The following excerpt is from the 2004 edition of Rod Hague and Martin Harrop’s textbook Comparative Government and Politics (The “Functions of legislatures” section, p. 253):
We have suggested that the essence of assemblies is that they ‘represent’ the wider society to the government. But how can we judge whether, and how well, that function is fulfilled? What features would a fully representative assembly exhibit?
One interpretation, plausible at first sight, is that a representative assembly should be a microcosm of society. The idea here is that a legislature should be society in miniature, literally ‘re-presentating’ society in all its diversity. Such a parliament would balance men and women, rich and poor, black and white, even educated and uneducated, in the same mix as in society. How, after all, could a parliament composted entirely of middle-aged white men go about representing young black women – or vice versa? To retain the confidence of society, the argument continues, a representative assembly must reflect social diversity, standing in for society and not just acting on its behalf (Anne Phillips, The Politics of Presence, 1995).
But there is considerable difficulty here. Achieving a legislature which mirrors society would require interfering with the normal process of election. A microcosm could only be achieved by quota, not election. Assemblies in communist states certainly achieved high levels of representation for peasants, workers and women. But this success was at the price of strict party control over nominations and elections.
Indeed, a true microcosm is best obtained by random selection, dispensing with elections altogether, as with juries in the English-speaking world. In any case, would we really want a parliament containing its due proportion of the ignorant, the inarticulate and the corrupt?
Representatives would also need to be replaced regularly, lest they become seduced by the trap-pings of office. Rotation is sometimes attempted by new radical parties but not usually for long. Indeed, Kay (Kay, J. ‘Too Many Polls Are Apt to Harm a Democracy’, Financial Times, 14 August 2003) suggests that the idea of a microcosm is incoherent in itself: ‘those who take part in politics are unrepresentative because, if they were representative, they would be at home watching television’. In truth, the assembly as microcosm is an impractical ideal – if it is an ‘ideal’ at all.