Mr. Cameron: why not quotas?

By Alex Paul

In July, nine months before the next UK General Election, Prime Minister David Cameron reshuffled his Cabinet. In what was dubbed a cull of “old men for new women,” out went a number of senior MPs, including former Foreign Secretary William Hague, and in came their younger counterparts, including several female MPs in their first term in Parliament. This led The Economist to argue that the reshuffle was not “designed to create a stronger government” and that the promotion of several women in particular suggested “the prime minister’s thoughts are already on the campaign trail.”

So what does the reshuffle say about the role of women in UK politics? Did Cameron promote female MPs simply because he believes they are the best candidates for the job? Or are there other factors at play?

From their political records, it could be said that the women are at the Cabinet table are there on merit alone. Theresa May is still the highest-ranking woman in the UK Government, having been Home Secretary since 2010. While the position has traditionally been seen as a poisoned chalice in UK politics, May has successfully handled several major challenges and is now being talked about as a future Conservative leader. Meanwhile, the two women promoted to full Cabinet posts, Liz Truss and Nicky Morgan, have earned their promotion as a result of their records in more junior ministerial postings. Maybe the ulterior motive behind their promotions is to get rid of their unpopular predecessors before the General Election. Increasing the diversity of the Government is simply a welcome bonus.

Nevertheless, the upcoming election is a fact that cannot be ignored. Certainly, it must have weighed heavily on Cameron’s mind as he contemplated where to place the new ministers. Critics have alleged that this is just tokenism at its worst, claiming that Cameron and his advisors hope the promotion of women will help the Conservatives win in 2015. Indeed, polls suggest this tactic might work, with one post-reshuffle survey indicating that 59 per cent regarded the moves as a “step in the right direction” for the Conservatives.

Regardless of whether the reshuffle was a cynical move or not by a Prime Minister looking to boost the diversity of his Government, the fact that there are only five women present at the Cabinet table is indicative of a wider truth: Westminster is still dominated by white males. Female parliamentarians make up just 23 per cent of the House of Commons, which places the UK 65th in the world for percentage of women in parliament – below the likes of Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe and Cuba. Having 30 per cent of Cabinet posts filled by women might be an improvement on the pre-reshuffle figure of 15 per cent, but it is still woefully inadequate.

Increasing the diversity and percentage of women in UK politics is therefore a must. Changes to make the electoral system more proportional (it is currently a first-past-the-post system) would help, especially if results from the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments are anything to go by (both legislatures use the additional member system.) Currently, the number of female representatives is at 40 per cent in the Welsh Assembly and 35 per cent in the Scottish Parliament – admittedly the lowest levels respectively for these two bodies in their histories – but still significantly higher than Westminster.

A more successful step though would be the introduction of quotas. They may be unpopular, but evidence indicates they work. The UN’s World’s Women 2010report found that, worldwide, “gender quotas… have helped increase the representation of women in parliament” and in 2009, “women comprised on average 21 per cent of parliamentarians in countries that used gender quotas, compared to an average of 13 per cent in countries that did not.” (p.116)

Sweden is a case in point. After the two main parties introduced quotas in 1972 the proportion of women in parliament increased from 14 to 45 per cent. While some oversight is required to ensure parties place female candidates in winnable seats, on the whole quotas are successful. It encourages political parties to actively recruit women and ensures that there is a critical mass of women elected to the parliament, altering political culture and norms.

The reshuffle demonstrates how, in UK politics, women parliamentarians are still underrepresented at all decision-making levels. And it is simply not good enough to expect Parliament to become more diverse by itself. Active steps are required to push this process forward. The implementation of a quota of 40{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} female candidates for all major Westminster parties would significantly alter the culture of Westminster in the space of just one or two elections. Otherwise how can the UK expect to be taken seriously by other countries when it talks about the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment if its own house is in such disorder?

AlexPaul_WIIS Profile pictureAlex Paul is a WIIS Program Assistant. He has just completed a Masters’ in International Relations at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, New York. His research focuses on security provision and reform in post-conflict states.

Photo credit: Eric Hossinger, “Houses of Parliament at dusk, London, UK” accessed at: