Picture of Big Ben at night with lights from passing traffic

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/

Despite being the largest minority groups in the United Kingdom (one in five working-age adults), disabled people have been and continue to be under-represented at every level in our political system.

Only 8 out of the current 650 Members of Parliament have identified as disabled (1.23%). At the local government level, representation is slightly higher, with 16.1% of elected representatives declaring themselves disabled. Even with this statistic in mind, it is approximately 700 councillors short of being proportionally representative of the general population in the United Kingdom.   

Findings from the Disability Policy Centre

Earlier this year, the Disability Policy Centre launched our Breaking Down Barriers Report in the Houses of Parliament, which highlighted important findings from disabled people about representation in politics. Our main takeaways from the report show that out of our interviewees who are disabled or have long-term health conditions:  

  • 82% became initially engaged in politics as a direct result of their disability.  
  • 100% believe that political parties do not do enough to ensure people with disabilities or long-term health conditions have the same opportunities as those without. 
  • 100% believe that the government is not doing enough to plug the gap of extra financial implications that are burdened onto disabled people who wish to seek election at a local and/or national level. 
  • 72% engaged with and participating in politics as councillors, activists or Members of Parliament, state that they do not feel comfortable declaring their disability to their political organisation for fear of discrimination. 

What can we do to improve representation?

From interviews, roundtables, and surveys, the Disability Policy Centre captured the experiences and views of disabled people. From these findings, the Disability Policy Centre put forward recommendations for the government as well as recommendations for political parties to identify specific challenges and barriers that limited the full potential of disabled people in politics. These are as follows: 

Recommendations for the UK government

  1. Use the Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Programme to conduct an extensive review into the accessibility of Parliament for disabled people. Implement any recommendations in full to ensure that Parliament is accessible for anyone who wishes to seek elected office, visit or be employed in any capacity. 
  2. Conduct an extensive review into the accessibility of Local Authority buildings across the United Kingdom. Work with Local Authorities to ensure that services are to a high standard and completely accessible for disabled people. 
  3. Reinstate a formal funding scheme for disabled candidates. 
  4. Political parties are required to report annually to the Minister for Disabled People, Health & Work on what measures are being put into place to break down barriers for disabled people within the organisation. 

Recommendations for political parties

  1. Encourage party staff, elected representatives and local association leaders to undertake reviews into how to include and promote disabled party members within their structures. As part of this process, it is recommended that training is implemented for staff and volunteers to highlight how to break down barriers for disabled people in the organisation.  
  2. Widespread and sustained commitment to the Disability Confident Employer Scheme. 
  3. Political parties must acknowledge that current campaigning techniques are not viable for everyone, and actively promote accessible campaigning methods for their members. These techniques must not be viewed as being less credible than traditional campaigning methods. 
  4. Political parties must conduct immediate reviews into their candidate selection processes, for elected representatives at both a local and parliamentary level, ensuring that all barriers to engagement and participation have been removed where possible. 

Conclusion

Representation is much more than a tick-box exercise. Our political system must accommodate disabled people and people with long-term health conditions to allow for full political representation and participation. We must act to dismantle the societal, attitudinal, and physical barriers which create inaccessible environments. By tackling these issues directly, disabled people as well as individuals with long-term health conditions have the choice to participate in and engage with politics.  

You can read the full report here: https://thedisabilitypolicycentre.org/representation  

 

Kirstie Stage is a Director of the Disability Policy Centre. She is a disabled researcher passionate about public policy, political engagement, and human rights.  

A line of television cameras on tripods at news event

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.  

There are decisions being made daily in councils across Scotland which will directly impact the lives of individuals and communities. Some of these decisions, bluntly, will be about helping people to both heat and eat.  

As the resources available to councils are becoming increasingly scarce, it is imperative that they are targeted most effectively.  To do this, we must ensure that we really understand need, both that which is apparent and that which is hidden.    

There is appreciation that the inequalities which existed before Covid, were exacerbated during the pandemic and that under-represented communities are suffering the greatest poverties, economically, socially and in terms of well-being. Moreover, the differences between rural and urban poverty are now being unpicked. As a result of all this, there is an increasing sense that things must be done differently. 

We have had some notable sparks of change and insights into what could be when, for example, some of the third of Scottish councillors who are women have worked to promote issues around family leave, gender budgeting and period dignity, thereby helping to empower women in the workplace and so enable their skills and experiences to contribute to achieving better outcomes.    

