How Do Our Politicians Represent Us

Finding information about the backgrounds of parliamentary candidates is not the simplest of tasks. Luckily, research on this sort of rare data has already been made. In this text, Veera Voutilainen returns to the theme of the Institute’s discussion event of 9 April in the Finnish Parliament, and draws together work comparing socio-demographic data of MPs from the UK and Finland.

Only a couple of weeks apart from the UK’s upcoming election of 7 May, Finland held general elections, too. On Sunday 19 April Finns made their way to the polling stations, and voted the Centre Party – known for its conservative values – to victory. The eurosceptic, anti-immigration Finns Party – formerly known as the True Finns – got placed second.

This Spring really makes us think about whether we should all be interested in knowing more about people who represent us – and why. Dr Jennifer Hudson, researcher in political behaviour, points out that the question brings us back to some of our very fundamental rights.

“I think it’s a basic question of democracy that you know who the people standing for parliamentary representatives might be”, she says.

Hudson is currently working on an ambitious joint project between Birkbeck, University of London and University College London, along with her colleague Dr Rosie Campbell. Their team has investigated biographical, socio-demographic and electoral data on candidates and MPs over an extensive period of time: from 1945 to 2015. The aim of the project is to open a wide amount of data for anyone to explore.

Sadly, there’s nothing new about the growth in lack of trust and disengagement among citizens around politics: according to Hudson, a feeling of alienation of an average person from the political class has overshadowed British politics for the last 25 years. But what if people knew more about the ones who wish to represent them?

Increasing diversity

“I think what’s important is having increased diversity – in terms of what it signals to the electors”, Hudson says. Indeed, the collected socio-demographic data exploring age, gender and ethnic background does show increasing diversity among the candidates in the British general elections.

“We’re starting from a much higher base in terms of the candidates available that come from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds,” she says. “There’s some real differences across the parties: Conservatives have selected 14 percent candidates from BME backgrounds. That’s a real effort from the party to widen its diversity in terms of the candidates.”

What comes to diversity in terms of gender equality, 2015 gives women better chances to find candidates they can relate to.

“Historically parties would select women candidates and minority ethnic candidates, but they wouldn’t be given any kind of possibility of being won. What we see this year is that Labour Party has put more than half of their women on winnable seats,” Hudson tells.

Winnable seat means an electoral district, where a certain party knows it will win. In the British electoral system, the parliament consists of 650 electoral districts. From every district, only one candidate who gets the highest amount of votes can reach the parliament. Therefore, the parties tend to nominate their top candidates in such electoral districts, where it’s known they will get voted.

How electoral systems treat women differently

Hudson’s and Campbell’s project shows just under 30 % of all the candidates in British general elections this Spring are female. Differences between parties, however, are significant: While 37 % of the Green party’s candidates are female, the real outlier is the euro-sceptic Independence party Ukip with a narrow 13 % share of female candidates. Although, these numbers do not tell everything:

“The party that is really streets ahead is the Labour Party, if you look at the seats that are likely to be won,” Rosie Campbell points out.

She refers to the all women shortlists (AWS) that Labour has used since 1990s. “A controversial but effective way to improve women’s representation in politics,” as Campbell puts it. The majority of British people consider all women shortlists anti-democratic. Of course, it would be nice if they weren’t needed. But by far the gender quota does seem to work.

Overall, women have a more realistic chances to access parliament than before. Hudson refers to a significant increase in winnable seats for women this year – considering the very low baseline.

“On the other side, even if we do come away with 30 % women MPs, a lot of the talk in the UK will be about how that is a significant achievement – how we’ve made quite a lot of progress. The danger is how women are 53 % of the population, and so we’re still some way off really getting to kind of gender balance in the parliament. ”

In comparison to Finland, female candidates in the UK have had less possibilities to access the parliament, as they do not have the same kind of an open party list system as Finland does. According to Dr Erkka Railo, researcher with the Centre for Parliamentary Studies in Turku, the electoral system has a significant impact on what kind of candidates become elected.

“In the UK the electoral system influences in how women become clearly under-represented”, he says. “But then in Finland, the candidate’s personal election budget seems to have more impact: the wealthiest candidates tend to become elected, which influences the overall formation of the parliament.”

Significant changes overtime

Railo points out that the educational level of the Finnish candidates has risen significantly since the Second World War – as well as the share of women. Nevertheless, the MP’s do not look very much like the people they represent: the share of members representing the age group between 40-60 is clearly over-represented. In addition to that, a Finnish MP is usually about four times wealthier than an average Finn.

As in the UK, parliamentary groups in Finland differ from each other in terms of gender structure, education as well as income level. Railo compresses some of the major differences:

“The Green Party has the most highly educated MPs, the Finns party the lowest. The Finns party had the lowest female representation – while Social Democrats and Swedish People’s Party had most women. The income level was lowest at the Finns party, Left Alliance, Green Party and Christian Democrats. The wealthiest candidates came from the Centre Party and the National Coalition Party.

In the UK, things are getting exciting. Maybe 7 May will bring more people chances to find someone from the parliament who they could actually have more in common with.

Rosie Campbell, Jennifer Hudson and Erkka Railo met in Helsinki in an open discussion event organized by the Institute on 9 April. The event was part of the Finnish Institute’s Society programme, directed by Antti Halonen.

Follow Jennifer Hudson’s and Rosie Campbell’s UK Parliamentary Candidates project here.

The writer of this text is the Institute’s new communications intern.

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