British Politics

, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp 138–163

Why not ask the audience? Understanding the public's representational priorities

  • Philip Cowley
Original Article

DOI: 10.1057/bp.2012.28

Cite this article as:
Cowley, P. Br Polit (2013) 8: 138. doi:10.1057/bp.2012.28


If one accepts the case for descriptive representation and the politics of presence – as so much of contemporary political discourse does – then the question of which groups deserve, or require, descriptive representation is far from trivial. Britain is a good case study for a discussion of this issue, both because the debate there is a politically live one and because that debate is increasingly diverse in terms of the range of characteristics it covers. This article examines the relative importance to Britons of a range of potential identities. It shows, first, that the public's concerns about descriptive representation operate at the collective level, not the individual, but, second, that this does not stop them wanting to see a more diverse parliament, across a range of different characteristics. However, third, the representational characteristics that matter most to the public are not the same ones that much of the academic literature has focussed on. Fourth, although there is some self-identification – with people disproportionately wanting more people ‘like them’ – this desire was especially strong within certain groups – most notably among the Muslim, Asian, Black and gay and lesbian respondents. And fifth, views on the desirability of increased or decreased representation appear, to some extent, to be based on a lack of knowledge, with the study revealing large-scale ignorance about the composition of the British House of Commons.


descriptive representationpublic opinionHouse of Commonslegislatures

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip Cowley
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Politics and International Relations, University of NottinghamNottinghamUK