Does AV make a difference to women’s representation?

// 4 May 2011

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Nan Sloane, Director of the Centre for Women and Democracy, explains why political will is the key to increasing women’s representation in parliament

Tomorrow, I will be voting Yes in the referendum on the alternative vote (AV). I will be doing this because I think that the current first past the post system (FPTP) is incapable of reflecting the diversity of opinion that exists is a twenty-first century democracy. But I shall do so with my eyes open.

AV won’t change the world, but it will enable people to make sensible, practical choices. If your heart supports a small party, for instance, you can vote for it, and then you can vote for which of the likely winners you think would best represent your views, or at least not be totally opposed to them. When the result is declared you can know that you had a part in the collective process of arriving at it. It won’t solve the democratic deficit at one blow, but it will help. So I shall vote for change tomorrow.

Of course what I would really like to say is that AV will make it easier to increase the diversity of parliament, but unfortunately no electoral system on its own can do that, whatever claims are made for it by its proponents. Addressing that element of the democratic deficit requires something even more difficult than electoral reform – it needs political will at all levels of political parties and the political establishment, and this can be achieved under any system, even FPTP (first past the post).

In the UK, for instance, Labour’s use of positive action doubled the number of women MPs in 1997, and again in 2010 Labour was able to ensure that women were selected in “safe” seats vacated by men. As a consequence, 31% of the Parliamentary Labour Party is female. Similarly the Conservatives’ use of the A List system resulted in the number of Conservative women MPs nearly trebling in 2010. The Liberal Democrats have only 7 women MPs – 2 fewer than in 2005 – and have never used positive action, although they have now agreed a plan which is an advance on their previous position.

It is also true that whilst some countries which use proportional representation (PR) or AV do well, others have even fewer women in their parliaments than the UK. Ireland has the lowest percentage of women MPs in Europe, and the recent election has done nothing to improve matters. Italy (PR) and France (FPTP) are also behind us. All other European countries are ahead, in some cases by significant margins. PR certainly makes it easier for democracies to increase their diversity, but it does not guarantee it in itself.

Similarly with AV. In Australia the number of women MPs went down slightly in the 2010 election. Political will in more parties would have increased it. Less political will in one or two others would have decreased it even further.

The truth is that if you really want more women in politics you can achieve it regardless of the electoral system. You just have to want to do it enough.

So I shall vote Yes tomorrow, but at the same time I shall go on campaigning for both the political parties and the political system as a whole to develop the will to make our democracy more diverse. Only when we have achieved that will we have a democracy that’;s really fit for purpose.

Photo of a British heritage blue plaque which reads: ‘Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, founders of the suffragette movement, lived here 1897-1907’ by Terry Waller, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Clara X // Posted 4 May 2011 at 10:32 pm

I completely agree. AV is unlikely to directly help or hinder female candidates — although it’s possible that a slightly different style of campaigning could appeal to women running for election.

Multiple choices may encourage voters to look past their normal expectations of an MP. People tend to be keen on the status quo and vote for what they know and trust, which is generally a middle-aged white man. However, I know I’m strongly in the area of “mights” and “maybes” here.

maggie // Posted 5 May 2011 at 12:49 am

Agree. Great post and thank you Nan for sharing your views. I’ll be voting yes too.

polly // Posted 5 May 2011 at 8:43 pm

I voted no to AV, for a number of reasons, I think it’s an unfair system, but I have to say I find this reasoning:

“AV won’t change the world, but it will enable people to make sensible, practical choices. If your heart supports a small party, for instance, you can vote for it, and then you can vote for which of the likely winners you think would best represent your views, or at least not be totally opposed to them.”

utterly baffling. If you support a small party who are unlikely to win, then you can vote for them under first past the post, and they still won’t win. Ok under AV, you then get a ‘second’ choice, but your first choice still hasn’t won, so why not vote tactically for your second choice in the first place if it really matters that much? And that’s assuming you actually have a second choice of course.

What AV WON’T do is enable more minority parties to be elected – it will mainly benefit the Lib Dems who as the ‘centre’ party are more likely to be a second choice of both Labour and conservative voters. Only PR would truly increase representation for minority parties. The requirement to get 50% of the vote under AV would make it very unlikely that parties such as the green party, for example, could muster enough votes to win any seats.

Louise // Posted 6 May 2011 at 4:53 pm

@ Polly I would rather not have to vote tactically- AV removes the need for tactical votes. That is it’s main advantage. It also might lead people to actually find out what these small parties think, rather than just voting red or blue like they always do.

I agree that I don’t like AV, but voting for change demonstrates a lack of satisfaction with the existing system and moves us away from a two party system and towards a system of proportional representation. It also gives the Lib Dems (and any future centre party) a fairer share of the seats.

It’s an (inadequate) step in the right direction.

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