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Job-Shares for MPs: A Step on the Way to Resolving a Major Problem

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In a blog on Wednesday Ruth Fox, from the Hansard Society, argued that job-shares for MPs are a marginal solution for a major problem. Dr Fox is right, introducing job shares will not solve the significant under-representation of women in the House of Commons overnight. To do that, international research clearly demonstrates, parties need to employ equality guarantees.

These can take the form of all-women-shortlists, zipped lists in proportional representation list systems, or reserved seats for women. So far, for the UK Parliament only Labour has been prepared to adopt such measures; unsurprisingly they are the only party to deliver more than 30% women MPs. Women in the Conservative parliamentary party constitute 16 % and in the Liberal Democrats just 12%.

The need for equality guarantees is acknowledged in the Liberal Democrats' proposals, but given past division on this, we'd be surprised if they moved to adopt them. But in the absence of such measures - indeed even when a party uses equality guarantees - job sharing is another measure that should help deliver more women into politics.

Ruth Fox outlines some of the challenges of adapting the role of an MP to accommodate job-share. How will conflict of how to vote be resolved? As any job share team knows, there must be clear expectations, set out at the point of interview (and in politics at the point of election), as to how the job will be divided; who will work on what day, who will take responsibility for what, and how decisions will be made. Different job shares might approach the issue of voting differently, by either agreeing that 'who is there on the day makes the decision' or by agreeing a position in advance, or in respect of different policy areas.

In any case, we doubt very much that job-share candidates from either ends of a party's ideological spectrum, or taking opposing views on conscience issues, would put themselves up for selection as a team in the first place. Crucially, and just like other MPs, job share MPs are accountable for how they act: both to the party selectorate and ultimately to the electorate. If they failed to make the partnership work - for whatever reason - they would be unlikely to be reselected or reelected.

Dr Fox also questions what would happen in the event that one member of the job-share stepped down. We do not think this need be particularly problematic, given that both MPs in the job-share will have been elected. If one should be removed from office then the other could choose to continue as a full-time MP until the next election, or they could choose to stand down with their job-share partner. Accordingly, job-shares need not increase the likelihood of by-elections

Furthermore, it is our belief that job-share MPs may prove to be more attractive at the ballot box, than critics imply. The professionalisation of politics and the narrowing of the political class is an issue that resonates with many.

Philip Cowley's work with Rosie Campbell shows that voters respond negatively to candidates without local connections, those with high incomes, and those who have only worked in political occupations. Job-sharing might encourage the local GP who wants to maintain a reduced practice, or someone who runs a family business, or the parent who wants to do the school run a couple of times a week to consider standing.

The challenges for job-sharing at Westminster are by no means insurmountable, as Dr Fox admits. And we believe them to be worth the extra cost. We do not imagine that Parliament will suddenly become dominated by job-share MPs, just as other organisations that allow job-shares are not; neither will they double the numbers of women in the House. But they would facilitate people, men and women, who make a contribution to society beyond their 'day jobs', through caring for children or dependent adults, sustaining a professional career or contributing to their local community, to stand for election to Parliament. Crucially job share enables them to do so, without having to put aside all of their other commitments.

Job-shares should be strongly supported by those who want to see more women elected to Westminster. This support need not be dependent upon job-share delivering a large number of women MPs at the next election. And their value is not limited to women. Job-share is, about enabling both women and men who currently feel unable to participate in politics but have a significant contribution to make. The value of job-share is also symbolic - about making it clear that being a representative is a job not just for the professional or unencumbered politician but a job open to all.