Do all-women shortlists work?

Written by Jacqui Smith and Charlotte Vere on 28 December 2011 in Opinion
Former home secretary Jacqui Smith takes on Charlotte Vere of the Women On think tank

This article appeared in the January issue of Total Politics

I was selected to fight the Redditch parliamentary seat that I won in 1997 on an all-woman shortlist. I’m proud of that.

“But surely strong and successful female politicians like Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Castle or Mo Mowlam didn’t need this special leg-up?” is a cry I’ve often heard. Each of those women made an immense contribution to British political life, but most of political life isn’t about outstanding individuals; it’s a team game, where a full range of voices needs to be heard, issues need to be aired and competing interests need to be represented and reconciled. So the argument for all-women shortlists (AWS) doesn’t rest on the individuals who have benefitted from them or those who’ve made it without them. It’s about our Parliament being more representative and more effective at making the decisions that have an impact far beyond the niceties of parliamentary selection procedures.

Furthermore, there is a job to rebuild trust in Parliament – this is much harder when those who represent us there fail to reflect the balance of gender, age and race that we see on the streets. It is understandable for people to ask how a largely male, pale and stale group of people could understand the things that impact on their lives the most.  

Few people now contend this point, although I’m sure there are plenty of parliamentarians bristling at my description! However, there is near-unanimity on the ends to be achieved in this area of public policy, and intense, often bitter, debate on how to get there.

In Westminster’s current electoral system, AWS are the most – and arguably the only – effective way that women’s representation has been boosted in recent years. And progress has been pitifully slow. Labour has, historically, been the party with the best representation of women and the greatest internal pressure to ensure a better gender balance among candidates. Despite this, in 1945 and 1987, 21 Labour women were elected. In 1992, all constituencies were required to have a woman on the shortlist – 37 Labour women were elected. Between 1992 and 1997, a campaign led by Labour women ensured that there were AWS in half of all potentially winnable seats. In 1997, 101 Labour women were elected.

Some then felt that the job was done, but 2001 results demonstrated that, as yet, there is no momentum towards a more equal Parliament. After a successful industrial tribunal challenge to AWS in 1997, it was not used for the 2001 election. Only two new Labour women were elected (and over 30 new men), and by-election candidates replacing women were all men. Labour then legislated to allow positive action and re-introduced AWS for 2005.

All main parties have now conceded that they have a problem with gender balance in their parliamentary parties, but only AWS has begun to solve it. The Tories’ A-List system in 2010 produced results – the number of Conservative women MPs nearly tripled – but the Parliamentary Conservative Party does not contain the same percentage of women (31 per cent) as the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Lib Dems are still resisting positive action, although they have recognised they have a problem and have brought in a version of the A-List system to try and address it.

An argument frequently used against AWS is that people should be selected for and elected to Parliament on the basis of merit. I agree. My disagreement with those making this case is that I don’t think there are four meritorious men for every one woman – that’s the current gender balance in Parliament.

Others argue that the use of AWS means that unsuitable or ineffective women are getting elected. Flippantly, you could argue that a real test of equality would be when there are as many ineffective women in Parliament as there are men. We’re not there yet. Most independent observers would agree that the average quality of women MPs is higher than the average quality of male MPs.

Very few people would publicly argue for a House of Commons that is as unbalanced in terms of gender as it currently is. Frankly, however, unless you’re also willing to accept AWS or propose another equally effective method to achieve a better gender balance, you might as well be.

Jacqui Smith was the Labour MP for Redditch from 1997 to 2010

Charlotte Vere says NO

Imagine a candidate’s selection meeting: “Mr Craig, nice to see you. A committed local campaigner, you say, with a life outside politics working in mental health and a magistrate? Just what we’re looking for. Oh dear, I’m so sorry – it’s just that you’re a man.”  

Could you do that? Actively discriminate against 50 per cent of the population? How would you feel? Ashamed, embarrassed, uncomfortable?  

Somehow we have come to accept that it is okay to choose one person over another based on whether they sit, or stand. For generations, women’s rights’ campaigners have drummed into us that choosing by gender is wrong, wrong, wrong. And now it is right.

All-women shortlists, or AWS in common lingo, are the sticking plaster that has been applied to the gaping wound that is the lack of women in Parliament. It is supposed to fix the problem by running a race and banning half the competitors – actually, more than half, given than more men apply to become MPs than women.

The sole explicit aim of the strategy is to increase the number of women on the green benches and therefore make politicians ‘look’ better to the general public.

Does anyone else feel that this strategy might be a little shallow? That if the general public truly understood what was happening, they would be horrified and suspect more than a little manipulation, a stitch-up by the political elite. Here’s how it works: halve the number of applicants and offer ‘special treatment’ to the other lot; you have yourself a perfect group of yes-men… ahem, yes-women.

Is this what happens beneath the facade of AWS? Remember Blair’s Babes, a personal powerbase of shiny new female MPs selected on AWS? Or Dromey-gate, a seat rumoured to be an AWS, until mysteriously it wasn’t, to allow Mr Harman a safe seat. And finally we have Birmingham City Council, which has a grid system formalising positive discrimination to ensure the ‘correct’ number of women councillors, except for wards with large ethnic minority populations.

Does this sound like manipulation? For sure. AWS can be engineered by party hierarchies, which serves only to shoot more holes in the thin layer of trust and confidence remaining in the parliamentary system.

Furthermore, as the language of politics moves inexorably towards ‘fairness’, how are AWS fair? I met a former ‘No to AV’ colleague the other day and he bemoaned the number of women-only seats being pumped out of Labour Party headquarters. This highly talented and committed man has a playing field so skewed against him, he might as well give up.

And okay, let’s put the men aside for a while, for, let’s face it, the radical feminists constantly tell us that men need to be punished for running a patriarchy over recent millennia. Let’s assume we can live with being grossly unfair to men.

How does it look to our children? I have a boy and a girl, three years apart. What should I say to them? Sorry son, you see, your lot had it so good that a group of women of mummy’s age demanded that it must stop, and that women had to have more things than men for a while. Actually for quite a while… for your lifetime.  

The obsession with numbers and tying nooses around the necks of women, yanking them up from the top, has taken us way off beam and we have lost our focus. There is no doubt that there should be more women in Parliament, at the highest level of business, in academia and in the professions, and the paucity of women across all workplaces is disturbing.

We need to put our best minds to the problem. We need to understand why there isn’t a groundswell of highly accomplished and talented women smashing their way to the top; the causes are complex and tied up in a web that has taken generations to knit.

I want elected representatives that succeed or fail on their skills, experience and judgement. I don’t want anyone being able to say: ‘Well, she did a rubbish or indeed brilliant job as home secretary, but then again, she was a woman.’

The solutions are complex, and, strand by strand, we need to pull the web away. With focus and determination it can be done, and AWS should have no place at all in politics.

Charlotte Vere is the founder of Women On think tank and the former Conservative PPC for Brighton Pavilion

Tags: All-Women Shortlists, Charlotte Vere, Issue 43, Jacqui Smith

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