However, we haven’t learned from this – collectively we still haven’t placed enough priority on addressing the overall lack of diversity at our council decision making tables. We haven’t managed to attract additional voices of lived experience who could better reflect the needs of our communities as policies are set. Too often, councillors are still making strategic decisions for people rather than with people, and scrutinising outcomes for the organisation, without considering a person-centred approach.    

Councils have set up numerous forums of lived experience and consult on particular issues which they select and for which they control the agenda. Those in positions of power are deciding the matters on which people from our communities can express a view. However, it is within the democratic structures of Local Government themselves that those voices of lived experience would be best, most widely and most consistently heard. Here they would be voted in, representative and accountable to their communities.  

There is an urgent need to fully overhaul political participation in council policy making across Scotland. This work fundamentally includes ensuring that councillors are properly remunerated for the work they do, and that terms and conditions better reflect the role of a 2020s councillor.  A COSLA survey of councillors published in January 2021 found that a councillor works on average 38.5 hours per week but receives less than the Real Living Wage in return [1]. This is not going to encourage people from currently under-represented groups to step forward for election. By remunerating councillors as we do, we are preserving a system whereby those of independent means can more easily contemplate standing for election – this is damaging to our local democracy. The Scottish Government and COSLA made a commitment in March 2022 to work at pace on councillor remuneration and this remains key [2]. We need to be confident that remuneration won’t still be a barrier to people considering standing in the next Local Government elections.   

In addition, there are councils which still do not have policies for Family Leave for councillors, which makes the role very difficult for younger people or for those with wider caring responsibilities. There is no consistency across Scottish councils about the level of support which all councillors, but particularly disabled councillors, might expect to receive. Assumptions are made about the digital literacy of councillors and about their access to safe spaces for home working.  We are only just developing awareness that councillors do much lone working and can face abusive and hostile situations in person and on-line. Only very recently has partnership work with Police Scotland been initiated to give more support to our councillors and there is more work to be done on this. And in many areas, we have not started to address the culture which creates barriers to potential representatives from ethnic minorities.  

All this matters. The role of a councillor has evolved considerably since I was first elected in 2012. Councils remain the sphere of government closest to our communities, but the experience of the pandemic and the ever-deepening cost of living crisis has underlined the importance of making decisions as close as possible to the communities impacted. Councillors now have to engage more locally and to better represent all parts of their communities. More people are becoming dependent on the essential services of the council just as resources are becoming ever scarcer and there is a responsibility to maximise their impact locally.   

Yet achieving all this remains aspiration unless we hasten our continuing journey to local democracy, giving meaningful voice to people from right across our communities. We cannot afford not to act.  

 

[1] Councillor Remuneration Survey Results Public Documents | COSLA

[2] Increasing the Diversity of Local Councillors Public Documents | COSLA

 

Cllr Alison Evison was President of COSLA 2017-22, leading a diverse organisation and developing partnerships across the Public and Third Sectors, representing Local Government in the formulation of the Covid response and recovery strategies at a national level and working to achieve support across the Scottish Parliament for the European Charter for Local Self Government. Chair of the Improvement Service 2017-22 during a time of organisational change.  Recognised for supporting diversity in office and for encouraging inclusion for all.  Appointed by care experienced young people in Aberdeenshire as their champion 2015.  Previously Co-Leader of Aberdeenshire Council. A local councillor, engaging regularly with people across the communities of the Mearns and focusing on community planning with local partners. Honorary Lecturer, University of Aberdeen. Recently appointed Chair of NHS Grampian. 

In 2021 the Scottish Parliament arrived at what commentators call ‘the parity zone’. For gender equality advocates, this means that the make-up of our parliament dipped its toe into equality – not yet 50:50 representation, but reaching – for the first time – 45% of its representatives being women. Among the women elected were Scotland’s first women of colour and parliaments first permanent wheelchair user.  

Can we call a politics that has taken over 20 years to see even minimal gender parity a healthy one? Is representation the same as equality? Are we confident that our progress can be sustained?  

