ‘English Votes for English laws (EVEL)’? Will a minority Conservative Government, propped up by the DUP, find its England-only legislative plans disrupted? And what of England’s constitutional position more broadly?

EVEL was introduced to the House of Commons in 2015 as a non-statutory modification to parliamentary procedure. The Cameron Government’s intention was to address the West Lothian question, whereby: ‘MPs representing the devolved nations are able to debate and vote in the House of Commons on laws only affecting England, while MPs for English constituencies cannot debate or legislate on devolved matters in the other nations.’ The system, which has operated for two years, in effect creates a double veto whereby the House of Commons as a whole can still reject matters agreed by English MPs, but where bills certified by the Speaker to be English-only matters must be approved by a majority of all MPs from English constituencies at Committee stage.

The current EVEL system falls a long way short of formal devolution for England. The House of Lords Constitution Committee observed in a report on the system published in November 2016 that, while the system prevents laws being passed in England-only areas without the support of a majority of English MPs, it does not create a route for the formation of specifically English policies: ‘the capacity of English MPs to pursue a distinct legislative agenda for England in respect of matters that are devolved elsewhere does not equate to the broader capacity of devolved legislatures to pursue a distinct agenda on matters that are devolved to them.’

 

The fact that legislation for England, even though dealing with matters otherwise devolved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, must still be approved by the whole House was not problematic while the Conservative Government from 2015-17 not only controlled a majority of seats in the House of Commons in England and Wales but an overall UK majority too. But the Conservative party now has a minority of UK MPs among whom are 13 from Scotland and eight from Wales. In practice this in itself should not be a major problem for the EVEL system. The Conservatives have a majority of English MPs. But it is the case that to secure England-only policies it will require the support not only of these MPs in the England-only Committee stage, but also of Conservative MPs from outside England as well as the DUP at Third Reading. If there is dissension among ‘English’ Conservative MPs in relation to any measure, it is not inconceivable that the bill could be pushed through Parliament with the support of Scottish and Welsh Conservative MPs, together with the DUP, even where the bill had not secured an England-only majority in Committee.

 

This scenario is unlikely, but it does highlight that the new EVEL arrangements are somewhat flimsy, dependent for their efficacy upon the vagaries of each general election. For example, had Labour been able to form a government with the support of SNP MPs and Welsh MPs from Labour and Plaid Cymru, the issue of EVEL would have become very prominent indeed.

 

None of this however, I would submit, constitutes an argument to alter the 2015 model which hitherto has worked fairly well. In is in fact a reasonable compromise that tries to accommodate the wishes of the English electorate within the deeply (and unavoidably) asymmetrical nature of our territorial constitution. In a report on the Union and Devolution, the House of Lords Constitution Committee took the view that: ‘the English Question remains one of the central unresolved issues facing decision-makers grappling with the UK’s territorial constitution.’ This is undoubtedly true, but it seems inevitable that it will remain an unresolved issue. England is too big for the kind of devolution that the other territories of the UK enjoy. Nor is EVEL an area that lends itself easily to legislation. A statute to regulate legislative procedure would potentially embroil the courts in the internal workings of Parliament itself, endangering the very legislative supremacy that undergirds our unwritten and flexible constitution. The Commons should carry on as it has, carefully tacking across volatile electoral winds, and adjusting its procedures to give the best effect possible to a distinctive English voice within one national Parliament.

Stephen Tierney works at Edinburgh Law School where he is Vice Dean, Professor of Constitutional Theory and Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law. He served as Legal Adviser to the House of Lords Constitution Committee in relation to both reports mentioned in the blog. The post is written in his personal capacity.

 

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What next for the debate on electoral reform?

Juliet Swann, authority on electoral systems; gender, politics and public policy; with wide experience in campaign, rights and reform organisations

@muteswann

The June 2017 election results show that a few voters are deciding for the many, and political party discussions and decisions behind closed doors mean even those few are not fully informed about their choices and the implications of their vote. We should be insisting on proportional representation and forenotice of coalition ‘red lines’ before the next General Election.

