Friday, July 8, 2016

Is descriptive representation of women enough?

This essay was originally submitted in January 2015 as coursework for my Politics degree.

How much success has the Labour Party had in terms of representing women and promoting feminism in British politics?

There is a perceived apathy from the electorate towards mainstream politics, evidenced by the low general election turnouts of recent years and the rise of protests such as Occupy and Russell Brand’s anarcho-syndicalist views. One solution to this urgent problem is to look towards improving representation and addressing the issues that voters find to be most important. There has also been a recent revival of feminism, which suggests that the electorate - over half of which is female - would be reinvigorated by an increase in the representation of women and their interests in mainstream politics. To answer the question of how successful the Labour Party has been in terms of representing women and promoting feminism in British politics, this essay will be divided into two parts. 

The first part will analyse the representation of women in parliament using Pitkin’s concept of ‘descriptive representation’ (1967). I will proceed to assess the arguments against this type of representation and the measures employed by the Labour Party, paying particular attention to the controversial All-Women Shortlists. Part One also reviews the benefits of increased female representation from an electoral perspective, with help from the groundwork laid by Norris (1996) and the think tank Demos (Diplock and Wilkinson, 1997: 6). Part Two of the essay examines the Labour Party’s success in promoting feminism through policy by applying the lens of ‘substantive representation’ (Piktin, 1967). This will entail scrutiny of the opposing assertions that female Labour MPs are “attitudinally feminist” and that ‘Blair’s Babes’ were “spineless” (Childs, 2001;   Cowley and Childs, 2003). This essay argues that, with caveats, the Labour Party has made significant advancements in representing women but its promotion of feminism has been inadequate.

Part One: Representation

This essay will begin by assessing the Labour Party’s success in terms of representing women. In order to investigate this topic, we must first explore why representation is important. British political parties operate in a representative democracy, yet structural inequalities hinder the democratic value of this system. The outcome is that a patriarchal society produces a legislature dominated by men. One solution to this duplication of inequality is the notion of ‘descriptive representation’, otherwise named ‘the politics of presence’ (Pitkin, 1967; Phillips, 1995). This response, which advocates the use of institutional means such as quotas to reduce representational elitism, will be the focus of Part One. Descriptive representation has the advantage of being “intuitively appealing” in its common-sense understanding that “people who are disadvantaged by structural inequalities should be represented by people who share their positions of disadvantage” (Hayward, 2009: 114). This analysis is largely shared by social justice activists as ‘representation matters’ has become a slogan in feminist circles.

However, this answer is not evident to all, as opponents of proportionality make the case that “[a] representation is never a replica” (Pitkin, 1967: 66). Pitkin further criticises descriptive representation by noting that its proponents and those who favour proportional representation overlook “political action” and view the legislature as “passive” (1967: 64). This line of reasoning seems flawed due to its assumption that those who seek more accurate representation do not do so as means to effect change in political action. Genuine representation of minority groups or those who are oppressed, such as women, is regarded as important precisely to address women’s issues and introduce women’s perspectives on political concerns generally (Lovenduski, 2005: 19). Research by the Fawcett Society in 1996 showed that while both men and women prioritised the economy, women paid particular attention to “part-time work, low pay and pension rights” (Lovenduski, 1997: 709). This provides evidence that women can bring underrepresented perspectives to general political issues, which would indeed mean representation translating into political action. It seems that Pitkin’s critique of proportionalists is not applicable to those who seek to increase the representation of women in parliament.

One may conclude that representation is crucial to bringing women’s issues and perspectives into politics. Nonetheless, it must also be important to the Labour Party itself if we are to expect the party to implement specific measures. It is evident that taking steps to encourage female Labour candidates is likely to contribute to the Labour Party’s “modern and progressive” image (Cutts, Childs & Fieldhouse, 2008: 576). Potentially, motivation for improving female representation may be provided by the electoral benefits of appealing to women’s political interests. The Conservative Party have lost much of the ‘female vote’ recently despite women being more likely to vote Conservative traditionally - until 1979, the gender gap in voting was significantly in their favour (Norris, 1996: 335). This presents an electoral opportunity for Labour, particularly as women form  the majority of floating voters and have a higher voter turn-out (Diplock and Wilkinson, 1997: 6). It has been argued that improved representation was effective in securing women’s votes in 1997 for the Labour Party (Annesley and Gains, 2014). It seems that the representation of women must be prioritised in the run up to May 2015.

