posted 2nd May 2023
'It's not fair!'
Anyone who's lived with a small child - anyone who's been a small child - will be familiar with this plaintive cry. It's not only children who are concerned with fairness. The quest for justice is one of the most fundamental of human instincts, at any age. But it can be complicated. It's easy to agree that things should be fair. Less easy to agree what is and isn't fair. Harder still to agree on what we should do to make things fair. 'Quotas motions' are all about how to make things fairer.
What is a quotas motion?
A quotas motion seeks to redress the unequal distribution of a good by taking action to force its distribution to become more equal. It assumes that the inequality of distribution is unjust and / or ineffective, and is not based on objective merit. The good may be access to power, education, employment or influence. The inequality may be based on gender, race, sexuality or some other characteristic which has no bearing on a person's inherent right to possess the good.
That sounds a bit complicated. Let's give an example.
Currently (May 2023) approximately 35% of MPs in the UK parliament are female. This is an unequal distribution of the power that comes with being an MP because currently (as has been the case throughout most of history, and is likely to continue to be the case) approximately 50% of the UK population is female. Almost no one would argue that the reason there are fewer female MPs than male MPs is because women are less good at politics. Most people agree it would be a good thing if there were more female MPs. Not everyone agrees that the way to ensure that the percentage of women MPs is more in line with the percentage of women in the country is to pass a law making it compulsory for 50% of MPs to be female. That 50% is a quota. It's a measure to interfere with the selection of a group to make that selection fairer. But is the measure itself fair? And does it work; that is, will it make things fairer? Those are the questions you have to consider with quotas motions.
What are the tasks for proposition and opposition speakers when tackling a quotas motion?
Let's find out, taking as an example the motion
This house would make it compulsory for 50% of MPs to be female.
1. Prove that the status quo is unjust / ineffective.
The status quo in this case is that only 35% of MPs are female. This is unjust because it does not reflect the proportion of women in the population, and ineffective because it excludes many talented women.
2. Prove that the proposed quota will make the situation more just / more effective.
Enforcing a rule that 50% of MPs must be female will be fairer, because it will make parliament more representative of the country as a whole; it will also be more effective because it will encourage more talented women to go into politics.
3. Provide a mechanism to introduce the quota.
There are several possible mechanisms for this motion. You could select 50% of constituencies, and say that they are only allowed to elect women, while the other 50% are only allowed to elect men; you could introduce fewer but bigger two member constituencies with one list of candidates to be the male MP, and one list of candidates to be the female MP; or you could have two member constituencies with just one list of candidates, and say that the man with the most number of votes and the woman with most number of votes will be elected.
Whichever mechanism choose, make sure it is (like any good mechanism)
- Practical - it will achieve the objective it says it will achieve
- Enforceable - you can realistically get people to co-operate with it
- Simple - you can explain it quickly and clearly within a five minute speech
4. Anticipate and rebut principial objections to quotas.
You may say that a quota will be unfair because it excludes some men from becoming MPs on the grounds of their gender; but women are already often effectively excluded from becoming MPs because of institutional sexism. Our measure is simply redressing that injustice. There already is an effective quota, one favouring men; it just isn't acknowledged as such. You may say it is not right to restrict who people can elect as their MP; but voters who want a female MP are already often effectively prevented from having one due to institutional sexism.
5. Anticipate and rebut pragmatic objections to the mechanism.
You may say that this measure will exclude talented men; but institutional sexism already effectively excludes talented women.
1. EITHER prove that the status quo is just and / or effective.
There undoubtedly were barriers to women getting on in politics in the past, but this is no longer the case; we have had two female prime ministers (and female First Ministers in Scotland and Northern Ireland) in the last seven years. The current system works better because it guarantees that any women selected are selected on merit alone.
2. OR accept that the status quo is unjust and / or ineffective but provide a non-quota solution to the problem.
Of course we need more women MPs. The way to do it is to support political education for girls in schools / launch campaigns to get young women into politics / celebrate high profile female politicians etc.
3. Provide principial objections to the quota proposed.
It simply isn't fair that someone is excluded from standing as an MP because of their gender. It simply isn't fair that voters can't elect whoever they want. Women chosen because of a quota will feel less valued for their own achievements.
4. Provide pragmatic objections to the mechanism proposed.
A quota will result in less able women being selected, and more able men being excluded.