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Is UK electoral reform missing the G-spot? The case of AV referendum

Manda Green
p. 155-173


The First-Past-the-Post electoral system is recognised as one of the major factors perpetuating white, male, middle-class predominance and adversarial politics in the UK. Recent innovations on the Westminster fringe (in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and in New Zealand) have provided compelling evidence that hybrid electoral systems can have a rapid and significant impact on the numbers of women elected.

The recent AV referendum was frequently hailed as ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity’ to fix the system, and improve the quality of representation (by reducing sleaze, holding MPs to account, broadening the range of parties in parliament). This paper asks to what extent women’s representation was incorporated into the debate. It shows that there was little synergy between feminist and electoral reform groups and that institutional partners failed to respond to those groups who addressed the issue of gender, consequently missing parallel opportunities to improve political representation and gender balance.

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  • 1  This puts the UK 49th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranking, (...)
  • 2  McMillan, J. & Fox, R., 2010, Appendix 1. The figures were 34.9% & 41.7% after the 2011 elections (...)
  • 3  Lovenduski, J., 2005, p. 218-219, Molinari, V., 2005, p.35-7.

1In the context of ‘renewal’, electoral reform has been on the agenda in Britain for such a long time that it hardly seems ‘new’ any more. After years of stasis under the Conservatives, the (then) young turks in New Labour, with their record-breaking contingent of women MPs, initiated a whole raft of institutional innovations in 1997 ranging from House of Lords reform to devolution. These issues have become part of the landscape: the fourth round of devolved elections was held in May 2011 in Scotland and Wales, the March 2011 referendum extended Welsh Assembly powers, and House of Lords reform is again on the agenda. However, despite the feeling of déjà vu, we can still talk of renewal with regard to electoral reform as it goes to the heart of how politics gets done – and by whom – and because there is still a patent need for progress. The Scottish and Welsh examples may not have fulfilled all the promise of a ‘new politics’, but in one domain at least, they have risen well above Westminster and demonstrated that innovation is possible and positively beneficial. While the House of Commons can only muster 142 women MPs (22%)1, there have been consistently high levels of women MSPs at Holyrood and Assembly Members in Cardiff (33.3% and 46.7% at the time of the AV campaign)2. This is unsurprising as the devolved bodies were designed with that in mind, specifically as regards electoral methods which are partly proportional3.

  • 4  House of Lords Constitution Committee, 2011, Chapter 1.
  • 5  Since the first elections held under MMP in 1996, the percentage of women elected has hovered arou (...)

2With such recent precedents so close to home, there was every reason in 2010 to be hopeful in the brief interlude between the hung parliament and the formation of the Coalition government, when the debate on proportional representation moved from the dinner tables of Charter 88/Unlock Democracy supporters to the streets. In the post-election period, media attention turned to another Westminster-style polity, New Zealand. The introduction of the Mixed Member Proportional system in 1993 had resulted in a series of coalition governments and this experience served as a template for the draft guidelines on government formation in the Cabinet Manual, used by Sir Gus O’Donnell to ease the transition4. The MMP system also led to a marked rise in women’s representation5. Moreover, a considerable amount of groundwork has been done on the issue, in academic and political circles. International research has amply demonstrated the link between women’s representation, electoral rules and two-party systems and two consultative bodies set up by New Labour - the Jenkins Committee and the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation – came to similar conclusions, as we will see below.

3Thus the time was ripe. The referendum was billed as ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity’ to fix the system and improve the quality of representation. And yet the ensuing campaign was so far from addressing women’s under-representation – or hitting the G-spot – that it is virtually pre-Kinsey! This paper analyses firstly how the referendum was framed and how the campaign was conducted, before exploring the positions of the main campaign groups to try to understand why this happened. It then sets the debate in the context of recent changes in the organisation of state equality machinery and the reconfiguration of the dialogue between the executive and civil society, in particular the women’s movement.

Framing the Referendum – written off before the start

  • 6  Jenkins, R. et al, Terms of reference, 1998.
  • 7  Ibid, Chapter 3, §39.
  • 8  Parliamentary Research Paper 98/112,1998 p. 20.

