In her interview with Andrew Marr on 27 October, Jo Swinson commented that there needed to be a wider representation in Parliament. She referred to various groups who should be more represented such as 'people who are disabled' or 'people of colour' (getting these words in the right order for fear of that very large group: those who are easily offended). But words such as 'representation' or 'representative' are very ambiguous.
We have MPs, MSPs and MEPs who are our representatives in various parliaments. If voted for by their various constituents, they are the democratically legitimate representatives of these constituents and are entitled to take up their assorted problems as appropriate. I shall call this 'ascriptive representation'.
Voting for an ascriptive representative is nowadays complicated by the fact that the names of the candidates' political parties appear alongside those of the candidates. When I first began voting in the long ago, this was not the case – the vote was for the candidate and the party was a secondary matter.
The presence of the name of the party beside that of the candidate can create a tension. I have heard people say: X is a very good constituency MP but I cannot vote for her/him because of the party they belong to. Indeed, in the course of the week I saw a brief TV interview with someone from a Labour Leave constituency who wanted to vote for Johnson as Prime Minister but would certainly not vote Conservative. There is therefore a second kind of representation here which I shall call 'political party representation'.
If we return to the points which Jo Swinson was making, we could say that MPs from across the political spectrum take up the causes of particular groups in society, groups which are not restricted to any one constituency nor necessarily to a given political party. For example, there can be cross-party support for investigating specific problems of disability or of children. We can think of this as a third sense of representation which I will call 'representation of interests'. It can only be a good thing if the interests of various groups are represented in Parliament as well as the interests of given constituents.
But Jo Swinson seemed to be making an additional point. She seemed to be saying – and if she wasn't others have said – that, in order to give adequate representation to the interests of given groups, it is necessary that you should be of the group. For example, to give adequate representation to the interests of those who are disabled or LGBT or children from deprived areas, you must yourself be from that group. This is a fourth approach to representation which I shall call 'experience-based representation'.
Now it is true that you can certainly speak with more conviction if you yourself have experienced the problems. For example, Peter Kyle MP has recently spoken of the abuse he has received on account of his dyslexia. But the point can be exaggerated. You do not need to be homeless yourself to understand the problems of homelessness. What is needed is some imagination and some compassion. But the need for representation of this fourth kind – experience-based representation – is likely to continue to be urged.
There is another context for the same kind of argument. It is sometimes said in newspaper discussions about entry to professions, especially law and medicine, that candidates from deprived areas are not adequately represented. From one point of view this is an absurd argument but from another there is a lot to be said for it. If I am facing major surgery should I say to my GP that I insist that my surgeon has come from a deprived area? The sensible point is that there should be encouragement for candidates from deprived areas to acquire the qualifications which will enable them to enter the professions. With the qualifications they are not representing anything; they are surgeons, lawyers and so forth.
There was a stage when parliamentarians and the royal family were expected to represent our values – representation of values can be added as a fifth sort of representation. Parliament is sometimes criticised for not showing decency, honesty, tolerance or whatever our values are meant to be. Now it is plausible to say that these values are not any longer exhibited in Parliament – as witness the shocking outburst of 'Humbug!' from Prime Minister Johnson to Paula Sherriff's moving revelations of the abuse she has received as a female MP. But perhaps tolerance, honesty and so on are no longer valued by the majority in society, so Parliament may simply be reflecting the actual if not the professed values of society.