On women, political knowledge and Space Invaders

Chamber of Commons

Why aren’t more people angry about women’s political under-representation? That was the core question posed by Joni Lovenduski in a recent article in Political Quarterly, reporting on a workshop on the subject. “Participants in the workshop”, Lovenduski noted, “wondered why the political under-representation of women in the United Kingdom is not treated as the public disgrace that it is”.

“Undoubtedly,” she went on, “there is continuing resistance to sex equality, but from whom? Who opposes increases in women’s political representation?” Lovenduski split opponents of increased female representation into eight categories (also discussed here):

1. The uninterested, who think it does not matter

2. The complacent, who believe women’s interests are well represented

3. The traditionalists, who believe that politics is about the representation of class

4. Diversity advocates, who argue that gender is only one of many identities

5. Anti-essentialists, who think that claims for more women ignore the great differences among women

6. The optimistic, who think it is just a matter of waiting

7. The dinosaurs, who think politics is best left to men

8. She argued these contribute to: the mistaken, those who misread or misconstrue data about women in politics.

Anyone who has read or thought a little about this subject will certainly recognise the validity of these various categories – although it is a bit of a stretch to claim that all of them oppose increases in women’s representation. Some do, but some are disinterested, others would support an increase in women’s representation but do not see it as a priority, and yet others support the end (more women) but not the means (such as quotas).

In research forthcoming in the journal British Politics, I examine some of these issues, as part of a wider investigation into the politics of representation – and here I want to focus on argument 8. those who are mistaken. Lovenduski cites Nirmal Puwar’s concept of the ‘amplification of numbers’ from her book Space Invaders – the idea that when previously excluded groups begin to be present in politics their very novelty will lead to perceptions of their presence being exaggerated.

The survey I conducted looked explicitly at this, asking respondents to estimate the proportion of the House of Commons that came from a range of different groups – which, as well as women, included the disabled, those educated at Oxbridge, Muslims, and the elderly.

At the time the survey was conducted (2009), some 20% of MPs were female. Estimates of their presence, however, ranged from zero (from a not particularly perceptive respondent) to 91% (ditto). Some 4% of respondents got it spot on, with 31% under-estimating women’s presence and 65% over-estimating. Most respondents, then, did over-estimate women’s presence, but not by much: the (mean) average was 26%, relatively close to the actual figure, and a majority of respondents were within +/- 10 percentage points of the actual figure. There was almost no difference depending on the sex of the respondent (the mean for women was 26%, the mean for men was 25%).

Indeed, of the groups that the survey asked about, respondents were more accurate in their estimates of the number of women than they were any of the other groups. At a time when there were only four Muslim MPs, for example, the public’s average estimate of 14% would have represented some 90 Muslim MPs. The public similarly believed gay and lesbians to be nine times better represented than they actually were; the young to be sixteen times better represented than they were. It may once have been true that there were so few women in the Commons that people noticeably over-estimated their presence, and it certainly still holds for other groups, but it no longer holds for women.

More importantly, almost all respondents estimated a figure of below 50% for women MPs; just 4% estimated 50% or more, with 90% of respondents estimating 40% or lower. Whilst the survey did not ask people what proportion of the wider population belonged to each group, we can reasonably safely assume that most people will have noticed that men and women constitute roughly half of the wider population – and on that basis around 19 out of every 20 respondents believed women to be under-represented in the Commons in proportion to their presence in society.

(A side note for pedants: the fact that women in fact make up a narrow majority of the population does not alter this conclusion, both because it is moot whether the public know this – and it is their perception that matters here, not the reality – and because the figure of 4% would be the same whether we used 50 or 51% as our cut off).

This is, however, not to say that knowledge (or ignorance) has no effect. The survey also contained a question asking if people would like more or fewer women MPs, and as respondents’ estimates of women’s presence increases, so support for having more women in the Commons decreases. If we divide respondents into the categories famously devised by Drude Dahlerup, then those who thought parliament’s composition was uniform (that is, where women constituted just 0-15% of an institution) were overwhelmingly in favour of having more women MPs (68% of these respondents wanted more, as opposed to just 28% who wanted the numbers to stay the same, with a mere 3% who wanted fewer). That is a net score (More minus Same) of +40.  Of those who thought the Parliament ‘tilted’ (that is, where women make up between 15 and 40%), the net score was +12. But of those who thought that the Parliament was ‘balanced’ (40% or more) the net score had fallen to -14.

The public are then, broadly, logical in their responses: if they think there are relatively few women, they are more supporting of an increase in their numbers; if they think they are already present in numbers, they are less supportive of an increase.

