‘Desperately seeking an elderly gentleman with a large majority … to persuade Parliament to allow MPs to job-share’

Or a woman MP for that matter, write Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs (Birkbeck). But they must be adored by their parliamentary and local constituency party so that both will be happy for them to stand as half of one of the first MP job-shares at the next General Election. We think it might take someone who understands Parliament, and is respected within it, to push the debate about making parliament accessible forward.

william and mary

The first major job-share: William and Mary (composite image), by A Blooteling after Peter Lely and P Schenck, 1680s. Images: Wellcome Library via a CC-BY 4.0 licence

Open house?

Among MPs, job-sharing is seemingly not very popular: most MPs poo-poo it and there is no mass protest on the streets demanding flexible working for MPs. And it certainly isn’t easy to argue for more MPs. But we think it’s time for Parliament to debate this issue, nonetheless. The High Court said as much back in 2015. The Fawcett Society’s new report Open House? , launched this autumn, seeks to ignite a new, and more substantive debate in Parliament and we hope amongst the wider public too. We think it is possible to persuade both that MPs job-sharing is not as radical as an idea as it might  first seem, and that it could potentially significantly enhance the quality of democratic representation.

MPs’ job-share will make Parliament more accessible to groups currently under-represented: to parents, carers, those who wish to continue with their professions or trades, and those for whom working full-time is impossible. For some disabled individuals, the lack of job-share for MPs effectively negates their democratic right to political participation, as Sarah Cope and Clare Phipps, and Emily Brothers’ contributions in the Report make clear.

What do we know about job-sharing in general and at Westminster in particular?

  • It works at senior levels in business, industry and the civil service. Pam Walton’s contribution outlines ‘best-practice’ that can be ‘read across’ to Parliament’. A successful job-share is about collaboration not competition, shared values and vision, and clear communication, speaking with ‘one voice’.
  • The legal situation is at the moment clear; it is not possible to stand as a parliamentary candidate on a job-share basis. Rosa Curling’s chapter reflects on the case brought before the High Court in 2015. So, the law would need to change. But our electoral law, as Bob Watt makes abundantly clear, is not unchanging. Not only have we had constituencies with more than one MP in the recent past; back in the 17th century, William and Mary job-shared the ‘top job’ – King regnant and Queen regnant.
  • The public are agnostic rather than hostile. Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley’s research showed that when the reasons for allowing job-shares were given to survey respondents, support rose from 37% with no explanation to between 42-48%. Younger people are more supportive than older; and women more supportive than men. When asked to judge between candidates in an experiment the public seemingly evaluated the qualities of the candidates and NOT whether they were standing as a job share.
  • Amongst MPs and candidates who stood in the 2015 General Election, there is no majority in favour of MPs job-sharing. But party and sex differences are apparent: Labour women, Liberal Democrat women, Plaid Cymru women, and Green women and men are all in favour.

How to make the case for MPs job-sharing?

Sam Smethers, Fawcett’s Chief Executive rejects the ‘It is thus because it has always ever been thus, and so therefore it should be so’ criticism of MPs job-shares. Instead, we think it is worth asking whether the practices of flexible working that have facilitated access to the labour market more generally could apply to our democratic institutions; allowing parliamentary candidates to stand as a job share is an option that we think would work.

What principles and practices would underlie MP job-shares?

  • Applicants should identify their partner in advance of seeking selection by a political party and stand for selection as a team
  • MP job-shares should share political values and attitudes
  • Both should be individually judged by their party as meeting the qualifications of parliamentary candidates
  • At the point of selection – and again at election – they should present a comprehensive and clear statement of shared beliefs, issue priorities and goals
  • Job-share candidates should detail the procedural rules that will determine their working arrangements on a day-to-day basis.
    • There is no need to be prescriptive; they might work for different parts of the week; different times of the parliamentary year; work in the constituency or at Westminster; and share weekend constituency work on a rota, for example
  • Job-share MPs should be thought of as akin to job-sharing elsewhere (there are established examples of job-sharing GPs, civil servants and even political editors of newspapers); two people sharing the act of representation
  • Job-share MPs would vote as ‘one’. This maintains legal clarity. Parties and the public must be clear about who will be voting and when
  • Job-share MPs would ‘rise and fall’ as one; ultimately, they would be held to account in the ballot box.

Countering ‘the Iraq vote’ critique

This is the critics’ nuclear button. There is, of course, always the possibility of unforeseen issues and issues over which the job-share MPs might find themselves in disagreement. This will likely be rare but it is still very important. The key here is a procedural resolution. MPs might agree in advance to abstain, or let the person in Parliament on the day decide. Such arrangements are central to the ‘offer’ put before the party and the electorate.

As we make clear in the Report, in many ways this is little different from current practice:

Whilst an MP may have presented – first to their selectorate, and then to their electorate – their original policy position and beliefs, they may later find themselves facing a vote where they are in ‘two’ minds. On these occasions, the individual MP may very well decide to abstain. (There is no official system of abstention in the UK parliament, although MPs have been known to walk through both division lobbies to register an informal abstention.) The constituents of the job-share MP are, in analogous fashion, in no way disadvantaged, because currently a constituent will not know for certain that their individual MP will definitely vote, or vote in a particular way. British MPs are, importantly, representatives and not delegates. (Open House, p34)

Political equality and good representation

We are not naïve enough to imagine that the introduction of MP job-shares will be easy nor revolutionise Parliament overnight; but its composition would almost certainly change. And for some people it would constitute a transformation in their individual political rights. This is something not to be sniffed at. Just a small number of job-sharing MPs would symbolise that politics is for everyone.  So, we are on the lookout for a popular sitting MP, one prepared to take the next step towards opening up Parliament, by initiating legislative change, and standing as one part of a MP job-share at the next general election.

P.S. This is a job share blog – written by one of us, but signed off by both.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit. It first appeared at the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group.

rosie campbellRosie Campbell is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and a trustee of Democratic Audit.

sarah childsSarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck, University of London.

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