4The Independent Commission on the Voting System headed by Lord Jenkins was set up in December 1997, and had a year to make recommendations on an alternative to the present electoral system which would then be submitted to referendum. However the terms of reference were defined as requiring “…broad proportionality, the need for stable Government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies”6 and made no mention of gender. The geographical link effectively imposed the maintenance of FPTP. However, the commission members went beyond their remit and devoted one paragraph to ‘wider representation’, stating that: “There is some, but not overwhelmingly strong evidence that FPTP is less good at producing parliamentary representation for women and for ethnic minorities than are most more proportional systems.”7 The report cites the examples of New Zealand and Germany, but also the counter example of the Irish Dáil, which despite STV, had only 13.9% of women at the time, and concludes that “a party which has the will to increase female or minority representation might find it easier to do so under a [PR] system” (my italics) implying that PR is not sufficient in itself to enhance representation, but only as a complement to other measures undertaken by the parties. It recommended a mixed system (referred to as limited AMS or AV Top-Up, sometimes called AV+) whereby most seats would continue to be fought under FPTP, but with 15-20% of additional seats elected via top-up lists. It specifically rejected a straight AV system “because of the danger of disproportionality, as at the 1997 election.”8 Although New Labour delivered on devolution (and initiated change in the House of Lords), the Jenkins Report was left in abeyance for 10 years and ultimately the Coalition went counter to its advice.

  • 9  Terms of reference cited in the House of Commons, Final report, 2010.  Of the 16 appointees, 9 wer (...)
  • 10  CFWD Enewsletter 57, accessed 27/07/11.
  • 11  In addition to evidence from abroad, the Fawcett Society, the Centre for Women and Democracy, the (...)

5In 2008, a Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation was convened under John Bercow in order to “consider, and make recommendations for rectifying the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large.”9 Speaker’s Conferences are rare events: this is only the sixth to have taken place in the modern history of Parliament, and the first since 1978. They are designed to address constitutional issues of particular significance or sensitivity requiring a cross-party solution, which lends authority and legitimacy to their findings. The Final Report in January 2010 highlighted the role and responsibility of political parties, and made a multitude of practical suggestions to facilitate greater inclusion (breaking down selection barriers, improving education and outreach, family-friendly policies, changing political culture, the creation of a ‘Democracy Diversity Fund’, mentoring systems)10. In phase with the newly-created Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), it encompassed handicap and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic ) recruitment too. However, it stayed within the constraints of the existing system, and, following on from Jenkins, lay responsibility at the door of political parties. An extensive discussion of quotas showed remarkable consensus among the experts giving evidence, with only the Conservative Party and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes citing evidence against quotas.11 The Centre for Women and Democracy (CFWD), which participated in the consultation process, points out that it is the first time that a cross-party parliamentary body has accepted the need for quotas.

6Hence both issues - wider representation and electoral reform – had been thoroughly investigated and had been hovering on the Westminster agenda for a sustained period. Furthermore, as both are related to notions of fairness and renewal of the political elite, they enjoyed a degree of public approval in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal. Had they been coupled together they could arguably have been mutually reinforcing.

  • 12  Labour Party Manifesto, 2010, Democratic Reform, p. 9:1-9:6.
  • 13  Conservative Manifesto,  2010, Change politics p. 63-67. As regards representativity, the Manifest (...)
  • 14  Liberal Democrat Manifesto, 2010, p. 87-89.

7However, the Manifestos for the 2010 General Elections show that none of the major parties availed themselves of this opportunity. Labour did commit itself to the Speaker’s Conference recommendations on diversity and included AV in its platform12, whereas the Conservatives reaffirmed their support for first-past-the-post “because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with” (p. 67). They also pledged to reduce the number of MPs and redraw boundaries, as well as introducing an elected second chamber but made no mention whatsoever of women or ethnic minority representation13. The Liberal Democrats shared all of the Conservatives’ objectives but came out unequivocally in favour of STV. They did not mention the alternative vote14.