Although the 2010 general election supposedly did feature women’s issues prominently, having been dubbed the ‘Mumsnet election’ by The Times, this assessment would seem inaccurate. This is partly due to the lack of significant roles given to accomplished, frontbench female politicians such as Theresa May and Harriet Harman. “The leaders’ debates were all-male events which further sidelined women politicians and did not address women’s issues. […] Attempts to ‘woo’ women were an add-on to the campaign proper and the politicking was a largely male affair” (Campbell, 2012: 703). This “add-on” approach is insufficient and suggests that the Labour Party’s success in allowing or encouraging Labour women to appear at the forefront of mainstream politics has been limited. It can be deduced from Campbell’s remarks that Labour should consider creating platforms for female politicians, rather than solely participating in all-male events such as the leaders’ debates, and generally being more pro-active in emphasising women. This would distance the party from the ‘male, pale and stale’ impression of frontline party politics.

Perrigo (1996) delineates the incentivisation of the Labour Party to address gender issues, which began in 1979 when feminists joined the party and successfully mobilised during a crisis period. Labour ended the 1979 election with just 11 women MPs despite putting up 52 women candidates (Hills, 1981: 23). Hills gives a simple explanation for this: female candidates were generally not placed in safe seats, or even marginal ones. It would appear that the Labour Party’s “organisation, traditional alliances and culture all played a part in perpetuating this male domination” (Perrigo, 1996: 118). The history of the party was shaped by male unionised workers who were seen as “the model of the political activist”, while the conservative image of women as wives and mothers persisted. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 created a new area of competition between the parties and helped force Labour to confront its culture of masculinity and stagnant position on women in politics.

To change these structural hindrances for women, Labour introduced several women’s committees and the Labour Women’s Action Committee (LWAC) materialised, the latter demanding that there be at least one woman on every parliamentary candidate shortlist (Perrigo, 1996). The Labour Party had even created a new cabinet position for female politicians by 1995, the Shadow Minister for Women, which was continued by the Conservative Party. Although the incumbent Minister for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan, may not actively pursue feminist policy, the creation of the post has had a lasting impact and Labour has succeeded in forging an enduring legacy. The LWAC’s call for quotas has been expanded by the party and now takes the form of All-Women Shortlists (AWS). In 1992, women occupied 9.2% of the seats in the House of Commons, whereas after the 2010 election women made up an unprecedented 22% of MPs (Baston, 2010: 36). Labour has “both the largest number and percentage of women MPs”, largely thanks to AWS (Ashe et al, 2010). These figures show that the party has succeeded in increasing women’s representation in Parliament.

“After the 1992 election a series of meetings were held to discuss the problem of the ‘vanishing women’. In the main, politicians blamed the media and the media blamed the politicians” (Diplock and Wilkinson, 1997: 7). This demonstrates the import of definite change being implemented, as the Labour Party’s actions in reshaping candidate selections did, to avoid the blame being shifted and the problem remaining unacknowledged. The Conservatives have failed in this respect. Cameron announced the introduction of their own AWS at the Speaker’s Conference, saying “the central party provides the shortlist to the association and it's my intention that if we continue as we are, that some of those shortlists will indeed be all-women shortlists”, yet there were none (Ashe et al, 2010). We must credit the Labour Party for following through where their competition has not. However, the AWS solution has come under attack. The media coverage regarding AWS in 2005 focussed on the Welsh constituency Blaenau Gwent, usually a Labour safe seat, where Labour Welsh Assembly Member Peter Law ran as an Independent candidate in protest against AWS and won. “This is what happens when you don’t listen”, Law declared (Cutts, Childs & Fieldhouse, 2008). Although this narrative was seized by the media, Cutts, Childs and Fieldhouse did not discover AWS to have been detrimental to the Party’s electoral chances elsewhere. 

Although Labour’s AWS were a bold reform, comparisons have been made between their effectiveness and that of quotas elsewhere. Through the use of similar measures, Sweden increased its proportion of female Parliamentarians from 14% in 1970 to 47% in 2008, while in the UK this figure rose from 9% to 20% over the same period (Krook, 2010: 107-108). Krook neglects to mention that an important factor for this is that, in the UK, only the Labour Party has adopted a clear course of action out of the three main parties, whereas several parties have implemented quotas in Sweden. This leads to the conclusion that Labour has been successful albeit its British counterparts have not. Elsewhere, Krook does convincingly propose that other quota strategies have been more suitable, such as the “twinning” and “zipping” seen in Scotland and Wales, which proved effective after AWS were ruled illegal in 1996. These both “conformed to reigning principles of equality” and were “tailored by individual parties to particular aspects of the mixed electoral system” (Krook, 2010: 133). 

