Suppose you were a male Labour candidate at the last general election. What would your chance of becoming an MP have been? Well, voters elected one out of every two Labour men. And they elected one out of every three (rounding down) Labour women candidates. Not bad.

Of course, 2017 was a very good year to be a Labour candidate. The party won by a landslide. Moreover, it didn’t put up as many candidates as it might have. Only on the 5th district did Labour have more candidates than the PN.

Had you been a Nationalist Party candidate, your chances would have been rather worse. Voters elected only (rounding down) one out of every four male candidates. Only one out of every five women candidates was elected.

These proportions are not the whole story. However, they are an untold part of it. The figure we usually get is that women MPs form only 15 per cent of Parliament. True. But the four Labour women MPs were elected out of a grand total of 11 candidates (around 15 per cent of the total Labour list). The six Opposition women MPs were elected out of 28 (around a quarter of the total PN list).

We can agree that women are badly under-represented in Parliament, and that this cannot be good for our democracy. But we should also be able to agree that the problem begins with the choice offered. The gross under-representation lies in the list of candidates. The under-representation in Parliament reflects the lists, not the voters.

It is true that voters prefer male candidates proportionately more than women. It’s not by much, though. The gender difference is far less than that 15 per cent women MPs would suggest.

Part of the slight preference for male candidates has to do with incumbency. Man or woman, you have a far better chance of winning a seat if you already are in Parliament. The voter preference for men is partly a preference for incumbents.

Incumbents have funds. Some voters seek them for help, and that means opportunities to gain voter gratitude later. If you’re a Labour MP these days, you have even greater powers of patronage. It’s not just that, given the size of the front bench, you have a good chance of being a minister or junior minister. Virtually all backbenchers have been given government-related roles which can be translated into clientelism.

It’s an unintended consequence, but Joseph Muscat’s policy of co-opting his backbenchers into the executive is making it more difficult for new people, and consequently for women, to compete on equal terms for parliamentary seats.

So it’s not surprising that the new women MPs in 2017 feature two mayors of good-sized localities. Rosianne Cutajar is the third mayor of Qormi to make it into Parliament; she also used to work in the Office of the Prime Minister. 

Maria Deguara, in addition to having her own personal political machine, is of course married to Louis Deguara, a former MP (and minister) on her same district. Even though she was not elected in the same district where she served as mayor, the machine and the legacy were salient.

The under-representation in Parliament reflects the lists, not the voters

Julia Farrugia Portelli had enjoyed some prominence in the Labour media, worked for Minister Anton Refalo, and comes from a family of activists. Therese Commodini Cachia was a sitting MEP, with her own national office, and prominence within the PN and the media both for her work on legal cases and for chairing policy development committees.

So three out of these four could be called quasi-incumbents, and all four had name recognition and established roots and local party connections.

So if you want some free and unnecessary advice on how to become a woman MP, here goes. It’s almost the same advice I’d give you if you wanted to become a nationally prominent violinist or tennis player. 

It helps to come from a family that’s already involved. But even without that, you can still make it, as long as you begin young, do the work, find a sponsor in the relevant institution, and seek opportunities to be noticed.

There are other things that would help, of course. They are mainly things that would help make being an MP more attractive – like the possibility of making a full-time living out of it, and having conditions of work in Parliament that are family-friendly.

It would also help if society in general were less sexist. But on the list of obstacles to women becoming MPs, voter attitudes seem to be less important than political party lists and practices that favour incumbents.

There was a point when four out of our six MEPs were women. 

And times are moving fast. When future party leaders are discussed, Miriam Dalli and Roberta Metsola are both mentioned freely.

Why say all of this now? Because we are approaching the end of the public consultation process to consider a government proposal to fix the current gender imbalance in Parliament. Essentially, it’s a top-up mechanism to add up to 12 extra seats for women (strictly speaking, the ‘under-represented sex’) if they make up less than 40 per cent of Parliament.

A lot of attention has been given to make sure the mechanism does not distort the balance between political parties as decided by voters. Any extra seats will be divided equally between the political parties.

But the entire assumption is that it’s voter choices that need to be corrected. It is of course true that political parties might have fewer women candidates because of sexism in society at large. It’s possible but undemonstrated. Why did Labour only manage to have 11 candidates if the PN managed to have 28?

Major constitutional changes should only be contemplated when the alternative measures have truly been exhausted. 

At the moment, it seems that a major constitutional shake-up is being contemplated because the political parties are reluctant to take on measures that would shake their own organisations up.


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