  • 15  Ashley, J., “Liberal Democrats trail far behind”, 30 April 2010.

8The common denominators for all three parties were the desire to ‘fix the broken system’, and improve the quality of representation by reducing sleaze, holding MPs to account, broadening the range of parties in parliament - but not the diversity of individuals within those parties. It was clear that the democratic deficit referred to how politics is to be conducted, not so much by whom, and this effectively sidelined issues of representativity. Furthermore as regards the future coalition partners’ attitudes to gender and electoral reform, the manifestos reveal a stark asymmetry: the Conservatives, tepid towards women, had nevertheless improved the proportion of female candidates (19% in 2005, 24% in 2010) but were hostile to AV, whereas the LibDems were hot on proportional representation, but have a record of indifference to women. They have only 12% female MPs in Westminster, fielded fewer women candidates in 2010 than in 2005 and their poor showing in Scotland derives from their failure to introduce any specific pro-women mechanisms15.

  • 16  The Hansard Society points out that only one of the SCPR’s recommendations on representation was i (...)

9Once the hung parliament had finally morphed into the Coalition government, the partners lost no time in moving forward on electoral reform, but the resulting compromise was limited to AV, not the proportional system favoured by the LibDems or the mixed system recommended by Jenkins. Significantly, the ‘Political Reform’ and ‘Equality’ Sections of the Coalition Agreement make no reference to women’s political representation16. Consequently gender was virtually written out of the script before the referendum got off the ground.

10By July, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (PVSC) had been drafted, linking the AV question with the reduction of the number of MPs. At the same time, a new body – the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) - was set up in the Commons and it immediately launched an enquiry, seeking submissions from a wide range of individuals and groups. Thirty-one such documents were appended to the Final Report, mainly from MPs, academics and various campaign groups. The only explicitly women-oriented group was the Fawcett Society, which presented a rigorous critique of the terms of the bill and of the PCRC call for evidence, highlighting the failure to address gender and equality despite the precedents of Jenkins and the Speaker’s Conference.

  • 17  House of Commons, PVSCB 24, 3 September 2010.

Fawcett is extremely disappointed that in addition to the Bill’s lack of reference to sex or gender, the scrutinizing committee itself makes no mention of the under-representation of women in both houses in its appeal for responses. Given the extreme nature of the deficit of female political representatives, it is imperative that any attempt to reform the political system addresses this issue directly17.

11One other submission mentioned women: the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER), like Fawcett, referred to the Speaker’s Conference, citing arguments from the Fabians and the Centre for Women and Democracy. Many groups complained of the time constraints imposed by the government which precluded in-depth discussion or revision of the bill.

12Overall then we can see that the issue of gender fell outside the scope of the PVSC Act, and that the AV referendum was framed in such a way that it was difficult to make the link with diversity and inclusion. The coalition partners had been able to agree on a referendum in reaction to the MPs expenses scandal and rising abstention rates, but their talk of improving the quality of representation was more linked to MPs accountability and integrity than questions of diversity and inclusion. This was to influence the conduct of the campaign.

The campaign – drowning in background noise

13The Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Act did not have a smooth passage through parliament. Up until February doubt remained over whether the legislation would pass in time to meet deadlines for organising the campaign at the same time as the May round of elections. In view of the fact that referenda are relatively rare and that AV is unfamiliar to the British public, the Electoral Commission – bearing in mind the confusion in the 2007 elections in Scotland – had already begun work on testing the wording of the question and preparing public information material in September, but everything was on hold until the legislation was finally passed by a whisker. When the campaign could take off the ground, it rapidly got bogged down in other controversies that drowned out sensible discussion of the main question, never mind any alternative narratives such as gender or ethnicity.