The US Supreme Court Justice, the inimitable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was once asked when there would be enough women on the nine-member court. Famously she responded “when there are nine.” Of course, there are long histories of courts all around the world consisting of 100% men, so too there have been – and even in Scotland today – elected institutions without a single woman among their numbers. What this of course means is hundreds of years of lawmaking and legal interpretation designed and built by men for men. Much of the legislation in force today was never voted on by a single woman. While women have been present in the Scottish Parliament since its creation, however those women have all be white and largely (though not exclusively) middle class and non-disabled.  

Diversity is widely acknowledged as good for institutions – businesses with more diverse boards make better decisions. Parity between women and men offers opportunity for gendered perspectives and experiences of the world to be heard, the expertise available to make law that works for more people and to ensure that issues affective marginalized communities a given space in the democratic agenda. 

However, representation is no guarantee of feminist output. Firstly, not every woman elected to parliament will have the same perspectives on what is needed to advance equality between the sexes and ensure that women are safer, more secure and empowered. Secondly, women MSPs should not be expected to be the sole advocate for equality, especially when they remain in the minority. And thirdly, all women MSPs are entering an institution created by men, with formal and informal social rules. How often do we hear women politicians’ “likability” debated or credentials questions? Women’s appearances are dissected (remember “legs-it”?) more often than their policy proposals and women are subject to more personalized forms of criticism, harassment and violence (often highly sexualized) in a world where men’s violence against women is endemic. In this context, expecting even the most ardent proponent of gender equality to deliver change is unreasonable and unrealistic. It also creates the real prospect of regression, as women leave public life earlier than intended.  

Democracy that continues to ignore the gendered hierarchies that underpin parliament’s day to day functioning will never serve the population equally. Parliament that fails to understand its own deeply rooted power imbalances will never correct them and will never create laws that realise equality for all women. Intersectional understanding how these power structures between women and men intersect with other forms of exclusion and bias is vital.  

For all these reasons, Engender has warmly welcomed the Presiding Officer’s A Parliament For All initiative. At its heart, the project learns much from the gender audit methodology developed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and gender experts around the world. The process requires parliamentarians to examine reflectively access to the institution, the formal and informal rules of procedure, the content of the debates and laws produced, views of women working throughout the parliament and the success of measures to integrate gendered expertise from inside and outside the institution.  

Because a gender audit is a traditionally reflective exercise this creates a challenge given the historic relative homogeneity of women who have been elected to date. Although the current group is more diverse, it still falls below the national average and in no way addresses decades of exclusion. As a result, the Parliament For All project has added new dimensions to an analysis of gender-sensitivity, creating space for outside experts to explore necessary changes to the inner workings of the institution. An oversight board of cross-party representatives, Engender’s gender mainstreaming work and academics working on gender and institutional reform has been established to consider the research and make recommendations for change.  

The project has only just begun but expects to report by the end of the year. If Parliament can be brave and ambitious, there is an opportunity to build an institution that serves all women, those working within it and all of us who are governed by it. Parliament that creates systems and feedback loops that force all members and functionaries to proactively redistribute attention, funding and parliamentary time towards women’s needs and lives, for example investing in the care economy creates opportunities for all women to access economic, social and political opportunities, contributing to more representative institutions in a cycle of progress. Some changes will be iterative as new lessons are learnt, but dismantling thousands of years of gendered inequalities in public life must start now.  

The first step is acknowledging the need for change. The second is accepting change is our responsibility – and our opportunity. 

 

Eilidh Dicksons is the former Policy and Parliamentary Manager for Engender, one of Scotland’s leading feminist policy and advocacy organisations.

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 hand 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   

 

Parties often seek to appeal to women voters through policy pledges. However, we know little about how these policies influence women’s voting behaviour.

My research explored this in the context of the 2015 general election. I held focus groups in two constituencies (Manchester Central and Altrincham and Sale West) up to 18 months after the 2015 election, with 61 participants overall. I split focus groups according to age category (under 35s, 35-64, and 65+). Here, I focus on two policy agendas that were prominent within the focus group discussions: childcare and austerity. For both policy agendas, I found that trust in parties was lacking. 

Childcare

As it stands, the UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. The issue of childcare was a “battleground” at the 2015 election, where Labour’s pledge to raise subsidised childcare to 25 hours per week for working parents was trumped by a last-minute pledge of 30 hours from the Conservative Party. Within the focus groups, the Conservatives’ 30-hour pledge was met with scepticism from some women, due to confined eligibility to parents working at least 16 hours per week on National Minimum Wage. Some also raised concerns that the policy was not properly costed: 

“I always take everything that the Conservatives say with a pinch of salt. So, the 30 free [childcare] hours, I think, well, how? Like no, it’s not as simple as that.” 

