9 August 2015

Why shrinking Commons will delay diversity

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David Cameron’s opening remarks to the new House of Commons after the General Election were to welcome that ‘the House is more diverse and more representative than ever before’, while noting that ‘there is still further to go, and we must strive in the years ahead to do more to make our parties and our politics more representative’.

The number of non-white MPs has almost tripled over the last two elections, rising from just 15 ethnic minority MPs in 2005 to a record level of 41 non-white MPs after the May 2015 election. 191 women MPs were elected, up from 120 in 2010. The number of non-white Conservative MPs has risen impressively quickly under Cameron’s leadership, from 2 to 17 since 2005, and the number of Conservative women from 14 to 68 over the same period.

6% of MPs are now from ethnic minorities, and 29% of MPs are women, so the House of Commons remains less diverse than the electorate it serves, despite the recent acceleration of progress.

But the government’s proposal to shrink the House of Commons from 650 MPs to 600 MPs will freeze and delay further progress for a decade. Shrinking the size of the Commons makes it likely we will see the smallest ever intake of new MPs in 2020, frustrating all attempts to open up and broaden the political class, and particularly putting a brake on recent strong progress on gender and ethnic diversity.

The proposal has been controversial with sitting MPs, who may have to compete with each other for seats.  But it will have a greater impact on all of the groups which are under-represented in the Parliament. It will particularly slow down the progress of those groups which have been better represented in more recent intakes, particularly women and ethnic minorities. The new Women and Equalities Select Committee, chaired by Maria Miller examine and report on the proposals. By taking expert evidence, it could ensure MPs know what impact the shrinking Commons is likely to have on efforts to make Parliament more diverse and representative of the country it serves.

Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future said:

‘If this goes ahead, we will almost certainly see the smallest ever post-war intake of new MPs in 2020. There is little point in party leaders and MPs talking about the need to open up the political class if they are going to vote for a proposal which inevitably reduces their opportunities to do that.

This proposal to shrink the House of Commons is bad news for anybody hoping to broaden and open up the political class in any way. Whether people want to see more local candidates, more MPs with experience outside politics, or a Parliament that looks more like Britain in terms of its class, gender or ethnic make-up, all of these things are simply made more difficult. Perhaps shrinking the House is intended as a popular and populist gesture, but the public want to see a broader and more open political class and that will be much harder.

It will especially set back progress for any group which is currently better represented in new intakes than in the House of Commons as a whole – and so it will inevitably delay the recent progress on gender and ethnic diversity in the House, and mean we will have to wait for 2020 to see that pick up again.

It would be perfectly possible to redraw constituency boundaries without cutting the number of MPs.

On ethnic diversity, this timing simply could not be worse. We saw two decades of very slow progress after 1987: it took until 2005 for the number of ethnic minority MPs to rise even to 15. There has been a very welcome speeding up of progress, with more than a dozen new ethnic minority MPs in both 2010 and 2015. It will be almost impossible to replicate that if the Commons shrinks: the new intake of ethnic minority MPs will inevitably be reduced, quite probably to around half or less of what it would have been otherwise. That is one of the big achievements of David Cameron’s leadership. He should think again about a proposal that will clearly slow that down in 2020’.

Why does shrinking the Commons slow down progress on diversity?

The number of new MPs depends on two factors: the number of MPs who retire (with a new MP elected, from their own party or an opponent) plus the number of seats where a sitting MP loses to another party.

The proposal to shrink the House of Commons by 50 will significantly reduce the number of MPs who replace a retiring MP, but does not affect seats gained by one party from a rival.

The impact on ethnic and gender diversity is higher, because the new intakes have a significantly different gender and ethnic balance than the retiring cohort.

Ninety MPs stood down in 2015 – with their party successfully defending the seat in three-quarters of these cases, so that 68 new MPs replaced a party colleague.

For Labour, 31 men and 9 women retired, being replaced by 15 men and 25 women. Four Conservative women were among the 38 retiring Conservative MPs, with fourteen female candidates chosen to succeed incumbent MPs

None of the 90 retiring MPs were non-white. This is because typically retiring MPs were likely to have served three to six terms, and most ethnic minority MPs have been elected since 2005, and were selected at much lower levels before 2000.

By contrast, 9 of the sixty-eight ‘class of 2015’ MPs elected in a seat held by their own party were from ethnic minorities. The seven new Conservative ethnic minority MPs all succeeded retiring Conservative MPs.

Those are precisely the selections that are set to take place much less frequently in this Parliament, with many fewer opportunities for new candidates to defend an incumbent seat.

If the measure proceeds, there are likely to be fifty less opportunities for new candidates to defend a seat which their party holds.

The major parties selected non-white candidates in about one in ten new selections in 2015. Without shrinking the House, it would have been likely that six new non-white candidates would have been selected to defend an incumbent seat in 2020, but that is projected to fall to around one candidate, based on a scenario of 60 incumbent MPs retiring. (There are likely to be fewer retirements in 2020: the unusually large intakes of 2010 and 2015 mean most MPs are in their first or second term).

Progress would depend on the uncertain prospect of a large number of seats changing parties at the election.

Whether this happens or not, there will inevitably be a lower rate of progress than would have been the case, because the overall size of the new intake will be reduced by introducing a smaller House.

For example, if 60 MPs retired and 40 seats changed hands, the new ‘class of 2020’ intake would fall from 100 MPs to 50 MPs in order to achieve the reduction in the size of the House.

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