Leading article: Lacklustre reform

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The Independent Online

It's a pity that the inquiry chaired by John Bercow, the new Speaker, should come up with such a tired report on increasing the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons.

It starts by engaging in the ritual self-flagellation ceremony now familiar to any MP who is not already busy apologising for his or her expenses claims. The Commons continues to be "largely white, male, middle-aged and middle-class", it complains. Well, up to a point. The glass is perhaps one-fifth full, as there are 125 women out of 646. The Chamber, on those rare occasions when it is full, looks very different from the pre-New Labour era, when there were hardly any women at all.

Yesterday's interim report of the Speaker's Conference – a supposedly grand constitutional forum – might have been entitled to repeat the token whinge about the unrepresentativeness of Parliament if it proposed any novel remedies. But it does not. It suggests amending the Equalities Bill to require the political parties to report every six months on the diversity of their selection processes. This is a feeble and bureaucratic response to a deep issue.

Labour's experience has shown that only illiberal action with an element of rough justice – all-women shortlists – has a significant impact in practice. David Cameron has just discovered how hard that is, having being forced to retreat from his plan to impose such lists on his party. And extending that principle of positive discrimination to ethnic minority and disabled representation is fraught with even more difficulty, not just because of the problem of defining terms, but because the view of so many voters is the opposite of the liberal consensus. A recent YouGov survey found that 46 per cent of Conservative voters, for example, feel that it is white people who suffer from "unfair discrimination".

In such circumstances, Mr Bercow's well-meaning inquiry might have been more fruitfully occupied in working on innovative ways of changing the attitudes of voters, rather than in monitoring the complexion of their representatives. Anyone for a positive discrimination Wannabe-MP X Factor?