Limited terms for MPs: the answer to under-representation in Parliament?

// 23 February 2009

The Head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Trevor Phillips, will tomorrow propose reforms to parliamentary law which would restrict the number of terms any one MP can serve in office to four (16 – 20 years). The aim of the proposals is to ensure that equal representation for women, disabled people and ethnic minorities can be achieved as quickly as possible; at the current rate of progress, Phillips estimates that it will take over 200 years for women alone to gain equal representation in Parliament.

“There are very few opportunities for new people to come in. Four-fifths of MPs stand for election again. If you’ve only got a fifth of the seats to play with each time, the parties would have to put a humongous number of women or ethnic minorities or disabled people in to make a difference to the Commons as a whole. The only way would be to impose term limits.”

This doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me. Although one could argue that it will reduce the pool of experienced MPs who could potentially run for leadership or important cabinet positions, if that experience serves only to perpetuate the priorities of white, able bodied men, then bring on limited terms. Pressure for changes regarding the rights and needs of disadvantaged groups has almost always come from members of these groups, and we cannot hope to build a fair, egalitarian society unless they have access to positions of social power. And, equality aside, surely it’s fairer, safer and more democratic to enable a greater number of citizens to take on representative roles than concentrating power in the hands of the few?

Whether MPs will go for Phillips proposals is yet to be seen, but as Decca Aitkenhead puts it in her interview with the EHRC head, it is rather like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Comments From You

Becky // Posted 24 February 2009 at 7:25 am

This would be fantastic – Edward Leigh has been MP here since before I was born – when I vote I get that “maybe *this* time!” feeling, but he’s unfortunately (for pretty much everyone except for him!) still in there.

Jessica // Posted 24 February 2009 at 9:16 am

Firstly, this measure on its own will not do anything for the diversity of the House of Commons. I suspect there must be a whole raft of other measures behind it (regarding things like candidate selection) in order to achieve the aim of more equal representation.

Secondly, without knowing what these other measures are, this one suggestion of limiting terms sounds like a terrible idea. The pool of experienced (or even available) MPs is pretty small anyway. Forming a government is difficult enough, and I cannot see how this would do anything except make it much harder! Unless, of course, there was a much greater pool of potential government ministers in a reformed House of Lords…

In short, limited terms for MPs are not the answer to more equal representation. Limited terms open a whole other can of constitutional worms!

Sam // Posted 24 February 2009 at 12:22 pm

Hi Laura,

Not sure I’ve replied to any of your posts before, but I generally really enjoy them. Not sure about this one, though:

‘Although one could argue that it will reduce the pool of experienced MPs who could potentially run for leadership or important cabinet positions, if that experience serves only to perpetuate the priorities of white, able bodied men, then bring on limited terms.’

The difficulty is that the experience doesn’t *only* serve to perpetuate those priorities, otherwise of course it would be an easy decision.

Let’s not underestimate a suggestion like this – it is a massive constitutional overhaul. Aside from the question of the forced reduction of experience of cabinet ministers, term limits would reshape how voting works in the Commons: why adhere to the whips if there is no chance of re-election, let alone promotion? Furthermore, it could prevent the many talented people from standing for election – who in their right mind would have gone for a Tory seat in 1997 or 2001 knowing that at least a quarter of their maximum parliamentary time was bound to be spent in opposition?

I also wondered about this:

‘And, equality aside, surely it’s fairer, safer and more democratic to enable a greater number of citizens to take on representative roles than concentrating power in the hands of the few?’

How is it more democratic to bar people from being re-elected if, had they been allowed to stand, the majority would have chosen them?

I’m generally quite uncomfortable with significant constitutional reform. The argument for doing something drastic is there – the current diversity of MPs shows that what we have now is not working. But that is certainly no guarantee that a parliament with term limits going to be any better, even if it is a more accurate representation of the population.

Jo // Posted 24 February 2009 at 12:33 pm

Whilst I hate to be pessimistic, introducing a term limit as a stand alone measure really won’t solve the problem. Seniority is not the only criterion upon which women’s unequal numeric representation rests. Nor is seniority the only qualification which prevents women securing top level cabinet jobs, where the most power and respurces are located. Research in France for example has shown that male newcomers tend to get more of the ‘prestige’ positions, starting with portfolios in say defence or the treasury, which serve as a launching pad to leadership positions. If term limits are introduced without engaging with a transformation of the whole system, then the goal posts will just move elsewhere, and alternative criteria to seniority (such as which department the MP is working in…) are likely to emerge.

Laura // Posted 24 February 2009 at 12:52 pm

From what I’ve read, this wouldn’t be an isolated piece of reform, but is designed to support the use of all-women shortlists etc. I’m not convined it would work, either, so I’m not going to try and argue in favour of it (!), but think it could have potential merit. I guess I’m just inclined towards a political system which would see more citizens taking on representative and governmental roles for shorter periods of time than one based on careerism and power struggle (as opposed to genuine desire to serve and improve our society). But I do accept that would bring different problems and challenges, as Sam points out.

Sabre // Posted 24 February 2009 at 2:25 pm

I think that gender issues aside it’s a good idea to limit the time MPs serve – I live in a strong Labour area and we’ve had the same MP for decades. I don’t like him or his policies and voting record, but he always wins because our constituency generally supports Labour.