14The most serious controversy involved the scheduled date. The decision to hold the referendum on the same day as the devolved elections provoked a severe and vocal backlash, particularly in Scotland, where it was perceived as a slight to national dignity and a recipe for disaster in view of the 2007 debacle. And yet Scotland, where women’s movements had so successfully collaborated in the constitutional blueprint, and where inclusion has been embedded in the institutions and the electoral model could – or should - have served as an example. AV is certainly an inferior option in comparison to the Additional Member System used for Holyrood, but the antagonism over the clash of dates put paid to any prospect of the devolution experience being used in support of electoral reform. An example of how this issue deflected attention from the women’s angle was that when the Edinburgh MP Sheila Gilmore questioned David Cameron and Nick Clegg during the PCRC hearings, she grilled them on the timing of the elections, but didn’t raise women’s representation despite being a long-standing and committed feminist. The Scottish stooshie had the added effect of undermining the general perception of the referendum, as the parties were already bickering before the ink on the PVSC Act was dry. From this point, the opinion polls which had given a consistent lead to the ‘Yes’ camp at the beginning of the year began to slip.

  • 18  The Conservative and Unionist Party spent £660,785 against £62,782 for the Liberal Democrats. ‘Lab (...)
  • 19  The concern was such that the Charities Commission saw fit to update its guidance in January 2011.

15Divisions between and within parties began to crystallise and the issue of funding raised its head, further discrediting the idea of the referendum. The Labour Party indicated that it would remain neutral, but this did not prevent the creation of separate ‘Labour Yes’ and ‘Labour No to AV’ campaign groups. A ‘Conservative Yes’ group dared to raise its voice – and limited funds - but the majority of Conservatives had no compunction about fighting their allies, and resorted to unashamedly brazen tactics that threatened the Coalition. The ‘No2AV’ campaign was not forthcoming about the sources of its own funding at first but it accused the ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ campaign of receiving financial backing from charitable organisations – which are supposed to remain politically neutral. Their sights were set on major funding bodies (such as the Rowntree Reform Trust) but controversy over charitable status had collateral effects on smaller campaign groups. It was particularly invidious on two counts: on the one hand the breakdown of campaign spending released by the Electoral Commission after the event showed that the ‘No’ camp had spent considerably more than the ‘Yes’ Camp, and that the Conservative’s contributions dwarfed other party spending18. On the other hand, it had a disproportionate impact on the women’s movement as many of the groups which might have wanted to participate were charities which could not afford to take risks against a backdrop of massive budgetary cuts19.

  • 20  Hope and Prince,“Chris Huhne in Cabinet 'bust-up' with David Cameron”, 03 May 2011.

16A third controversy also involved money. The No campaign ran a series of adverts exaggerating the costs of AV and setting this ‘unnecessary’ expenditure against more worthy causes, illustrated with emotive pictures of premature babies needing incubators and soldiers made vulnerable in battle through lack of equipment. In the context of a reform intended to heal the damage of the expenses scandal, the space and energy devoted to finance seems rather paradoxical. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, summed it up aptly at a ‘No2AV’ rally: “For a referendum that is about the health of our democracy it is fair to say that the campaign has been a bit of a disappointment.”20

17If we look beyond the smokescreen at the mainstream parties’ substantive arguments, we find that they were totally blind to gender and ethnicity. When talking about representativity, their discourse hinged on party proportionality and pluralism NOT on descriptive representation. Likewise, when they talked about candidate calibre they focussed exclusively on integrity, hard work, accountability, NOT on enhanced access of women or BAME candidates.

18Were the campaign groups any better at focussing debate on the issue?

Campaign groups – more pressing priorities

  • 21  The ‘Take Back Parliament’ civic initiative held a surprisingly large inaugural rally on election (...)

19The combined effect of the uncertainty surrounding the PVSC Act and the funding issue left many campaign groups in limbo. Some of them had participated in the PCRC consultation and stated their case, but were reluctant to expend too much energy and scarce resources on an issue that may not even happen. However once Royal Assent was granted on February 16, they were ready to roll out their arguments. At the beginning of the year there was a proliferation of new websites which, despite adopting the colour purple, paid little attention to gender21. As time passed, they coalesced into shape, and in March the Electoral Commission nominated lead campaigners, a status that allows a consortium of interested parties to spend up to £5m and receive a public grant.

