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The slow progress of diversity in politics

I think most people can agree that the result of last Thursday’s snap general election was exciting. But some people may be unaware of just how exciting it was, especially in terms of equality. We officially have the most diverse parliament to date.

Houses of Parliament
Mandy is a solicitor working with Kiran Daurka and Chris Benson in the employment and discrimination department.
The 2017 general election yielded a record number of female MPs winning seats, with 208 female MPs appointed. 

However, although this data is promising, it shows that in terms of equality the gender diversity in the House of Commons is moving at an extremely slow pace. Only 32% of our MPs are women. When broken down, 45% of Labour MPs are female whilst 21% of Conservative MPs are female. 

Both of the major parties have indicated that increasing the number of female candidates is a priority and Labour have notably tried to make a move towards ensuring that 50% of their candidates are female. The Labour Party has, since 2014, operated all-women shortlists to enable women to be put forward as parliamentary candidates in key constituencies.  This appears to be making progress in addressing gender imbalance within the Labour Party.  

It has been suggested by the cross-party Women and Equalities Select Committee that 45% of each party’s candidates must be women. This is backed by the Fawcett Society, avid campaigners for women’s rights, who call for a legally enforceable target.

In 2017 we also saw the first Sikh woman appointed as an MP and the first turban-wearing Sikh appointment. Congratulations to Preet Kaur Gill and Tanmanjeet Dhesi, representing Birmingham Edgbaston and Slough respectively, both for Labour. 

This general election marks 30 years since the first Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) MPs were elected – Dianne Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz, all for Labour. Thirty years later and the number of BAME MPs is 51, with four MPs being black women, which is notoriously one of the most under-represented groups within the House of Commons.Whilst this is a rise on the number of BAME Commons representatives in previous years, this is only approximately 1 in 13 MPs being from a BAME background. The Runnymede Trust, a race equality charity, has estimated that a representative parliament would need approximately 100 BAME MPs. Similar to the all-women’s shortlist, there is sufficient evidence of the need for a similar short-list for underrepresented groups.  

It is estimated that following the results from Thursday, there are now 45 openly LGBT MPs, which is again a promising rise from the 2015 election figures. 

In contrast to the rise in representative figures above, none of the nine transgender candidates who stood were elected. Stonewall, an LGBT rights charity, have said that more needs to be done to increase transgender representation.

A strong theme in opinion is that having female, BAME and LGBT representatives in the House of Commons, and thusly visible, helps provide strong role models and provide for an inclusive society. This election has seen a notable increase in the rise of voters aged 18-24 years old. It is clear that ‘youth’ voters are becoming more politically engaged, and this may be in part attributable to the fact that they see themselves being more widely represented in parliament. Reports also show that in this general election there was increased BAME voter turnout. 

Whilst positive action supporting the progression of under-represented groups remains relatively controversial, it appears to work.  Whilst it is argued that parliamentary candidates should win on merit, there is clear evidence that structural barriers prevent under-represented groups from being selected.  Positive action to progress those candidates is clearly a good option to ensure that we have a representative parliament.   

So, although there is general excitement surrounding the fact that we have the most diverse parliament yet, it remains to be seen what steps the major parties will take to ensure that party representation is more reflective of society in future general elections. It is clear that a conscious effort needs to be made to ensure there are larger numbers of female, BAME and LGBT politicians. At the moment the changes are welcome but they are simply the first steps towards a more representative parliament.

Whilst progress is slow, it is nonetheless progress. Each step taken should be celebrated, but with a reminder that goal has not yet been reached.   The political parties now need to re-commit to their desire to achieve a representative parliament.

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