Those who cry foul over the lack of women in top political jobs are relying on faulty logicby / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Sayeeda Warsi, on the right, is one of the most prominent symbols of Cameron’s Tory revolution. Her picture on the steps of No 10, dressed in a salwar kameez, graced the pages of several papers after the government’s first cabinet meeting. As Britain’s first female Muslim cabinet minister she is evidence of the inclusiveness of big society Conservatism. However, you won’t find her in the House of Commons. Having failed to become an MP in the 2005 election, she was appointed two years later as the youngest life peer in the Lords. The move was taken as a tacit admission that her party was unlikely to find her a safe seat.
Warsi’s story encapsulates the dilemmas of those seeking more equal representation in politics. Many were frustrated both by the election results and David Cameron’s first cabinet. Female MPs have risen from 126 to 142, but that is still less than a quarter of the total. Only four cabinet ministers are women and Warsi is the only non-white. Black and ethnic minority MPs have almost doubled to 27, but at 4 per cent that’s still under half the proportion in the population. And an analysis by the Sutton Trust revealed that 35 per cent of MPs were privately educated, compared to 7 per cent of the nation. In short, parliament is still far from representative.
This matters, but not for the reasons often given. It is not, as Katharine Viner wrote in the Guardian days after the election, because “the millionaire who slashes away at public services can have no true understanding of the affect of the loss of those services on the single mother with nowhere else to go.” Such objections are common, but are also premised on a pernicious idea that weakens the case of many of those calling for greater representation: that in order to speak for a group, someone must be a member of that group. Muslims need Muslims in parliament to speak for them, women need women, and so on.
This is fundamentally incoherent. Why? For starters, identity doesn’t work that way. For example, a liberal, Anglican, black, privately-educated, female Labour MP is almost certainly going to represent my views better than a white, atheist, middle-class male Tory—even though the latter bears a much greater cultural resemblance to me. What matters to us politically cannot just be read off from our cultural identities. Worse, if someone did need to have my identity to speak for me, I’d likely be voiceless: there are almost certainly no sceptical-atheist-Anglo-Italian-non-partisan-liberal-ex-Catholic-university-educated-grammar-school-boy MPs.
As the political theorist Amartya Sen points out in his book Identity and Violence, our identities are multiple and overlapping. No one has exactly the same patchwork as anyone else. But perhaps the biggest danger of the kind of pluralism that seeks to tie representation closely to identity is that it emphasises the extent to which identity divides, rather than how citizenship should unite. If we think that we need people “like us” to represent us, we inevitably get a stronger sense of being different from those who are not like us.
Think of how this could have played out in Warsi’s attempts to be elected as an MP. If her constituents thought that it was important for people to be represented by people like them, then it would have been entirely rational to reject her. Indeed, there is not a constituency in the country where a female Muslim candidate is the most representative reflection of local Conservative party members. The dilemma is clear. If men and women, whites and ethnic minorities, Christians, humanists and Muslims, all need those with similar identities to speak for them, only those from the largest groups will get enough support to be elected. Good news for women, bad news for minorities.
For Warsi to have been selected, members would have to be convinced that she could represent their views, even though she had a different cultural identity from them. But if a Muslim woman can represent white men, what’s the problem with white, privately-educated men being over-represented? The answer is simple. The problem of representation is not one of individuals “speaking for” groups who share their same religious and cultural identities. Diversity should be aimed for not at the level of the individual, but at that of the whole. A parliament that draws on only a narrow range of its population deprives itself of the variety of viewpoints and interests contained within it.
This is not because certain individuals can only ever have insight into the lives of others with similar backgrounds, but because uniformity of experience in a group tends towards less breadth and depth of collective wisdom. We need more women, people from ethnic minorities, the state educated and the working class in parliament and government—not so they can speak for women, ethnic minorities and the working classes, but so that parliament can better speak for us all.