This does not mean, however, that giving the public a more accurate understanding of the composition of the Commons would lead to more support for an increased number of women in politics – not least because the figure for the most accurate respondents (those who thought the Commons was ‘tilted’) was, at +12, exactly the same as the figure for all respondents. In other words, whilst improving the knowledge of those who (erroneously) think women are represented in large numbers might make them more supportive of increasing women’s presence, it would presumably have the opposite effect amongst those who currently significantly under-estimate the level of women’s political presence.

We can therefore safely reject the idea that opposition to, or ambivalence about, the scale of women’s representation is due to ignorance about their existing presence. As for the other seven explanations, well, they’re for another day…

Philip Cowley

Beveridge 70 Years On

On Tuesday I’ll be participating in Radio 4’s The State of Welfare. This marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services – better known as the Beveridge Report, something that is generally regarded as laying the foundations of the post-war welfare state.

The State of Welfare will take up most of Radio 4’s morning schedule and I’ll be helping kick if off by providing some context for the Report itself. For December 1942 was a very peculiar year. Britain had been at war for over three years and the Report was published just after victory at El Alamein, which marked, in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s words, ‘the end of the beginning’. The British people were starting to wonder what their country would be like after the conflict had ended, a conflict that saw them endure all kinds of unprecedented hardships. Would they return to the economic depression and insecurity of the 1930s?

Some on the left and centre-left, like the Liberal Beveridge saw this as their chance to put forward various schemes designed to reconstruct Britain and remake it into a more equal society in which there was social security for all. Others on the right, including Churchill and many others in his party and in industry too claimed the country would be ruined by the expense and the expansion of the state would destroy individual liberty and independence.

The outlines of this wartime debate about Beveridge would be familiar to us today as it raises many of the same issues. The context was however rather different. For the war had encouraged many to see the state in unprecedentedly positive terms – government intervention was after all helping Britain win the war. There was also a sense that Britons were all in it together, that the better off should make sure the poor did not fall below a minimum standard of living.

I have been invited to participate because of my work on politics during the Second World War, and some of my research is contained in this book and this articleThe State of Welfare web page also has a number of useful resources, including a recording of the programme.

Steven Fielding


What role does humanitarianism play in the world?

With complex humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters occurring with greater severity and frequency in various parts of the world, questions of humanitarianism – particularly how it should be conceived and practised – have become all the more relevant to our rapidly globalising world. In spite of conventional perspectives of humanitarianism as constituting a ‘universal’ value that transcends both time and context, there are diverse interpretations of this complex concept.

Arising from presentations and discussions at the workshop on Cultures of Humanitarianism: Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific held at the Australian National University, this collection of essays co-edited by Dr Miwa Hirono explore and interrogate the universality of the concept of humanitarianism by examining approaches found in China, Japan and Indonesia.

The essays highlight issues of power, representation and agency that reflect the cultural, normative and political complexity of this dynamic region. Exploration of cultures of humanitarianism has only just begun. The issues and questions raised in these essays suggest directions for future research.

Making republicans weep

Queen Victoria

This Thursday I am delivering the John Campbell Annual Lecture for Republic.

During the early years of this century John Campbell helped build up Republic into the prominent and active campaigning group it is today, one whose aim is to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state. The Annual Lecture is Republic’s tribute to his memory.

The theme of my lecture is the depiction of Queen Victoria on the big and small screen since Herbert Wilcox first produced Victoria the Great (1937). Something of what I am likely to say has been published here. Some of what I say will also appear in my forthcoming book A State of Play.

Most students of British politics don’t take the monarchy very seriously. They think its political powers are so limited, it has an insignificant role; some even think the institution provides some stability to our system. And it is true that the formal powers of the monarchy are heavily circumscribed – although currently Prince Charles’ behind-the-scenes attempts at lobbying have aroused controversy.

My own research suggests, however, that depictions of the monarchy on the screen up to and including Young Victoria (2009) shows how far it still exerts an insidious influence over the way in which audiences think of themselves politically. For the monarchy is presented as existing only to advance the people’s interest and often in conflict with shifty and self-serving Prime Ministers – in other words the only element within British democracy that truly cares for the people is the unelected part, the one not subject to popular sovereignty. Moreover, Victoria is by no means alone in being presented in such terms.  Most recently, The King’s Speech (2011) suggested that it was vital for George VI to overcome his stammer because the British needed his wartime broadcasts to inspire them to victory. Without his words, the film implies, the British might have given up.

Of course this is all nonsense; but it is powerful nonsense. It points to a deep popular discontent with representative democracy and also suggests the people’s lack of faith in their own political agency, given their dramatised dependence on the good will of  a hereditary monarchy. Hence, I have called my lecture ‘The Heart of a Heartless Political World’.

It’s enough to make a republican weep – for how are they to tackle such entrenched attitudes?  So I’ll be taking some hankies in case they’re needed.




Steven Fielding