So here we are, it’s June 2017 and we’re back in a ‘coalition of chaos’ – literally, because neither of the two parties involved in coalition discussions were even remotely challenged to propose what they might or might not give or take in a negotiation if there were a minority government. Why?

Initially, because the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system and its advocates will tell us that its  heart is ‘certainty’ – the reliability that one party will win.

Secondly because all the polls suggested a Conservative majority that could only be threatened by a ‘progressive pact’, the idea of which was used or dismissed by every party to promote their ideal of winning. (Which when you’re the SNP or the Lib Dems in a Westminster election is ridiculous).

So no-one discussed their red lines, the policies they might be prepared to discuss if considering a partnership or even a confidence and supply arrangement. No-one set apart the policies they would never give up as opposed to the ones they might sacrifice.

And yet, twice now in three elections the voters have delivered a minority government that had to form a coalition.

Why does that matter?

Because without that distinction, without that conversation, we, the electorate have no idea what we’re actually voting for. We’ve realised we have multiple choices, but our political parties aren’t giving us the chance to make an informed choice beyond ‘we will win’.

In a PR system, parties know they might have to bargain to get power. They might have to compromise, to debate, to argue their corner to win policy change. Instead our parties put up a manifesto they know they probably won’t be able to deliver, especially our smaller parties. We all vote based on their promises, and then they might deliver some of it, or not.

This election has proved this beyond any other. If you thought the Lib Dems going back on their tuition pledge was a big deal, welcome to the Conservative / DUP coalition negotiations.

We have no idea what the Tory red lines are. And we have no idea what Labour might give up. Or indeed what the SNP might compromise. Because they all claimed to be in it to win it, and none of them would EVER chat to any other. Oh please, give over. We’re not stupid, we know you’ll succumb to an offer of power if it’s put in front of you.

Which brings us to the issue of whether voting for one party tacitly lets another win. There’s been some descriptions of Scotland ‘allowing’ Theresa May to stay at Downing Street as without those 13 MPs the Conservatives would have had even less of a majority. Which is mathematically correct. But even if one assumes the second placed candidate took the place of the Conservative winner, and gives the SNP all 13 of the Conservative seats in Scotland, Theresa May still has more seats than anyone else, so she would still have first dibs at forming a government. And in any case, there’s no way of knowing what the electorate might do or have done differently on a different day, or what might have happened if fewer people voted, or if more people voted.

We can never extrapolate the results of an election into a different voting system, or indeed into a scenario where ‘if only the voters had known X, Y or Z’. To try and do so is a fool’s errand. That’s the point of elections, they are a snapshot of what those who can be bothered voting choose to do with their vote within the system they are voting in. In Scotland we have usually been quite canny with our choices – understanding for example that the SNP will never form a government at Westminster so they never won more than half a dozen seats until the anti-indyref result rebellion of 2015, despite their success at Holyrood.

And if, as it seems, we have entered an era where the main parties can expect to all receive around 40% of the vote (the SNP received around this percentage in Scotland), then it becomes a question of how individual constituencies perform that can shift power. Which gives voters in those seats a disproportionate say in how the country is governed. Which is another reason that moving to a more proportional system wouldn’t just provide for a better informed voter going into the polling booth, but would also ensure that voter had an equal say in the future government of the country.

What’s more, those voters would have a clear idea of the red lines each party would seek to uphold in any coalition negotiations. Rather than dealing with surprise partnerships and unpredicted deals.

Scientia potentia est ‘Knowledge is power’

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What next for Scottish Labour?

Margaret Curran, former Labour MSP, MP and Scottish Government Minister

Where were you when David Dimbleby read out the result of the exit poll? It was the biggest thrill many in Scottish Labour have had in some time. While the Tories nationally had made a mess of their campaign, the SNP seemed to lack the razor-sharp focus of before and the feeling on the doorstep for Labour activists was better than the last few years, no-one in Scottish Labour expected to gain six more seats.

After the near-death experience of the past few years, this result feels like a welcome reprieve. But is it? To answer that, we need to grapple with what actually happened during the election and respond accordingly. Misunderstand the message from the electorate, and the forward trajectory could just as easily be halted.

There was undoubtedly a shift away from the SNP on the doorsteps. At times, I did a double-take as people tooted their horns in support or broke into a smile at a Labour person knocking. Clearly the SNP campaign machine is not as invincible as we have all grown to believe.  A clear frustration with the SNP government is emerging, as people experience their public services in decline. Complacency from the First Minister is being felt; and ‘getting on with the day job’ was being repeated back to us on the doorstep. Contrary to Nicola Sturgeon’s expectations, Brexit is working against her plans, as both she and the prospect of a second referendum plunged in popularity. A significant number of the SNP’s previous supporters staying home on election day clearly helped Labour.

But perhaps the biggest shock of the campaign was the impact of Jeremy Corbyn on Scottish voters, defying the expectations of many in the Scottish Labour Party, myself included. Feedback from constituencies throughout Scotland testify that the turning point was the launch of the manifesto. Not only did it unite the party; it enabled Jeremy Corbyn to campaign on solid Labour values rather than the technocratic details of policy. He spoke over the heads of hostile reporters and, for once, Labour cut through on social media. Even those who had doubts grew to like him, attracted to his vision of a fairer and better society. He spoke to those who have seen their living standards decline year on year with no prospects of improvement and offered, to the surprise of many, the hope of a viable alternative.  This seems to be the election where age was a key factor in voting patterns.  Corbyn’s clarion call for an end to austerity and tackling inequality chimed with the recent messages of Kezia Dugdale and altogether it resonated more powerfully than ever before. Kezia performed well in the debates and the attacks from Nicola Sturgeon failed to gain traction.  Rather it was the SNP on the defensive.

But let’s not get carried away. Seven seats in Scotland is far from victory, and we underestimate the SNP at our peril. Nonetheless, we have established some groundwork for renewal. Scottish Labour now have a group of new and hungry MPs and candidates who are patently motivated more by their political values rather than the prospect of office.

There is also an energy to pursue the Scottish Government’s lacklustre record in office and reignite a debate in Scotland about public services and delivering economic prosperity for all. Corbyn delivered the break with the past that Labour desperately needed, and Kezia Dugdale’s arguments about poverty and tax may well get a much more positive hearing.

So what now? Fingers crossed the Scottish Labour Party doesn’t resort to type and engage in an internal battle between the Corbynistas as those that initially opposed him.  During the election, Corbyn knew that the broad-church nature of Labour was a strength and we need to keep it that way.

Understandably, some in Scottish Labour believe that the prospect of a second referendum is neglible at best. That is a hard argument to sustain when the nationalist party is still in government and, despite our successes last week, they still emerged as the largest party in Scotland. The SNP are hardwired to pursue the journey to independence at every opportunity and Scottish labour has to deal with that reality. It will not be off the political agenda in Scotland any time soon.

But that should not stop Scottish Labour thinking about how we improve our country and the quality of life of our citizens. At a time of increasing inequality, a struggling economy and profound challenges for our public services the SNP have run out of ideas. If we ever want to replace them in government, then we need to capture the radicalism that was articulated in the election campaign and translate into a plan of action for the Scottish Labour Party. The Scottish electorate might just be listening to us again… we now need to have something interesting to say.

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What next for UK intergovernmental relations?

Professor Nicola McEwen, Edinburgh University

Brexit poses profound challenges for relations between the UK and devolved governments. But, can the lack of understanding and trust that characterised intergovernmental relations in the months before the election give way to more positive relationships?

The Brexit referendum outcome prompted an unprecedented intensification of intergovernmental relations between the UK and devolved governments. The decision last October to set up a new forum, the Joint Ministerial Committee (European Negotiations), marked a step-change in IGR. It promised more focus, purpose and influence for the devolved governments than is normally associated with the JMC. But the JMC (EN) failed to live up to the expectations of all parties, and its future is in doubt.