“The 30 free hours seems like a good idea but even then I think they’ve still put things in place where there are still loopholes…you still have to be earning over a certain amount in order for it to benefit you in any way.” 

“under the 30 free hours [the nurseries] only get a very small amount don’t they and obviously they’ve got to make a profit and that’s why they start charging for meals and all the other things…so it’s not really free hours, is it? Because you’ve always got the extras.” 

Austerity and living costs

The 2015 Election was held against a backdrop of five years of austerity measures. These measures hit women financially twice as hard as men, due in part to women’s greater reliance on the state for income, services, and employment. Younger women were particularly averse to spending cuts, and two women commented on the challenges of rising living costs:  

“Even now, food in supermarkets has got too dear, like meat and fish and things. I’ve become more aware of it. I used to do my weekly shop in Tesco but I changed to Aldi … I can’t afford a big weekly shop [in Tesco] anymore, not for the four of us.” 

“For me, it’s how to cope with the cost of bills when they keep going up, especially electricity I’ve noticed… Normally I can budget carefully on top of food and rent each month, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy… all it takes is one utility bill that’s much higher than usual and you feel it financially, sometimes for a while after, actually.” 

Research has shown that at the 2015 and 2017 elections, younger women’s financial pessimism and concerns over service provision were associated with their higher relative Labour support and reduced Conservative support. The focus group discussions illustrated that, comparatively, Labour’s economic policies on greater social spending were met with scepticism among older women: 

“You’ve got to think ‘it all sounds wonderful’ and then analyse it down…you can’t pay for it.” 

“Well [The Labour Party] cleaned the coppers out last time, didn’t they?” 

Conclusions

So, what can parties learn from this? Firstly, taking the example of subsidised childcare hours, parties should ensure that there is transparency regarding the costs and eligibility of their policy proposals. Secondly, parties should be fully cognisant that women are not a monolithic block. We often hear about ‘the women’s vote’ but, as Rosie Campbell highlights, it is more accurate to talk about ‘women voters’ given the average voter is a woman. Women’s trust in parties’ pledges manifested differently across life-stage, but we might also expect this to vary by other factors, such as ethnicity or class. Policy proposals should therefore speak to women voters in all their diversity. For Labour, clear challenges lie ahead in winning the votes of older women without alienating younger women, particularly along economic lines. For the Conservatives, the reverse applies. 

Gaining the trust of women voters is important. And there are, after all, real electoral incentives. Women comprise 54% of the British electorate due in part to demographic differences. On average, women tend to live longer than men: among those aged 85 and over, 65% are women. Men also comprise 95% of the prison population, meaning that many of them are ineligible to vote. In short, parties cannot afford to ignore women’s votes. 

 

Dr Anna Sanders is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of York. Her research focuses on gender, elections and public policy. 

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. 

The Mission of the John Smith Centre

Based at the University of Glasgow, the John Smith Centre conducts and commissions research into public service and public servants across the United Kingdom. We use the findings to shape public debate and to make the positive case for representative democracy. The research also serves as the compass to guide the rest of our activities as an organisation. 

As the political debate becomes increasingly polarised, we’re in the business of promoting civilised debate. We do that through a series of annual lectures, panel discussions and events across the country. Combined with running a series of employability focused events, we’re keen to ensure the brightest and best public servants are accessible to everyone. 

We run a ground-breaking series of programmes which provide opportunities for people with the talent but not the means to access politics through a Parliamentary internship. We see these activities as critical to breaking down the barriers so many people face accessing and influencing public life. 

The inspiration for the work of the Centre comes from the Rt Hon. John Smith QC MP himself. The night before he died in May 1994, John Smith gave a speech which concluded with these words: “The opportunity to serve our country – that is all we ask.” That single phrase encapsulates a lifetime of seeking to help others through public service. Inspiring that in a new generation is the work of the John Smith Centre today. We are a non-partisan organisation focused on making the positive case for politics and public service. 

Kezia Dugdale, is the Director of the John Smith Centre and Professor of Practice in Public Service at the University of Glasgow.