  • 22  This group – spending £21,782 – argued for proportional representation but made scant reference to (...)

20The ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ umbrella organisation designated as leader by the Electoral Commission, was a coalition between the Electoral Reform Society, Operation Black Vote, Unlock Democracy (which has superceded Charter88) and was supported by Compass, Ekklesia, the Muslim Council of Britain and Friends of the Earth. It also had party political support from the Greens, the LibDems, the Labour Yes campaign (despite the party’s official neutrality) and even the Conservative Yes campaign. ‘Yes to Fairer votes’ did not incorporate gender into its arguments. Nor did the ‘No 2 AV’ campaign. It was less transparent, federated fewer organisations but was better funded than the Yes campaign, as we have seen. Alongside the lead campaigner, there was the Conservative Party, ‘Labour No to AV’, and also a ‘No to AV, Yes to PR’ group22.

21No explicitly feminist or women’s groups registered with the Electoral Commission, but two had played a very active role in consultation: the Fawcett Society and the Centre for Women and Democracy. The former, as its title suggests, has a long history of research and action in support of women’s equality, whereas the CFWD is a more recent but equally dedicated organisation. They have no party affiliation, and they both produce thoroughly documented independent reports. Fawcett is a combination of watchdog, ombudsman and think-tank with particular expertise in how UK equality provision works. The CFWD, a much younger organisation set up in 2007, provides grassroots training in addition to campaign and research work. Both argue for the introduction of PR, but, in line with Jenkins and the Speaker’s Conference they are adamant that a mechanical change is not enough in itself to achieve satisfactory results, because the real problem is political parties’ selection procedures. They have developed a whole raft of proposals concerning changes to internal procedures along the lines of all-women shortlists and ‘fuzzy’ proposals such as the Democracy Diversity Fund mentioned above, which was initially formulates by CFWD.

22Both Fawcett and the CFWD engaged actively in the campaign, but neither presented AV as a solution to the problem. They tried to use the campaign as a platform to air more radical proposals on gender and politics, and to at least establish that gender should become an integral part of electoral debate, as demonstrated by Fawcett’s evidence to the PCRC (September 2010):

  • 23  House of Commons Select Committee Publications, Written evidence submitted by the Fawcett Society (...)

We propose that the link between electoral systems and the gender balance of parliament should be examined and discussed publicly—as something the general public have a right to be informed of before participating in the referendum. All electoral systems contain inherent biases which can affect the selection process, and contribute to the representativeness of parliament. They may also offer particular opportunities to introduce positive action measures to improve the balance of male and female MPs. There must be full and open discussion of these issues surrounding the referendum to enable the electorate to make a fully informed choice23.

23This message was drowned out by all the background noise, however.

  • 24  NAWO, set up in 1989, is a charitable umbrella organisation linking 100 members in the UK and liai (...)

24Many other women’s groups sought to inform the public, commented on the referendum, or simply deplored the inadequacy of the options on offer, but very few took the issue up or came out firmly either way. The AV page on the website of the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO) is fairly typical of the balanced, middle-of-the-road approach, setting out the case for and against, but leaving readers to draw their own conclusions, with the punch line: ‘It’s your decision but don’t forget to vote’.24 This approach encapsulates the difficulty women’s groups faced in trying to muster arguments in favour of the ‘miserable little compromise’ as David Cameron dubbed it, because there is indeed scant evidence that AV could make any gender difference at all. The excerpt below shows how difficult it was make a case for AV:

  • 25  Ibid, Elizabeth Sidney’s statement.

Would AV help more women to enter Parliament? Peter Facey, Director of Unlock Democracy, says not much, as there is no certainty that women will secure more first or second votes. But optimists see reasons why it could help quite a lot. .... AV should introduce a more nuanced campaign with more awareness of potential consensus. Although AV will not sweep aside the prejudices which the Fawcett Society finds still beset women candidates, it could shake up long-established rigidities and start sensible reforms25.

