Concerned about the parlous state of women's political representation the Liberal Democrats are reportedly considering introducing a job-sharing option for their parliamentary candidates in the future. It sounds great in principle and it's been made to work in other employment sectors but it's completely uncharted territory for Westminster. How would it work in practice and will it really make any difference to the number of women MPs in Parliament?
Who votes on what, when, and why: what if one half of the job share turns out to be a rebel in disguise whilst the other is a party loyalist to the core? No candidates could adopt a deal before an election which binds them for all future votes without knowing what those issues and votes may be about. As research on parliamentary rebellions by professor Philip Cowley shows, Lib Dem MPs have already broken ranks on 104 occasions and just over a quarter of all divisions in this parliament, predominantly on social and economic matters. So would both halves of a Lib Dem job-share MP have agreed to support their party's policy u-turn on tuition fees? Would they stand united on the coalition's proposed public spending cuts, for example during the recent welfare bill? If there were to be another vote on a question of war would the job-sharers agree? If not, how would they proceed? And what would they do on free votes and matters of conscience?
Many of the votes will have to be subject to detailed discussion and negotiation between the job share partners, with all the potential for trade-offs that implies. If they can't agree then an obvious solution would be to simply not turn up or to abstain. MPs don't vote now in every division and some MPs do abstain occasionally for a range of good reasons. But whilst this might work occasionally it's hardly a sustainable solution: regularly failing to do an important aspect of their job because of internal differences is hardly likely to endear them to their constituents.
How they would split the work is another key question that has to be addressed. Does one half of the team get their hands on the legislative wheel at Westminster while the other grapples with the constituency social work? If so, unless the job-sharers are both women, it doesn't take much imagination to foresee the risk that it will be the women who work locally and the men that continue to dominate at Westminster. If so, rather than being a solution to women's representation in politics, job-sharing could end up reinforcing stereotypes.
At Westminster MPs can serve on select committees and some inevitably aspire to promotion to the front-bench. Would both halves of the job-share have to stand jointly for election to become a member or chair a select committee? And if they did, how would they divide that work between them? At the ministerial level the complexities are equally difficult to navigate. Would the prime minister have to appoint both halves of the job-share MP if he wants to add one of them to the ministerial team? How would 'two for the price of one' work in practice without undermining accountability?
What happens if one of them gets into difficulties on an ethical issue such as their expenses, or if one of them became seriously ill and could no longer carry on or even died in office? Would the other half have to stand down and fight a by-election or should they be allowed to carry on alone and see out the remainder of their term?
What about the cost? Job-sharing need not mean a doubling of costs but will it really be 'two for the price of one'? Will it be a 50/50 split in time and resources; will one of them work at Westminster one week and in the constituency the next, rotating throughout the year? If they choose to split the working week between them then there will be unavoidable cost increases to cover travel between the two locations if nothing else.
As many who have job-shared can attest, the chances are that each half will sometimes end up working more than their agreed hours. To make it work flexibility is needed. But in representative politics possessing greater capacity - two for the price of one - raises challenging constitutional questions that aren't relevant in other spheres of employment. For example, job-sharing could mean that some parties and places have a bigger voice and presence in Parliament than others by dint of both job sharers working in practice for 60% of the time. Is this democratically acceptable; the price we pay for innovative change?
The challenges are not insurmountable but in reality the benefits of job-sharing may not outweigh the difficulties. It might help get a few additional women into politics but it doesn't really address the fundamental barriers. Work-life balance issues are acute at Westminster and job-sharing might help. But the problem is not that there are not enough women candidates coming forward because of these challenges; rather that those who do come forward simply don't get selected for seats they have a good chance of winning. There is a risk that rather than advancing the debate about women in politics the job-share solution proves to be counter-productive, becoming a comfort-blanket for reformers who want more women in politics but who can't or won't will the means to secure it through the one tried and tested measure that really works, namely quotas. Job-sharing might deliver modest improvements and is understandably attractive for Lib Dems for whom quotas present a strategic challenge given their problems in defining key target seats. But at best it will likely be a marginal solution to a major problem.
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