Picture of Big Ben at night with lights from passing traffic

Are women in parliament more responsive to public priorities?

The list of benefits from having more women in parliament is long and well-documented. Whether it’s increasing political engagement with the female electorate or negotiating more equitable trade policies⁠, the health and legitimacy of democracy depends on having women in positions of power. Earlier understandings of women in politics argued that increasing the number of women in parliament would lead to substantive benefits in the form of greater representation for women in the electorate. The line of reasoning was that women have a shared set of interests and deeper understanding of the women they represent. Therefore, by creating an environment in which more women were ‘at the table’ throughout deliberations, women’s interests that might otherwise go overlooked by men may be reflected in political outcomes. 

My current research takes the claim that women provide greater substantive representation to the women they represent a step further by asking whether women MPs provide greater representation to voters of all genders. Findings in the US and India have shown that voters consistently underestimate the qualifications of female candidates in politics. Consequently, the bar for success for women candidates in aggregate is higher than it is for male candidates. My research tests that proposition in the context of the UK by examining how MPs respond to the issues that are important to the electorate. Using a combination of hundreds of public opinion surveys that asked the British public ‘What is the most important issue facing the country?’, I mapped the level of importance attributed to top issues in the UK, which can be seen in Figure 1 below. 

Around the time of the start of the pandemic in March, voters understandably grew concerned with health and the economy. These fears later were transferred to the issue of education as many parents had to accommodate school closings and uncertainty around lockdowns. Interestingly, issues like crime, immigration and defense became much less important amidst the myriad problems of the pandemic. 

Public issue priorities in the United Kingdom, 2018-2022

To explore the relationship between the issue presented in Figure 1 above and MPs’ attention to those issues, I turned to MPs’ social media activity on Twitter. Nearly every MP has an active Twitter account and they regularly use Twitter to communicate with constituents and emphasise the issues and policies that are important to voters. Data collection for this step included around 1.8 million tweets (MPs tweet a lot!), but included each tweet sent from an MP account between 2018 and 2021. Using machine learning to identify tweets about each issue, attention was ultimately calculated as a proportion of the number of tweets MPs sent in a given two-week time period to match the survey dates. Performing this analysis on all the tweets sent by MPs for a four year period and for each issue yielded dynamic measures of MPs’ attention, displayed in Figure 2 below.

 

Parliamentarians’ issue attention in the UK, 2018-2022

As we can see from charting MPs’ attention, there are gendered differences in the issues that are important to MPs as well. Women in parliament give greater attention to crime, the environment, health and education, while men in parliament give greater attention to defense, tax, and the economy. We can also see that parliamentarians exhibited a similar increase as voters in attention to health and the economy around the time of the outbreak of COVID-19, while issues like crime and immigration appear to decrease in importance. 

It would be near-impossible to take away from these figures alone whether men or women MPs were more responsiveness to shifts in voters’ priorities, so data were further analysed statistically. The results demonstrate that women in parliament are not only more responsive to shifts in the level of importance devoted to the issues in aggregate by voters, they are also more responsive to the issue priorities of male voters specifically as well (You can find the full statistical results and further details of the data collection and modelling strategies on my website). 

Electing more women into politics has long been a goal of feminists and advocates of equality alike, yet the benefits women representatives provide have been understood solely in the context of other women. Although the findings presented here are limited to social media, they provide evidence that voters of all genders pay a price in the form of responsiveness to their policy priorities when they let gender shape their decisions at the ballot box. Whether posts on social media amount to legislative changes is a question for a future project, but we know that long before MPs can respond to the electorate through changes in public policy, they must first respond to and emphasise voters’ issue priorities. The findings presented here show that when it comes to emphasising the issues that are most important to voters, women do it better. 

Zachary Dickson is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Glasgow and a postdoctoral researcher at the London School of Economics. His research utilises computational methods and social data to examine legislative behaviour in liberal democracies. You can read more about his research at http://z-dickson.github.io/home/

A line of television cameras on tripods at news event

Gender Gaps in the Media Visibility of Politicians 

The most recent UN report (2022) on the sustainable development goals makes it clear that the world is far from reaching gender equality; in fact, the report states the world needs 286 years to remove discriminatory laws and close prevailing gaps in legal protections for women and girls, 140 years to achieve gender-equal representation in leadership positions in the workplace, and 40 years for gender-equal representation in national parliaments. Although the report focuses heavily on some of the most gender-unequal parts of the world, it also includes assessments of gender equality related to advanced democracies. Unsurprisingly, advanced democracies have fared a lot better than other parts of the world when it comes to gender equality. Despite this, however, democracies in Europe and Northern America were able to meet only one of the many targets related to gender equality, and it is clear from the report that there is still much work to do regarding the political representation of women. 

