Friday, January 3, 2014

All Women Short-Lists – The Great Unspoken Problem

All women short-lists (AWS) have become a common mechanism across the Labour Party in advance of choosing our prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) for the 2015 general election. And I think they’re a bad idea.

This is hardly revolutionary, and as a white, Oxford educated man in a professional job it probably comes as no surprise that this is my conclusion. I'm not so stupid to think that, however elegant my reasoning, this conclusion is perhaps the result of some unseen sub-conscious bias. This shows why it is important that our elected representatives are actually representative of the society who chooses them – only in that way can these deep-seated sub-conscious decisions be exposed to healthy scrutiny.

But indulge me. By way of atonement, let me start with why I think most of the reasons used in opposition to AWS are a load of claptrap.

Firstly, that they are sexist in and of themselves because they exclude men. Clearly this is confused, as what’s being tackled is innate inequality on a macro scale, not on the micro level of an individual constituency. It doesn't seem like an excessive tweak of the system to lead to an undeniably worthwhile result.

Secondly, that they diminish the desire and ability of women to contest ‘open’ short-lists. This does appear to be true, but the fact is that they weren't winning them anyway, certainly not in a radical enough fashion to affect the gender change that voters deserve to see. Of course women should be given extra help to compete in those open selections, and every attempt should be made to make sure that ‘open’ short-lists are men’s short-lists – or that quotas (such as at least one female candidate in every local authority ward) are seen as all that has to be done. But frankly, it doesn't really seem like an either/or scenario.

Thirdly, that there are other groups who we should be more bothered about. We need more ethnic minority candidates representing their communities. We need more local candidates in constituencies, speaking for the communities they know. The representation of women is, however, in a slightly different league. They are a much more clearly identifiable group, much more so than ‘ethnic minority’, class or LGBT definitions. Most importantly, and obviously, women are not a minority grouping – they are 50% of the population. Of course we must fight hard to bring candidates from the communities that they represent, but if we can’t do right by an under represented 50% of the population, what hope is there elsewhere?

Class is a more troublesome issue. If the Labour Party is not about bringing forward more representation of ordinary working people, not just policies in their name, what are we about? The working classes are the bulk of the population by any count – if not 50% then a distinct plurality. Of course, there are definition issues, but it is clear that working class communities are not sending forth the candidates that they should, and that the whole of society needs.

However, there is something very ugly about the way that women short-lists are held up as being a further barrier to this – middle class women preventing working class men from positions to which they are always denied. Our party has always been dominated by the middle classes, like any other, and all-women short-lists are no more likely to produce this result than any other. There are much more fundamental things that the party needs to be doing internally and in terms of its politics for a better society to combat the inherent and worsening exclusion of voices from working class communities. What is clear and simple is that we are all still disadvantaged by the lack of women representatives across public life. It is not an either/or scenario. To answer the most blunt pessimist on this issue: why not have a fair gender split among middle class candidates, if that’s what we get anyway?

My hearty defence (or, at times, relative ambivalence to) AWS, is the lead-up to why I do believe that they are unfair: they fail to challenge the inherent bias within the Party towards men fast enough. At their core, they depend on natural wastage, meaning that an older (disproportionately male) group of Labour MPs in safe seats are never challenged, still remaining in post. I do not understand why it is right that a 60 year old man, chosen decades ago is more protected under these rules than a 30 year old man who seeks selection today. The latter, rightly, has to wait for a social injustice to be rectified. The man himself, who is part of that injustice, can pootle on until he retires, leaving his constituency to decide on whether his successor should be a woman pretty much when the sitting MP feels like it.

When we talk about the inherent importance of more women in parliament, irrespective of class or community, it is because women in and of themselves bring something important to the process which has been lacking. It will continue to be lacking until the make-up of the current group of representatives, who are part of the problem (although not intentionally) are shaken up and distorted.

What the Party needs could be a requirement for all MPs to re-apply through open selection after three general election victories, and impose all-women short-lists on a requisite number until the balance of candidates gender is right. Although this is still a gradualist answer, it would hit many MPs quickly, and have the added benefits of feeding into other agendas, like the promotion of local candidates, and the need for MPs to really, meaningfully connect with the local parties to whom they owe their position.

More radically, we could simply have open selections of all parliamentary seats, expecting at least 40% of each category (winnable, marginal and non-target seats) to be women. If open selections do not present the correct result, then either by lot, by service or by size of majority, sitting MPs could be deposed and replaced with women candidates.

Both options would then require a mechanism to ensure we don’t just slide back to the habits of the past. One would hope, however, that a system which fairly represents women, would protect them intrinsically and these fail-safes would be an academic exercise.

I'm in favour of more actions to increase the representativeness of our representatives – and it seems to me that the first option could, both through its mechanism and result, bring a better politics to our party. The second option is harsh, but fair – and would close the whole gender debate on the symbolic level of women in representative positions. Then we can move on to the stuff that’s worth contesting.