30 November 2021

If 50% of MPs were women, would Parliament really be more ‘representative’?


On Sunday, Twitter presented me with a video of Boris Johnson speaking to camera. ‘If we want to achieve a truly representative Parliament’, he said, ‘then we cannot rest until 50% of MPs are women’.

The Prime Minister seems to have misunderstood the meaning of ‘representative’ in the context of democracy. Parliament represents voters because it is chosen by them, not because it resembles them.

Resemblance is impossible. Each constituency has only one MP. No single person can resemble all the adults in his constituency. He cannot be 51% male and 49% female; 5% unemployed, 25% public sector, 50% private sector and 20% self-employed; 95% heterosexual and 5% homosexual and so on. If representation requires resemblance, then no MP can represent his constituency.

Nor can 650 MPs taken together resemble all the variety in the population. And nor should we want them to. Many Brits are stupid, lazy and deceitful. So are many MPs, of course. But that is nothing to celebrate on the grounds of ‘representation’. If 650 angels descended upon the UK, and each was elected to Parliament, we would have perfect representation without even approximate resemblance.

Women are, of course, free to join political parties, to put themselves forward as candidates for election, and to vote in elections. If fewer women than men end up becoming MPs, this reflects the preferences of those involved in the process. Ultimately, it also reflects voters’ preferences, because those involved at earlier stages of the process, such as candidate selection, aim to promote people who will help to win votes. Voters need have no preference for men over women as MPs. They simply vote for their preferred candidate – or, more often, for the candidate of their preferred party. And, as it turns out, more men than women get elected to Parliament.

Though I could make some educated guesses, I will not pretend to know why more men than women end up as MPs. But the idea that something must be wrong with the process if the ratio is not 50:50 is absurd. In what field of endeavour do we see this result? Even in countries such as Sweden, where feminism has made great progress, many professions are heavily skewed to one sex or the other. Given the important differences between men and women, not only in aptitudes but in preferences, what else could anyone expect?

Those who promote measures to make Parliament 50% female do not seek to improve political representation. Rather, they have a personal preference for a Parliament that is 50% women and seek ways of bringing about that result even if it is not what would have resulted in a free and fair electoral system.

Mr Johnson has pointed to no defect in the electoral system except that it does not deliver his preferred result. He does not seek to improve the representation of voters’ preferences. He seeks to improve the representation of his preferences.

Many politicians, including the PM, make the same mistake on economic matters. The results of individuals freely interacting in markets are not to their taste. For example, investors rarely treat all parts of the UK as equally attractive destinations for their capital. Over recent years, they have preferred the opportunities in places like London and Cambridge to those in, say, Liverpool and Halifax.

For a variety of reasons, politicians regret this outcome. So they force us (through taxation) to invest in the places that they want to receive more capital than they get when investment is voluntary. That’s what Levelling Up is all about. It replaces the preferences of genuine investors with the preferences of politicians making use of other peoples’ money.

We have become so used to political interference in commerce that we hardly raise an eyebrow. Another day, another economic compulsion. But politicians trying to influence the electoral system to bring about their preferred electoral outcomes? That will surely cause outrage.

I am joking, of course. It will be praised as an admirable step towards true democracy and social justice. Most commentators swallowed Mr Johnson’s confounding of representation with resemblance even before he did. They will celebrate our more representative Parliament, even if it means ignoring the preferences of voters.

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Jamie Whyte is a writer who is a former leader of ACT New Zealand, a free market political party.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.