Tom Marley’s latest post raised the controversial issue of the all-minority-shortlist. Many of the arguments around it relate also to one of my pet hates: the all-women shortlist. Expressing a dislike of the shortlist often provokes shock and shaken heads in Labour circles, but in my experience the vast majority of women I meet are against them. In our last BULS women’s caucus, a unanimous vote was carried against a proposal by some male members to introduce positive discrimination for our committee positions. Why?
There is, after all, a strong case for all women shortlists (AWS). The argument goes that women are less likely to be selected than men because of underlying prejudice; that they are less likely to put themselves forward for seats due to natural timidity/the intimidation of entering a male dominated environment; that childcare commitments and other caring roles make them unable to devote the time needed to get selected. The all-women-shortlist has greatly increased the number of women in parliament, and this is hailed at Labour gatherings as one of our great achievements. But it is something I find myself unable to be proud of. I believe that all women shortlists are a quick fix to a big problem, and that they trick us into thinking we have sorted out inequality.
There is, as I outlined above, a vast landscape of reasons that women just don’t make it into elected positions. But I don’t believe that forcing us to pick women is the answer. The first and foremost reason is that it undermines the position of any woman selected. No matter how qualified, no matter how worthy a candidate she is, it can never be proven that she was best for the job because she did not win a fair contest. Now while it can be argued that in am inherently sexist society a fair contest is impossible, my experience of talking to voters of both sexes tells me that in the eyes of the electorate, the woman who won by AWS is not as trusted or accepted as one that won an open selection.
The greatest fallacy of the AWS, however, is that it does nothing to address the reasons for women being under represented in the first place. If childcare is the issue, we need to address both the provision of it, the timing of meetings so that they do not clash with home commitments, and most importantly the culture of women taking the childcare burden instead of men. If it is the male dominated environment that is the issue, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy; but having separate womens support networks set up, such as the Birmingham Labour Women’s Forum, or offering training in public speaking, can go a long way towards building confidence amongst women and give them a stronger support base for any problems they may encounter. If it is the prejudice of men that is the issue, it must be tackled by example; by proving our capabilities, and proving wrong those who doubt us.
The AWS tackles none of these issues. I believe it fuels resentment amongst men; and worst of all, it can give women the impression that the only seats worth applying for are AWS. The under representation of women is a huge problem, and the AWS has indeed ensured that women are better represented. At a BULS event a year ago, Sylvia Heale MP told members how parliament had become much more woman-friendly since the 1997 influx, and I applaud this- however while it has made life easier for those already in parliament and made it a more attractive position for women to hold, it hasn’t tackled the aforementioned problems.
There are two things we have to change to tackle gender inequality; mens perception and treatment of women, and women’s perception and treatment of themselves. The AWS doesn’t help either. It is a poor means to a laudable end, and something I would like to see abolished so that we can get on with sorting out the real issues at hand.