Political science research shows that one of the challenges facing women in politics is their unequal representation in the media, and this bias of media coverage shows no sign of abating even in advanced democracies (Van der Pas and Aaldering 2020). In our latest research published in American Political Science Review (Thesen and Yildirim 2022), we analyzed the media appearances of members of parliament who served at least one term in the House of Commons from 2000 to 2016 to produce a detailed picture of some potential biases in the media. More specifically, we collected and coded over 1.5 million news stories published in the Guardian, the Times, and the Sun over 16 years, and then queried the news corpus to find out the frequency with which politicians appeared in the news. This left us with nearly 400,000 news stories in which at least a politician was mentioned. 

We estimated empirical modelsled that predicted the media visibility of politicians with demographic and political factors, including age, gender, electoral safety, political work, and partisan characteristics, among others. Raw data clearly show that women in politics lag behind their male counterparts in the frequency with which they appear in the news. Without looking at some potentially confounding factors, however, this figure is not enough to reach a conclusion about gendered patterns in media visibility. This is mainly because women in the House of Commons have, on average, less political experience and electoral safety, and participate less in legislative activities than their male colleagues, and these factors are known to collectively influence one’s potential for media coverage. Our models showed that the gender gap documented in the raw data was mainly due to men’s initial advantage in political experience, political work, and other relevant factors. Once these factors are controlled for in the model, the gender gap in the media coverage of politicians disappears completely.  

In the other country-case under investigation in our study, Norway, we found gender gaps that did not disappear when controlling for various power resources such as dominance in parliamentary activities, political experience, and electoral safety. We believe that the reason why this gloomy finding does not hold in the UK is due partly to electoral systems. Although the UK’s first-past-the-post system is not particularly conducive to producing a diverse parliament, it minimizes potential biases in journalist-politician relationships simply because each electoral district produces only one winner. Stated differently, when political journalists are interested in covering a political story related to a constituency, they do not have a list of politicians to choose from when preparing the story. Instead, there is only one politician to be contacted for each electoral district. Additionally, as majoritarian electoral systems are often more competitive for groups traditionally underrepresented in politics, women elected through such systems are also those who managed to overcome various challenges facing women in politics. This implies that women in politics who are elected through the first-past-the-post systems are likely have strong qualities (such as established connections with journalists) that make them appear more in the news, relative their counterparts in countries with proportional electoral system.  

British politics is and will likely be gender-unequal in the foreseeable future as far as the media coverage of politicians is concerned. However, unlike in Norway, the gender gap in news visibility in the UK can be attributed to men’s initial advantage in power relations in the system. Our findings suggest that equalizing those factors will contribute greatly toward women’s presence in political news stories. That is, the gender gap in the media will likely disappear when the share of women politicians in the parliament, women’s overall political experience, and their participation in parliamentary activities are no less than those of men. This certainly implies that there is still a lot of work for women in politics to do to overcome the challenges facing them, although our results suggest that gender equality in the British news media is achievable.  

Gunnar Thesen is Professor of Political Science at the University of Stavanger, Norway. His research focuses on party competition, electoral behaviour and political communication.
 
Tevfik Murat Yildirim is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Stavanger, Norway. His research focuses on legislative studies, gender and politics, and political representation.

References 

UN Report (2022) https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2022-09/Progress-on-the-sustainable-development-goals-the-gender-snapshot-2022-en.pdf 

Thesen, Gunnar., and Tevfik Murat Yildirim. 2022. “Electoral Systems and Gender Inequality in Political News: Analyzing the News Visibility of Members of Parliament in Norway and the UK.” American Political Science Review 

Van der Pas, Daphne J., and Loes Aaldering. 2020. “Gender Differences in Political Media Coverage: A MetaAnalysis.” Journal of Communication 70 (1): 114–43.  