25This illustrates the main reason why women’s groups didn’t engage with AV. They were hard put to find representation arguments in favour of AV, because there is no evidence to say it would help. Australia, the example often cited for AV, may currently have a woman PM, and is a pioneer in state feminism but the proportion of women in the House of Representatives is still only 24.7%, compared with 35.5% in the Senate elected by STV26. The difficulty in formulating the argument was compounded by the fact that Equality legislation was in the process of being amended (see below), so the technocratic/legal challenges that Fawcett tried to mount were ineffective. At best one could hope for indirect, long-term benefits or possibly more change in the future, but there was little prospect of concrete, immediate improvement.

26There are several other explanations for the lack of women’s movement engagement in AV, largely connected with timing. In autumn 2010, when the consultation process was in full swing, the Coalition axe was also in full swing. The voluntary sector was struggling to cope with the cuts, and was more concerned with sheer survival than abstract hypotheses, so many women’s groups chose to invest energy and resources in areas that were more urgent in the short-term. Financial fears were also fanned by the threats to charitable status. By spring, when the AV campaign got under way, women’s groups were mobilising for the TUC-sponsored ‘March for the Alternative’ event on March 26th, federating into a women’s bloc.Finally all this was happening in a context of profound changes in ‘state feminism’ – the apparatus put in place to mediate with women’s groups and equality issues.

Equality and state feminism – in transition

27Since the UN Decade for Women in 1975, women’s policy agencies have become an integral part of the dialogue between formal politics and civil society worldwide, but in Britain the wilderness years of Conservative rule were difficult. 1997 marked a watershed on three counts. Firstly, New Labour created the post of Minister for Women (filled by Harriet Harman) to mainstream equality throughout government and to put teeth into their pledges on women’s rights. (Harman’s tenure was not without controversy, but the Ministry has been maintained continuously for the past 15 years, transmuting into the Ministry for Women and Equalities.) Secondly, under the Amsterdam Treaty equality provision for decision-making bodies became an EU issue. And last but not least, the successful integration of gender into the devolution process, particularly in Scotland, demonstrated what could be achieved by including feminism in the equation. When Scottish women transformed the ‘democratic deficit’ into the ‘double democratic deficit’, both strands of the movement – feminist and nationalist – reaped greater legitimacy, and Holyrood subsequently served as an example of alternative methods. Hence the turn of the century was a constructive period for state feminism. However, after some years of empirical growth, there was a need to consolidate and restructure.

28Change began in 2006, when (in accordance with EU requirements) the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission were merged into an Equality and Human Rights Commission. Although the aim was to join up the different strands of disadvantage this repackaging of diverse rights sparked fears that each would be watered down, and women’s equality was seen to be particularly at risk.

29A new streamlined Equality Act, intended as the legislative arm of the EHRC, was passed in April 2010 and its provisions were phased in from October of that year through to April 2011. It replaced and harmonised the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) and a range of equality laws, but some argue that it weakens protection. And in any case, the consultation process on AV coincided with the period of limbo when the SDA was winding down and the Equality Act was not fully in force. This made it difficult to mount a technocratic case against AV. The Fawcett Society, in its submission to the PCRC in September 2011, invoked the Gender Equality Duty of the SDA, and yet the SDA was soon to disappear from the statute book.

30The legislative void was compounded by an institutional vacuum. The Women’s National Commission (WNC), a national non-partisan umbrella organisation set up in 1969 to ‘present the views of women to government’ was wound down at the end of December 2010 because of budget cuts, and its functions were transferred to the Government Equalities Office (GEO) in the Home Office. The WNC was not renowned for being radical or feminist, but was a low-key effective network for transmitting grassroots issues and attitudes upwards to government. It was not a campaigning body but a quango channelling women’s voices – from no less than 670 partners - into ministerial ears (for many years it was co-chaired by women from civil society and high-flying women politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Barbara Castle in the 70s)27. Its demise was symptomatic of the general disarray of women’s groups. Although many other voices are emerging – Fabiana, Shevolution, Women’s Resource Centre, the F word – the WNC played a pivotal role of coordination on the margins of Whitehall. Its absorption into the GEO severs a vital link, irrespective of how sincere the new women ministers, Theresa May and Lynne Featherstone, may be. It is unlikely that the WNC would have federated AV protagonists but its fate illustrates the general disarray of women’s actors in the voluntary sector, and the ‘fatal embrace’ of state feminism whereby women’s groups in civil society risk losing autonomy as the executive assumes greater responsibility for – and therefore control over – equality provision.