Other objections levelled at AWS are more substantive. It is necessary to include the concept of ‘intersectionality’ first formed by KimberlĂ© Crenshaw (1989), which has become a key tenet of feminism, in our analysis of female representation. This theory establishes the importance of recognising the multiple axes of oppression that many women face, as typically “in sex discrimination cases, the focus is on race- and class-privileged women” (Crenshaw, 1989: 57). This intersectional lens proves useful as the problem has been highlighted by ethnic minority women in politics. Diane Abbott was the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Commons and an early supporter of AWS, yet commented: 
In the 1980s and 1990s, I was also a strong supporter of the campaign to get more women MPs in parliament. We succeeded in getting the Labour party to adopt the (controversial) policy of all-women shortlists. But, of all the women elected to parliament in 1997 on that system, not a single one was black. It seemed that "more women in parliament" meant "more white women”. (Abbott, 2008)
Research into the lack of Black and minority ethnic (BME) candidates, analysed using the framework of the “glass cliff”, has shown that “for ethnicity as for gender, equality in political representation of the U.K. population has not been achieved” (Kulich, Ryan and Haslam, 2014). We may conclude from these findings that the Labour Party has been moderately successful in terms of  increasing representation of women, but there is more to be done. Policies for the inclusion of more BME candidates - and BME women particularly, who encounter oppression on diverse levels - may be further investigated.

Part Two: Feminism

This essay will address the Labour Party’s success in promoting feminism in Part Two. In ‘The Concept of Representation’ (1967), Pitkin establishes four types of representation: authorised; descriptive; symbolic; and substantive. This essay intends to apply two of these categories to the Labour Party’s political relationship with women - descriptive, as seen in Part One, and substantive. The latter type can be described as “where the representative seeks to advance a group's policy preferences and interests” (Childs and Lovenduski, 2013), which is pertinent to the extent of Labour’s success in promoting feminism if we are to consider feminism the policy preference and interest of the female electorate. While I have considered Pitkin’s criticism of descriptive  representation overall outdated and irrelevant to the contemporary difficulty of representing women, we must nonetheless recognise the necessity for descriptive representation to accompany, or lead to, substantive representation.

Childs (2001) investigated whether the new Labour MPs were “attitudinally feminist” and contributed to the women’s substantive representation, or whether they were merely descriptive in their presence. This research was likely to have been prompted by the accusations of inactivity and weakness levelled at the 1997 intake of female Labour MPs. The use of AWS was called into question by other women; one long-serving Labour woman MP was quoted as seeing the behaviour of the new MPs as a “betrayal” of AWS and found the 65 new returns “very depressing” (Cowley and Childs, 2003: 345). However, research into the attitudes of the MPs in question revealed that over two-thirds of them self-identified as feminists and many of the rest were reluctant to adopt the label despite subscribing to the general principles of feminism (Childs, 2001). This led Childs to conclude that the presence of women would indeed lead to substantive representation, as proposed by Phillips in ‘The Politics of Presence’ (1995). 

On the other hand, the fact that New Labour’s women MPs were distinctly absent from the rebel ranks cannot be ignored. Only 17% of the newly elected Labour women voted against the whip, which can be measured against the figure of 44% for the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party (Cowley and Childs, 2003: 349). Cowley and Childs (2003) rejected numerous explanations for this - including those based on sex, the MPs’ novelty and AWS - yet neither could they explain away the differences. Their research observed that the MPs’ own justifications were primarily that: a) women had a different, more cohesive style of politics, and b) women perceived the cost of disloyalty as greater than others did. While the reasons given may stem from understandable disparities in approach or perception, which are themselves produced by patriarchy’s female socialisation, the effects are nevertheless unsettling. The most striking case was that of the reduction in lone parent benefit, a policy that would be regarded by many as anti-feminist, where just one of the 47 rebels was a newly elected woman. Although Childs (2001) successfully disproved much of the essentialist criticism directed towards the female MPs, this instance would indicate that, contrary to Childs’ work (2002), Labour women did fail to represent female voters substantially.


The concepts of ‘descriptive’ and ‘substantive’ representation developed by Pitkin (1967) have framed this essay and helped to distinguish representing women and promoting feminism. Pitkin’s dismissal of descriptive representation assumed the represented to be male and was found not be applicable to women’s representation currently. It has been established that female perspectives differ from that of men (Lovenduski 1997; 2005); increased representation has been and is likely to remain electorally rewarding (Cutts, Childs & Fieldhouse, 2008; Diplock and Wilkinson, 1997; Annesley and Gains, 2014); and the 2010 election was a “male affair” (Campbell, 2012). These arguments amalgamate in the judgement that the Labour Party would benefit from constructing spaces for women in politics. Part One also delineated the party’s trajectory in terms of female representation and the changes it has made to dismantle the structural impediments for women (Hills, 1981; Perrigo, 1996). These include All-Women Shortlists, which were analysed regarding the Blaenau Gwent difficulties; the comparative success such quotas have experienced elsewhere (Krook, 2010); and the lack of BME women promoted in AWS (Abbott, 2008; Kulich, Ryan and Haslam, 2014).