John Smith Remembered 

John Smith was one of the foremost parliamentarians of his time. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1970 and over the next 24 years served as a Minster and member of the Cabinet. In July 1992 he was elected Leader of the Labour Party and was very likely to become Britain’s next prime minister. His untimely death in May 1994 was a grievous loss to the British people.  Today he is often recalled as the “best PM we never had” and with affection by many people regardless of their political views. He was admired as a politician that could be trusted and clearly motivated by strong ethical values and democratic beliefs. Whilst the passage of time inevitably distances us from Smith’s period in office, his achievements still have a large impact on our public life.   

I was privileged to work for John Smith from 1988 to 1994 during which time he was Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the Opposition. I saw at first had his passionate determination to win public office for a purpose; to build a Britain that is prosperous, fairer, and better governed in the interests of all. Smith’s ambition was to lead a country that would “harness the extraordinary potential of ordinary people” [1]. He was inspired by a vision of active government and democratic citizenship; and opposed to a society dominated by entitled elites or opaque market forces.  

That is what shapes his legacy today. His deep commitment to social justice saw him champion the creation of a national minimum wage which was enacted by the Labour Government elected in 1997; his desire for transparency in the corridors of power resulted in the adoption of the Freedom of Information Act; and his determination to bring democracy close to people helped to secure devolution in Wales and Scotland.  All of these lasting legislative landmarks of the 1997 Labour Government carry the hallmarks of John Smith’s influence and leadership.  

Smith was a man of supreme self-confidence. He was sure in his beliefs – informed by a Presbyterian faith, and imbued by an upbringing in Scotland’s Western Highlands – and blessed with a loving and devoted family. In short he was very secure in himself and that was strongly felt in his politics. The essential integrity of Smith’s approach was reinforced by skills as a criminal barrister. He would explore policy options in detail and if he judged them to be sound he was a completely convincing advocate.  

These forensic skills were combined with great natural wit and debating prowess that made him a master of the House of Commons chamber. Smith often used humour to devastating effect in Parliament. A classic example was a in 1989, when Smith sought to exploit major differences on economic policy between then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Nigel Lawson. With Number 10 and 11 at loggerheads, Smith mocked them by singing the theme song to ‘Neighbours’ [2]. The former Conservative leader William Hague recently admitted that Smith was so funny he had “our own side cracking up when we weren’t supposed to” [3] 

Smith’s leadership has sometimes been described as cautious and even old fashioned. I think this is wrong [4]. Smith was cat-like, capable of bold jumps but wanting to be sure of his footing. For example, Smith’s proposals for constitutional and democratic reform in 1993 set out the most radical and comprehensive made by any Labour Leader. Smith was concerned that Britain was becoming an elective dictatorship and argued that “we must replace the out-of-date idea of an all-powerful nation state with a new and dynamic framework of government” [5]  

He wanted Britain to become a modern European state which empowered “municipal, regional, national and European decision-making”. This agenda of democratic reform and modernisation is just as relevant today. Smith was an intensely proud Scot, but also British and European. He wanted our democratic life to encompass all these multiple identities seeing them as further opportunities to build a fairer and more prosperous life for us all. That was why he was always strongly committed to Britain’s joining the original Common Market – now European Union – and, I’m sure, would have strongly opposed Brexit.    

In a short article such as this it is impossible to convey the personality and warmth of John Smith. Nor is there space for me to share the anecdotes and experiences of working for such a remarkable man. The best I can recommend to all followers of the John Smith Centre is to listen to his own words in the unusual and informal setting of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs dating from May 1991 [6]. He charmingly talks about his personal life, his principled approach to politics, and at the end his taste for champagne!     

 

David Ward served as Rt Hon John Smith QC’s Head of Policy when Leader of the Opposition (1992-1994) and previously as Advisor when John Smith was Shadow Chancellor (1988-1992) 

[1] This quote, a favorite of John Smith’s, was from RH Tawney included in Smith’s RH Tawney Memorial Lecture, 20th March 1993  

[2] HC Deb vol 154 7th June 1989, Government Economic Policy column 249 

[3] The Rest Is Politics: William Hague on Boris Johnson, Blair, and Brexit on Apple Podcasts 

[4] See my Mile End Institute paper: John Smith and the mythology of ‘One More Heave’ – Mile End Institute (qmul.ac.uk) 

[5] Charter 88 speech delivered in Central Hall Westminster on 1st March 1993 

[6] BBC Radio 4 – Desert Island Discs, Rt Hon John Smith   

 

Parliamentary Assistants and the Quest for Trust: What to expect and how to become one

Parliament is a unique workplace, and each parliamentarian will organise their part of this workplace differently. Although those workplaces within the parliamentary setting differ wildly, they do have something in common: the importance of trust. Trust is not just shaping how a parliamentary assistant works, but it also determines whether they will be able to get and keep the job. 