Certainly, there were lots of meetings. After 21 months without meeting, the JMC Plenary (which brings together the PM and First Ministers) met twice, while the JMC (EN) met four times between November 2016 and February 2017. Both the UK and Scottish governments also acknowledged an intensification of bilateral meetings between officials and ministers in the two months prior to the General Election. The quantity of meetings brought its own challenges in terms of resources and organisation. But what of the quality?

The lack of transparency in IGR makes it difficult to make an impartial assessment. But the reactions of the governments involved suggest that intergovernmental relations had become a dialogue of the deaf, with UK ministers on the one side and devolved government ministers on the other talking past each other, failing – wilfully or otherwise – to see or respect the others’ viewpoint. The JMC (EN) raised expectations of joint agreement on a UK approach prior to the triggering of Article 50. But there was no intergovernmental discussion of the UK Government’s Brexit position prior to the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech, or the publication of the White Paper or the triggering of Article 50.

The JMC (EN) was also supposed to provide the devolved governments with oversight of negotiations with the EU, but formal multilateral IGR may be difficult to resurrect without a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. Besides, prior to the General Election at least, the UK Government’s appetite for the JMC (EN) had diminished, as had the expectations of the Scottish and Welsh Government regarding its capacity to uphold its remit.

Both the UK Conservatives and the SNP have been humbled by the General Election results, and it is not yet clear how this will affect the relationship between their two governments. The First Minister has called for a rethink on Brexit, and an opening up of the process to include all parties and the devolved governments. While the Scottish Government’s capacity to influence negotiations is likely to remain limited, its central objective of retaining membership of the Single Market may be back on the table amid broader pressures for a rethink.

The Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, buoyant from her electoral success, seems intent on trying to influence the UK’s Brexit stance, though quite how remains unclear. The UK Government may take try to bypass the Scottish Government to bring Ruth Davidson – the principal opposition leader in the Scottish Parliament – into the Brexit fold. Such a controversial step could be seen as disrespecting devolution, and would lead to further significant deterioration of relations between the two governments.

The election results reinforced the authority and confidence of Wales’ First Minister, Carwyn Jones. He has been at the forefront of thinking over how to restore the Union, while mounting a small ‘n’ nationalist defence of devolution. In a post-election paper, the Welsh Government has called for ‘deeper and more sustained cooperation’ between the UK and devolved governments, including more shared governance, co-decision and joint delivery. The paper also calls for an overhaul of the UK’s intergovernmental machinery, replacing the JMC with a Council of Ministers acting as a decision-making body not dissimilar to the EU Council.

This imaginative proposal might find favour with the devolved governments (although the absence of a veto power would be problematic). It is difficult to foresee the UK Government agreeing, however, given the added complexity and reduced authority it would entail. Besides, a structure of shared governance may need to be underpinned by mutual trust, shared purpose and commitment to the Union, but these can’t be taken for granted.

What, then, lies ahead for UK IGR? Brexit and the repatriation of competences necessitates intergovernmental coordination, especially in policy areas like agricultural, fisheries and finance which are most affected. Informal ministerial quadrilaterals outside of the JMC framework have already been established to take these issues forward, and these are likely to continue and may intensify. The devolved governments are keen to re-establish the JMC. The precarious position of the Conservative administration makes it more likely that it will also want to re-engage, at least for consultation, if not co-decision.

As is often the case in UK constitutional practice, the most likely road ahead in IGR is to muddle through. But Brexit, and especially the repatriation of competences, will present hazardous road blocks along the way.

Nicola McEwen is Professor of Territorial Politics at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change.

 

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What’s Next for Women’s Representation?

Sarah Childs, Meryl Kenny and Jessica Smith

Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender at the University of Bristol.  She tweets @profsarahchilds.

Meryl Kenny is Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh.  She tweets @merylkenny. 