31The reconfiguration of women’s movement actors and their institutional partners meant that the AV referendum campaign happened in a vacuum that made concerted and audible action difficult.


32The coalition project for reforming elections to the House of Commons did not provide an opportunity to enhance women’s representation primarily because the choice of system imposed by the Conservatives and accepted by the Liberal Democrats afforded little scope for enhancing diversity. It is surprising that this choice was made despite clear warnings from authoritative inside sources (the Jenkins Commission, the Speaker’s Conference): it is perhaps symptomatic of the subordination of the issue of wider representation to party political concerns. The maintenance of the AV option is also indicative of the limitations of Westminster power: during legislative scrutiny parliament failed to take its own advice. Moreover, once launched, the AV referendum did not serve as a platform to focus the debate on gender and inclusion.

33There were several contextual reasons for this – the bonfire of the quangos, the Scottish imbroglio, budget cuts, obsession with purging the stain of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the controversy over charity funding, the restructuring of women’s policy agencies – many of which derive from the timing of the referendum. The gender implications of electoral reform largely fell victim to timing. The haste with which such a complex and ‘un-British’ issue was rushed to the public within the first year of a coalition set on change undoubtedly impacted on the referendum’s delivery. What lessons can be learned from the failure to address gender? How could the outcome have been different?

34We have seen that the gender implications were flagged in advance by insider sources and by some outside agencies, but crucially this was not taken on board when the electoral project was being framed. Had the Liberal Democrats been sensitive to the way in which devolution and feminism had joined forces in Scotland, they may have been able to push for a more proportional option with the Conservatives in the Coalition Agreement. Adding wider representation into the equation could have lent greater legitimacy to their cause, and won over more support from the public who were initially well-disposed to reform, as witness the ‘Take Back Parliament’ rallies in May 2010, and the favourable opinion polls in early 2011.

35There was certainly inadequate integration of electoral and feminist campaign groups which tended to run in parallel rather than in partnership. Moves are already afoot to remedy this, which suggests that some of civic actors were aware of this shortcoming. Within a fortnight of the AV referendum four major campaign groups - the Fawcett Society, the Hansard Society, the Electoral Reform Society and the Centre for Women and Democracy - joined together in a new coalition called ‘Counting Women In’ to address the lack of women in politics. Their first purpose is to try to influence reform of the House of Lords. The synergy that could arguably have helped make the AV referendum into a debate about principled issues of representation is apparently starting to emerge. The tone of their launch statement suggests that they are moving into a more combative phase:

We believe the under representation of women in Westminster, the devolved assemblies,  and town halls around the UK represents a democratic deficit that undermines the legitimacy of decisions made in these chambers. Together, we will be fighting to ensure women have an equal presence and voice within our democratic system.28.

36It remains to be seen whether they will be any more effective.

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Ashley, J., “Policy shouldn't be decided by those who shout loudest”, The Guardian, 17/10/2011,

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Additional Member System


Alternative Vote


Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic


Centre for Women and Democracy


Equality and Human Rights Commission


Electoral Reform Society


First Past the Post


Government Equalities Office


Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform


Political and Constitutional Reform Committee


Political Voting System and Constituencies Act


Sex Discrimination Act


Women’s National Commission

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1  This puts the UK 49th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranking,, as of 30 November 2011.

2  McMillan, J. & Fox, R., 2010, Appendix 1. The figures were 34.9% & 41.7% after the 2011 elections held with the AV referendum.