Parliamentary Assistants and the Importance of Trust 

There has been some research done on parliamentary assistants and aides of politicians. However, those studies often focus on “high-profile” politicians or elections. The following is based on the findings of my research project focused on communication-related day-to-day activities of parliamentary assistants (PAs) covering backbenchers and frontbenchers of all parties. The study was interview-based, and around fifty interviewees agreed to participate, among them former and current parliamentarians and their assistants. 

Throughout those interviews, the importance of trust became quickly apparent. While interviewees usually don’t explicitly refer to the concept of trust or explain its meaning, in their descriptions of work-related situations in which trust matters, it becomes clear what “trust” means to them. It is not only about being able to fulfil the outlined tasks in the job description, which is, by the way, more often than not vague and undefined. There are also implicit expectations about the willingness “to go the extra mile” outside the working hours and the explicit ask not to undermine the parliamentarian’s re-election prospects. 

Parliamentary Assistants: The Role 

The role of a parliamentary assistant is difficult to specify, and what it entails is primarily up to the individual parliamentarian. However, while specialised PAs exist, they are “jacks-of-all-trades” with a wide range of duties involving research, communication, or even casework. While it is helpful in an application to show experiences in those areas, they are not a “must-have”. First, necessary skills are often acquired “on the job”. Second, flexibility, enthusiasm and willingness to put in an extra effort are often more important. 

Fulfilling this role of a PA often means acting on behalf of the parliamentarian: the tasks must be completed aligned with their values and ways of dealing with the issues at hand. This can come down to anticipating a preferred wording of a press statement or a post on Facebook. Having the ability to resonate with the expectation of the MP or MSP saves not just time and workload for both but also decreases the potential for a frustrating working experience. 

Are you prepared to go the extra mile? 

Another aspect which interested PA candidates need to be aware of is the workload and the usually somewhat limited pay. While interviewees highlighted that the parliament as a working environment is a perk in its own right, the long working hours limit the available free time outside the workplace. Therefore, the relatively high staff turnover among parliamentary assistants should not be surprising. Many interviewees confirmed this, either by directly addressing it or, indirectly, by outlining their plans for the future outside the parliament.  

During my research, it has become increasingly clear that distinguishing between political activism from formally assigned duties is very difficult. There is often an implicit expectation toward parliamentary assistants to participate in campaigning activities. While parliamentarians do not always ask for this and, for legal reasons, this is not part of the formal working agreement, the tendency among my interviewees has been that canvassing or visits to the local party branch in their free time is not unusual. Successful PAs need to tolerate the blurry line between work life and “voluntary” political activism. Ultimately, the trust of the parliamentarian in this tolerance by the parliamentary assistant is critical. Can the PA be trusted to put their energy into supporting the re-election efforts of the parliamentarian, even though those campaigning activities are legally not part of their job? 

It also needs to be said that the re-election is not just about making sure that the MP or MSP keeps their seat. If the MP or MSP loses their mandate, the parliamentary assistant also loses their job. Obviously, if the unsuccessful parliamentarian is from one of the bigger parties (SNP, Labour or Conservatives), there is a chance to get hired by another parliamentarian from the same party. However, there is no guarantee. 

How to become a Parliamentary Assistant? 

Ultimately there is no guaranteed, single way to become a Parliamentary Assistant. Each parliamentarian is, within legal boundaries, free to organise the hiring process as they see fit. However, there are characteristics that most of those recruitments have in common. Successful applicants usually provide the following 

  1. Substantial working experience or completed their undergraduate degree, and either of those should broadly address the duties outlined in the job description.  
  2. Track record of campaigning activities and party political engagement. Some also consider non-affiliated applicants on their shortlist, but alignment to fundamental values and beliefs of the parliamentarian and their party is necessary. 
  3. It is beneficial that the parliamentarian knows the candidate and their work. To be recognised by the parliamentarian can be achieved by helping out in campaigning activities involving the MP/MSP. An internship with the parliamentarian can also provide an opportunity to become a parliamentary assistant.  

All those points combined – activism, close contact, supportive academic and professional background – provide the most potent argument for being a successful candidate. 

Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler, PhD researcher at the University of Stirling. His research project is on parliamentary assistants’ role in political communication of Scottish MPs and MSPs.