Part Two interpreted ‘promoting feminism’ as a form of substantive representation. This involved reviewing findings that female MPs considered themselves ‘attitudinally feminist’ (Childs, 2001), as well as the claims - and subsequent rebuttals - that these women were ‘spineless’ (Cowley and Childs, 2003; Childs, 2002). I found that the lack of rebellion in the lone parent benefit case was sufficiently damaging to Childs’ argument, however. It is significant that the academia on this subject is confined to a relatively small number of female academics - most notably Childs (2001; 2002; 2003; 2008; 2010; 2013) and Lovenduski (1997; 2005; 2013). Childs herself notes the lack of research concerning the “feminised impact of women’s political presence” (2001: 183). There are many unexplored areas within the topic of feminism and the Labour Party; an investigation into whether women voters deem female politicians to represent them substantively as well as descriptively, for instance, would be revealing. To conclude, the Labour Party has been more successful than other British political parties in terms of representing women descriptively, although could be taking this further, yet the new female MPs have been insufficiently robust in their feminist influence over legislation and policy and the party’s promotion of it is limited.


Abbott, D. (2008) “A race against time”, [online] The Guardian. [Accessed 30 December 2014].

Annesley, C. and Gains, F. (2014) “Can Cameron Capture Women's Votes? The Gendered Impediments to a Conservative Majority in 2015”, Parliamentary Affairs, 67 (4), pp. 767-782.

Ashe, J., Campbell, R., Childs, S. and Evans, E. (2010) “‘Stand by your man’: Women's political recruitment at the 2010 UK general election”, British Politics, 5 (4), pp. 455-480.

Baston, L. (2010) “The UK General Election 2010: In-depth”, Electoral Reform Society. [Accessed 30 December 2014].

Campbell, R. (2012) “What Do We Really Know about Women Voters? Gender, Elections and Public Opinion”, The Political Quarterly, 83 (4), pp. 703-710.

Childs, S. (2001) “‘Attitudinally Feminist?’ The New Labour Women MPs and the Substantive Representation of Women”, Politics, 21 (3), pp. 178–185.

Childs, S. (2002) “Hitting the Target: Are Labour Women MPs 'Acting for' Women?”, Parliamentary Affairs, 55 (1), pp. 143-153.

Childs, S. and Lovenduski, J. (2013) “Political Representation” from Waylen, G., Celis, K., Kantola, J. and Weldon, L. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cowley, P. and Childs, S. (2003) “Too Spineless to Rebel? New Labour's Women MPs”, British Journal of Political Science, 33 (3), pp. 345-365. 
Crenshaw, K. (1989) “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum. pp. 139-167.
Cutts, D., Childs, S. and Fieldhouse, E. (2008) “‘This is What Happens When You Don’t Listen': All-Women Shortlists at the 2005 General Election”, Party Politics, 14 (5), pp. 575–595.

Diplock, S. and Wilkinson, H. (1997) “Soft sell or hard policies? How can the parties best appeal to women?”. [Accessed 29 December 2014].

Hayward, C. R. (2009) “Making interest: on representation and democratic legitimacy” from  Shapiro, I., Stokes, S. C., Wood, E. J. and Kirshner, A. S. (eds) Political Representation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hills, J. (1981) “Britain” from Lovenduski, J. and Hills, J. (eds) The Politics of the Second Electorate: Women and Public Participation. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Krook, M. L. (2010) Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kulich, C., Ryan, M. K. and Haslam, S. A. (2014) “The Political Glass Cliff: Understanding How Seat Selection Contributes to the Underperformance of Ethnic Minority Candidates”, Political Research Quarterly, 67 (1), pp. 84-95.

Lovenduski, J. (2005) Feminising Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lovenduski, J. (1997) “Gender Politics: A Breakthrough for Women?”, Parliamentary Affairs, 50 (4), pp. 708-719.

Norris, P. (1996) “Mobilising the ‘Women’s Vote’: The Gender-Generation Gap in Voting Behaviour”, Parliamentary Affairs, 49 (2), pp. 333-342.

Perrigo, S. (1996) “Women and Change in the Labour Party 1979-1995”, Parliamentary Affairs, 49 (1), pp. 116-129.
Pearson, A. and Rogers, R. (2014) “Riding The New Wave: Feminism and the Labour Party”. [Accessed 29 December 2014].
Phillips, A. (1995) The Politics of Presence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pitkin, H. F. (1967) The Concept of Representation. London: University of California Press.

No comments: