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COULSON Rebecca

Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

The Good Parliament report hit the headlines last week by calling for an end to the Commons chamber’s ban on breastfeeding. Variations on the word ‘breastfeeding’ appear only eleven times in the report’s 40,000 words, however — and nine of those instances are in the endnotes. The rather cautious recommendation itself is that the recently-formed Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion should ‘revisit the issue of infant feeding in parliament’, with a view to allowing it in the chamber. It’s one of the report’s less interesting moments — and that’s not a compliment.

Much grander recommendations are in greater need of scrutiny. Not least: the introduction of select committee gender quotas (both for members and witnesses); statutory gender quotas for the selection of parliamentary candidates, in time for the 2025 general election, if women don’t constitute at least 50 per cent of parties’ winnable-seat line-ups in the run-up to 2020; and that the Speaker’s office should ‘comprehensively monitor and report the speeches and interventions in debates, questions, private members’ bills and other parliamentary activities by MPs’ sex/gender and other major social characteristics.’

It’s hard to know where to start with all this, but let’s try the beginning. And in the beginning there was a Speaker named John Bercow, who commissioned Bristol University gender and politics theorist, Professor Sarah Childs, to write a report on diversifying parliament. (While its aims hang on that phrase, the report understandably really only addresses the Commons.) Childs’ intention is to make parliament more representative; she wants it to become a ‘three-dimensional’ example of a ‘Diversity Sensitive Parliament’ (a concept informed by the established ‘Gender Sensitive Parliament’ international framework). The three dimensions are: ‘equality of participation’, ‘parliamentary infrastructure’, and ‘commons culture’; this method, Childs claims, would ‘deliver a new vision for parliament’, and thus ‘enhance its effectiveness and legitimacy’. Put simply, by embracing diversity, parliament could better represent the social make-up of British society, and be an bastion of equality, inspiring the rest of the country and world to follow suit.

Equality is rarely taken to mean identicality, however. Any attempt to give everyone exactly the same opportunities and outcomes will fail: aside from obvious practicalities, this is because we all differ. We are indeed diverse. Yes, we can be categorised in many ways, but we are individuals, first and foremost. Regardless of what Childs calls the ‘social characteristics’ that we might share with various other people, we still differ — within and without those groupings — in terms of what we are like, what we are good at, and what we desire. A justly equal society, therefore, might be one in which all people had the possibility to take advantage of opportunities that could fulfil their positive potential, whatever that might be.

That sounds great, you shout! It sounds fair and just. So, what are we waiting for? Let’s do it now! Ah. That’s another question all together: how you ‘do’ societal progress? And whether, indeed, you can — or should. Moreover, an opportunities-based approach is necessarily harder to effect than an approach focused on outcomes — the latter using, say, positive discrimination to bring balance to a workplace, or a parliament. Though it is somewhat difficult to decide which balances should override which others… Can we represent all the ‘social characteristics’ groups? Should we allocate people places in those groups, or let them choose for themselves? And what about crossovers? If x per cent of the population are men, and y per cent of those men are black, and z per cent of those black men are Sikhs, and a per cent of all British Sikhs are above the age of 35, and b per cent of Britons above the age of 35 are bisexual, and on and on — how do we faithfully represent everything, in microcosm?

But ok, with regards to a firm’s managing board, for instance, a simplified version in which the basic balance of, say, gender is valued above individual members’ suitability for their roles, is not impossible to execute. (Of course, the firm has to be happy to take a hit, both in terms of fairness, and, probably, performance.) Attaining comparable outcomes by increasing the chance of everyone (regardless of their social characteristics) to be able to capitalise on the opportunities to which they were attracted, would take much longer, and call for much more commitment all round. But the approach would be fairer, and avoid the unintended consequences of shallow levelling out.

What does all this mean for the Childs report? Well, that’s where breastfeeding comes back in. Surely, we’d like our MPs to miss as little parliamentary action as possible: they’ve been chosen to undertake an essential societal role. And it’s almost as accepted that breastfeeding is beneficial for babies, as it is that only mothers can feed them in that way. Therefore, breastfeeding — something that needs to be done regularly and on demand for the first months of a baby’s life, takes some time, and is hardly a disruptive activity — seems an unjust reason to prevent a member’s attendance in the house, if she is otherwise keen and able to be there. If we want to afford justice distributively, then as well as allowing for difference, we must also recognise cases in which people are unjustifiably being treated unequally. On those grounds, not to permit breastfeeding in the chamber seems unfair and detrimental.

Setting gender quotas for witness panels, however, seems irrelevant and negligent: witnesses should be selected on merit, by considering their awareness of the committee’s topic of enquiry, not their biology. This is also true for Childs’ suggestions on parliamentary candidate selection; it should be for parties to choose their own procedures, anyway. (Ok, it’s a cheap shot, but on a measure of the quantity of women in high office, the Conservatives — who don’t have quotas — are doing notably better on this score, at the moment, than Labour — who do.)

Our parliament is representative in that its members act for us, not in that they are identical to us, in any sense. More than ever, in these uncertain times, we need our representatives to be the people who are most suited to taking on this position of responsibility. If those people do not fit a diversity quota, then not only is it unfair for us to use that to discriminate against them, but society loses out if we do, too. You might argue that this unfairness and loss is excusable for the social positivity an enforced balance emits, but we don’t have the luxury of being able to turn down the best individual candidates in order to send out a superficial, confused, and potentially counterproductive message about group representation. And, as Childs points out, it is not the case that ‘only female MPs can “stand for” women, or that only BME MPs “act for” minority ethnic groups’. If MPs are not representing their constituents proficiently, that must be addressed.

If MPs are good representatives, however, then we should press for people from all backgrounds to have the opportunity to learn from them, and — if they are individually suited to it — to try to become MPs themselves. One way to help might be to follow Childs’ suggestion about monitoring parliamentary activity. But wannabe MPs should concentrate on that monitored activity’s exemplary content, rather than the ‘social characteristics’ of the members involved.

Yes, reducing inequality fairly takes longer, but it’s more than worth the wait.

44 comments for: Rebecca Coulson: Breastfeeding in the Commons? Fine. But gender quotas for committee witnesses would be absurd.

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