Four terms is really long – long enough I think. We can keep politics fresher this way; if governments have to update every four years I don’t see why MPs can just sit in their seats forever getting fusty.

As for increasing representation of women and ethnic minorities; this step alone won’t achieve anything but it will enable change to happen more easily. It’s removing a barrier, one of many.

Cara // Posted 24 February 2009 at 2:50 pm

I think this would be great.

It’s not The Answer, The Holy Grail – and yes, I agree with others that it would need to be used in conjunction with other measures (like all-women and ‘ethnic minority’ shortlists). It’s a start, though.

I don’t know that ‘experience’ is that important in MPs – look at Obama, everyone said he lacked experience. I’d rather have people who have had experience of other fields of work in power, and may have the prospect of doing so again, in power, than someone with a very cushy job for life.

I’d like to know how they calculated that it will take 200 years for women to be equally represented, and 60 for ‘ethnic minorities’ (out of interest I mean, not questioning it).

Surely the point is that among older people, white middle/upper class men are way over-represented, so the longer those people stay in post, the less opportunity there is for younger people to replace them – and while sexism and racism still exist, I’d like to think a more representative cross-section of people would stand for Parliament among younger people.

As is pointed out in the article Laura linked to – and as Laura quotes – 4/5 of MPs stand for election again – if there are fewer vacancies, then proportionally more of the seats have to be filled by women and ‘ethnic minorities’ to have an effect. I think the public will have a tendency to re-elect whoever has been the MP before, just on the basis of ‘better the devil you know’.

Jo has a very good point about how candidates to stand for Parliament are actually selected, too. No point having young people if they’re still overwhelmingly white middle/upper men, and if the public has a choice of, er, white middle/upper class men, they can’t vote for more representative candidates.

Anna // Posted 24 February 2009 at 3:05 pm

I think this is a lovely idea. Would stop all those nasty career politicians..

Isabelle // Posted 24 February 2009 at 3:34 pm

I think it would be great to limit the serving time of MPs to, say, every four or five years. I’m sure if someone can be an MP for decades, a lot of them become more self-serving than anything else and start to think of all their privileges as a right. They also use their privileges to get themselves top jobs when they give up being an MP. I think a time limit might even attract (or not put off) better people who have more integrity and desire to bring about positive change. That’s a hope at least!

Simon // Posted 24 February 2009 at 11:27 pm

My problem with term limits is best summed up be Jed Bartlet, most things are, when he described it as anti-democratic to restrict people’s choice. What happens if we succeed in getting some excellent members of Parliament in who are then forced out after a limited time.

However these points are small fry compared to the real problem which is that we don’t choose our candidates but the local parties, who have usually been unchanged since sometime before Magna Carta. Therefore in safe seats the member of parliament is not chosen by the wider constituency but by a limited self-selecting group often with deep prejudices against anyone other then white middle class men. The soloution may come from the US where the primary system allows voters to choose their candidate as well their party – this happens at all levels not just for the presidency – which would remove the unrepresentative candidate selection.

If Mr Phillips’s ideas were currently introduced we would lose the experience without often changing the make-up of Parliament radically.

A point defending politicians, surprising I know, but I disagree with Anna. I don’t see why we should stop people from pursuing their chosen careers, that would go against the roots of a liberal society. If that career is in politics and focused on public service – this may seem idealistic but many politicians actually lose money by going into Parliament – then this should be applauded.

Anna // Posted 24 February 2009 at 11:52 pm

I guess I’m not a vast supporter of democracy (well, no guessing about it).

Simon // Posted 25 February 2009 at 12:19 am

What’s your alternative?

Anna // Posted 25 February 2009 at 12:25 am

Anarchism, generally.

Jodie // Posted 25 February 2009 at 1:10 am

Radical but democracy will never put a woman in power – we live in a male culture. Democracy isn’t always about fairness. 40% in government should be women maybe.

Kez // Posted 25 February 2009 at 8:30 am

Democracy will never put a woman in power?? It’s nearly 30 years since the UK first elected a woman PM! Whatever your views on Thatcher (and I find it hard to express mine without swearing), she was indisputably a woman, and far from the only one world-wide.

chem_fem // Posted 25 February 2009 at 10:46 am

Anarchism won’t put women in power either.

I think that it’s a good idea. While I get what Simon is saying about limiting the amount of time good MPs get in parliament, I think that much of the corruption and milking of the system is done by those who get there and stagnate. I have no problem with MPs being well supported for their work, but I think that they might work harder to get it done if they had a shorter term. That said there could be continuity problems of a system like that, maybe rather than limited terms MPs were made to take a break before standing again, so they spend some time in the real world.

Anna // Posted 25 February 2009 at 11:09 am

Well, no, there wouldn’t be governmental power to get into, so no :-). I find anarchism an inherently feminist philosophy.. with the exception of Proudhon, who was an ass.

Cara // Posted 25 February 2009 at 11:31 am

Put me down as in favour of democracy. The system may not be perfect, but alternatives have not exactly worked, or been good for women.

And yes, everyone stagnates and gets complacent if they’re in a job for too long.

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