Jessica Smith is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. She tweets @Jess_Smith1534.

‘Record-breaking’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’ – these were the headlines after Thursday’s UK General Election. Some of the articles attached to these celebratory headlines centred on the fact that there were more women MPs elected than ever before. Others highlighted that the ‘200 seat’ mark had been breached.

But we’ve put the champagne on ice.

Yes, Westminster’s new intake has some notable ‘firsts’. Preet Gill became the first female Sikh MP, winning Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour. Marsha De Cordova, a disability rights campaigner and Labour councillor registered as blind, overturned a large Tory majority in Battersea. Layla Moran’s win in Oxford West and Abingdon makes her the first UK MP of Palestinian descent, and the first female Lib Dem MP from a minority background.

But be under no illusion, the House of Commons is still unrepresentative. When the final seat was counted – for Emma Dent Coad in Kensington – the total number of women MPs was 208 (up from 196 immediately before the election). Yet these women constitute 32 per cent of all MPs – a mere 2% increase. Still less than one third female, the UK would now rank 39th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global league table, lagging behind many of our European comparators.

To portray – as many UK newspapers and websites did – the ‘unprecedented’ number of women MPs as some sort of ’smashing’ of the glass ceiling is simply incorrect – what it shows is a few more scratches at best. Forget the ‘200 women’ mark, the real threshold to cross is 325.  And that seems as long a way off as ever.

The outcome of the 2017 GE raises classic issues for women’s representation:

  1. Stagnation and Fallback. A 2% increase is, of course, an increase, but gains on women’s representation have been too slight and are taking too long. Neither has progress been straightforward. In Scotland the proportion of female MPs decreased in this election from 34% to 29%. This is largely due to Conservative gains – only 1 of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs elected is a woman. The SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was also defeated in Ochil and South Perthshire, leaving Scotland without any BME MPs. Talk of parity in the House of Commons being achieved in 45 years incorrectly assumes that the direction of travel will always be upwards – which is why gender and politics academics rarely engage in similar forecasts.
  2. Party Asymmetry. The overall percentage of women MPs also masks significant differences amongst the parties. There was some speculation in the run-up to the election that the Conservatives would see a ‘breakthrough moment’ on women’s representation in 2017, potentially catching up to Labour for the first time. This didn’t materialise – in fact, the gap widened slightly. Women now constitute 45% of all Labour MPs (119 of 262), up from 44% before the election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives saw a decrease in the number of female MPs, dropping from 70 to 67, with the percentage of women’s representation in the party unchanged at 21% (in the context of an overall loss of seats). The Liberal Democrats, which were a men-only party in 2015, now have four women MPs (33%, albeit still on low numbers overall), including the return of Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. Meanwhile, women are 12 of the reduced SNP group at Westminster (34%), a loss of six women from the previous Parliament. Only 1 of the 10 DUP MPs – now potential ‘queen-makers’ – is a woman.
  3. Quotas worked, yet again. As in all elections from 2005, Labour successfully employed gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS). This quota is the reason why it has been the ‘best’ party for women’s descriptive representation at Westminster. It is a shame that Labour’s quotas haven’t been more contagious – without commitments from every party, progress will continue to be glacial.

Classifying this election as ‘record-breaking’ for women belies the reality and breeds complacency. It gives some parties a congratulatory pat-on-the-back for minimal progress, if not decline. Moreover, it side-steps the question of interventions: will the Government now commence section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 – so that parties publish their candidate diversity data? Will the Government respond to recommendations advocating legal quotas, which, all the global evidence shows, are the most effective way to ensure significant increases in women’s representation? (See, for example The Speaker’s Conference report 2010, The Good Parliament Report 2016, and the WEC report 2017).

The next election might be a few months away or it might be in five years time – but it is clear that the issue of equal representation is too important to leave up to the discretion of political parties. Warm words are not enough – with over 100 women MPs still missing from Parliament, we need legislative quotas to embed equality in our political institutions. The time is now.

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