British politics has long been dominated by white, middle/upper class men who went to private school and then an elite university. In recent years, this imbalance has shifted, with Parliament becoming more diverse, not only in terms of gender, but class, ethnic background and sexuality.
There is, obviously, no denying that there is much more to do, in order to make politics more representative. Most people want to see politicians they can identify with, but the current means of obtaining more female MPs is a divisive one – all-women shortlists.
This affirmative action practice, used exclusively by Labour and the Lib Dems, means that only women are allowed to stand in certain constituencies. Men are excluded and barred from standing. Critics of this practice, myself included, believe that it is discriminatory and sexist. Others who see it in a more positive light, point out that it may be the only viable way to improve the inclusion of women in politics.
We cannot ignore that, indeed, they do have an impact on increased female participation. Prior to 1997, a mere 9.2% of MPs were women. After the 1997 election (the first in which all-women shortlists were implemented), this doubled to 18%, with 35 being elected from all-women shortlists. However (and I say this as a Labour-supporting female), I would argue that we should not fight discrimination with yet more discrimination.
It’s without any doubt that women have been under-represented, discriminated against and marginalised in politics for decades. Whilst the majority of us agree that something must be done to address the issue, is it fair that in order to do so, we subject men to the same exclusion that women campaigned and fought against for so many years? Surely, as a party, we should strive to select the most able candidate for the role, regardless of their gender? I feel all-women shortlists are a huge barrier in the quest for meritocracy.
As Tory MP Lucy Allan says, gifting women a safe seat on a plate can actually end up undermining women’s performances in politics, especially if the chosen candidate lacks the necessary experience. I find myself inclined to agree – being an MP is a job like any other, and working your way up by your own merit is key.
Imagine that you were standing in your local constituency and you are placed on an all-women shortlist. Doesn’t that suggest you aren’t the best person for the job, but rather just the best woman? Would you not want to be regarded as the most able candidate overall, not just in terms of gender? Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran echoes this sentiment. “I don’t want to have won a seat because we were all women and yes I might have beaten half the field, but I want to know I’m better than everyone.”
As a woman, I would not want to feel as though I was being presumed to be incapable of competing against a man, and so needed special treatment.
Worst of all, imagine being a perfectly able male, who wanted to stand for candidacy in your local area. However, because you were born the “wrong” gender, you were being told you are excluded from standing, despite the fact you may be far more qualified and suited to the job than any of the females on the all-women shortlist. Not only is this grossly unfair, it is not conducive to nurturing the best talent available and strengthening the party.
Not only does it directly harm the party, in terms of excluding potential talent on the basis of gender, but it has an indirect negative impact too. It could potentially cause men who would normally vote Labour, being driven away because they feel disenfranchised and ignored by the party. I feel that some women are apathetic towards any disadvantage men may face as a result, because they are seen to have oppressed women for decades, so “it’s a taste of their own medicine”. Inexplicably, many of the women pressing for all-women shortlists claim to be Feminists, so I would argue that they aren’t acting within the principles of their own movement, which calls for equality; not advancement of women at the expense of men.
As a progressive party, naturally, Labour will be trying to boost participation of traditionally minority groups. However, I do not believe these shortlists are the correct way to do so. I propose, instead, that some form of quota system should be implemented. Crucially, said quota shouldn’t aim to give any one gender the upper-hand. I believe it should aim to represent both genders 50-50 (and allow candidates to self-identify their gender). This would ensure that both men and women were given a fair shot, without barring anyone, as well as accounting for Trans individuals.
The whole culture of politics is, in my opinion, the biggest barrier to women’s involvement, with the conduct of some male MPs being downright horrific. Rife sexual misconduct, sexist slurs and abuse that women MPs receive is enough to put anyone off. Jeremy Corbyn has set targets for 50% of Labour MPs to be women by 2020. I absolutely agree this is necessary, and totally welcome the idea. But I worry it is far too short a time to implement this, especially given the current method used, which is in my view, largely flawed.
In short, I find the whole policy completely at odds with the slogan being trotted out by the party at every opportunity: “For the many, not the few”. Surely if you’re preventing 50% of the population from standing as a candidate, based on their genitalia, you can’t claim to be working for everyone?