3  Lovenduski, J., 2005, p. 218-219, Molinari, V., 2005, p.35-7.

4  House of Lords Constitution Committee, 2011, Chapter 1.

5  Since the first elections held under MMP in 1996, the percentage of women elected has hovered around 30%. In the referendum on the electoral system held in November 2011, continued use of MMP was approved by 57%.

6  Jenkins, R. et al, Terms of reference, 1998.

7  Ibid, Chapter 3, §39.

8  Parliamentary Research Paper 98/112,1998 p. 20.

9  Terms of reference cited in the House of Commons, Final report, 2010.  Of the 16 appointees, 9 were women.

10  CFWD Enewsletter 57, accessed 27/07/11.

11  In addition to evidence from abroad, the Fawcett Society, the Centre for Women and Democracy, the  Women’s National Commission, Lesley Abdela from Shevolution all favoured quotas or highlighted selection barriers, and  even the Hansard Society which is traditionally non-interventionist,  recommended “prescriptive rather than permissive legislation”.

12  Labour Party Manifesto, 2010, Democratic Reform, p. 9:1-9:6.

13  Conservative Manifesto,  2010, Change politics p. 63-67. As regards representativity, the Manifesto pledged a £1 million fund (taken out of existing GEO budget) to support disabled candidates, but doesn’t mention women.  Theresa May’s Contract for Equalities does tackle ethnic under-representation: “When David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives more than four years ago, he set out to reverse the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the party. There are, for example, 43 Black and Asian Parliamentary candidates standing for the party this week. And if we win, with even a small majority, we would have at least 15 Conservative MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds – more than any party has today”, p. 2.

14  Liberal Democrat Manifesto, 2010, p. 87-89.

15  Ashley, J., “Liberal Democrats trail far behind”, 30 April 2010.

16  The Hansard Society points out that only one of the SCPR’s recommendations on representation was included, and that concerned disability not gender.  See Fox, R., 2012, p. 13.

17  House of Commons, PVSCB 24, 3 September 2010.

18  The Conservative and Unionist Party spent £660,785 against £62,782 for the Liberal Democrats. ‘Labour Yes’ reported no spending, while ‘Labour No to AV’ declared £192,084.  The total spent on the ‘Yes’ campaign was £2¼ m, against £3½ m for ‘No’. Electoral Commission News releases, 31/08/2011 &  29/11/2011.

19  The concern was such that the Charities Commission saw fit to update its guidance in January 2011.

20  Hope and Prince,“Chris Huhne in Cabinet 'bust-up' with David Cameron”, 03 May 2011.

21  The ‘Take Back Parliament’ civic initiative held a surprisingly large inaugural rally on election night and used a purple index finger as their emblem.  The preponderance of the colour (suggested by Billy Bragg) is evident on their early webpage and on video reports of the May rallies (see (add link).

22  This group – spending £21,782 – argued for proportional representation but made scant reference to gendered implications.

23  House of Commons Select Committee Publications, Written evidence submitted by the Fawcett Society (PVSCB 24), 3 September 2010.

24  NAWO, set up in 1989, is a charitable umbrella organisation linking 100 members in the UK and liaising with the European Women’s Lobby.  The protagonists were the late Elizabeth Sidney, a long-standing LibDem feminist activist, and Monica Threlfall, Reader in European politics, London Metropolitan University:, 8th February 2011.

25  Ibid, Elizabeth Sidney’s statement.

26  Inter-Parliamentary Union:, as of 02/10/2011.

27  For the WNC’s functions and history: WNC Legacy document accessible at; Ashley, J., Policy shouldn't be decided by those who shout loudest, The Guardian, 17/10/2011.

28  17/05/2011,, accessed 27/07/11.

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Manda Green, « Is UK electoral reform missing the G-spot? The case of AV referendum », Observatoire de la société britannique, 12 | 2012, 155-173.

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Manda Green, « Is UK electoral reform missing the G-spot? The case of AV referendum », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 12 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 août 2013, consulté le 24 juin 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1336

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Manda Green

Maître de conférences à l'Université Lyon 2 Lumière

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Observatoire de la société britannique

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