Following Austin Mitchell’s ill-informed (and frankly embarrassing) comments on women in parliament, the debate about All Women Shortlists in parliamentary selections has reared its head again: surely the best person for the job should be selected? Shouldn’t it be based on merit and not gender? What about the menz? Let’s try and break it down:
The problem isn’t that bad, is it?
Only 22% of all MPs are women – putting us 65th in the world classification for electing women. The Labour Party has, historically, maintained the best representation of women within parliament, dating right back to 1945. More recently, in 1992, 36 women were elected to represent the Labour Party – and in 1997, with AWS implemented in half of all winnable seats, 101 women were elected for Labour. Compare that to 2001, where AWS wasn’t used, where only 4 women were elected, compared to 30 men, for the Labour Party. Currently, the percentage of women within the Parliamentary Labour Party sits at 31% – more than all of the other parties put together, but not good enough.
But 31% is good, isn’t it? That’s more-or-less half?
That’s 31% on Labour’s benches, not overall in parliament. Even then, 31% isn’t good enough when women make up over half of the population, and it especially isn’t good enough at a time where women are being disproportionately hit by government cuts: Economists from the Women’s Budget Group found in 2013 that women, particularly single parents and single pensioners, have lost much more than men from cuts to benefits and public services since 2010. While unemployment for men fell between 2010 and 2013, it rose for women. 63 of every 100 jobs created in the private sector went to men during this period, and only 37 to women. Cuts to childcare make it harder for mothers to find paid work, and 70 council-funded children’s centres have closed each year since 2010. In short, “Women face a triple jeopardy of job losses, cuts in benefits and public services, and being expected to plug the looming care gap.”
But what has any of that got to do with All Women Shortlists? Women can write to their MPs if they’re worried about that stuff, can’t they?
The answer to that is simple – parliament should be reflective of the country it represents so that it can be part of decision making on issues which affect them the most. That is true not only of gender, but should also be representative of our BAME, LGBT and disabled communities (and Tom King hits the nail on the head on that subject here). It shouldn’t be left to a large group of white, middle-aged men to understand, and then act upon, what they think is best for women (and the proof is in the pudding – nearly 80% of parliament is men, and women are feeling the pressure of that) – that’s why I’m particularly pleased to see Ed Miliband appoint Seema Malhotra MP as Shadow Minister for Preventing Violence Against Women and Girls, championing the needs of all victims of rape, domestic and sexual violence, as well as FGM, forced marriage, trafficking and prostitution.
Sooooo, you’ve got All Women Shortlists. Now what?
All Women Shortlists isn’t the solution, but it is part of the solution. In an ideal world, All Women Shortlists wouldn’t need to be used. But the fact that in March last year, of the 18 open selections in target seats that had been held, 17 of them were won by men – and only 4 of the 13 by-election selections being won by women – suggests there is a real and urgent need to get more women elected. AWS should be used alongside a direct effort to encourage women to come forward to stand for selection in the first place by convincing them that party politics is an effective and worthwhile way to make a change to their community, and to their country. More needs to be done to make politics more accessible to women so that women from all walks of life feel comfortable enough to put themselves up for selection – whether that’s through practical changes surrounding barriers such as childcare, confidence building, training programmes, mentors, or a combination of all of these. Undoubtedly, positive women role models is a big part of this, and you don’t get those without electing women!
But shouldn’t it be the best person for the job, regardless of gender?
Ultimately, that is what it should be about, but that suggests that there is currently a chance of that actually happening. The current gender balance in parliament suggests that for every deserving four men, there is only one deserving woman. Broken down into the basics of “getting involved in politics”, “standing for selection” and “winning the selection”, there are barriers faced by women at every stage. The most glaringly obvious is the sad acceptance that, even in the Labour Party, there is a great deal of sexism, faced at all levels – from parliamentarians down to campaign volunteers – which is enough to put some women off for life. What about those women who might be the perfect candidate, but is reluctant to engage in the process because they’re told they should be “making the tea” instead (this is a genuine comment I received when standing for election to Plymouth City Council)? Selections aren’t a level playing field for men and women, and without working to overhaul the idea that politics is a “mans game”, all parties are doing a disservice to talented, capable women who would otherwise have the ability to make a real difference.
Okay, but what about not-so-talented, not-so-capable women who are selected simply because they’re a woman?
I find the term “simply because they’re a woman” problematic to begin with – suggesting that women are selected “simply” because of their gender completely demeans the achievements and abilities of our women parliamentarians. All Women Shortlists isn’t necessarily about individuals. It is about a movement towards 50/50 representation for men and women. It’s not about who has benefitted from AWS, or succeeded without them. Some of the most able parliamentary candidates I have seen selected this year have come forward on women-only shortlists, and they are no less credible candidates than those selected on open shortlists (a figure which stands at just 11%, if you were still unconvinced) Besides, what about all those not-so-talented, not-so-capable men we have sitting in parliament currently?!
But where does it end?
I can tell you where it doesn’t end – with 50/50 representation (although that is the aim!) It doesn’t end there because reaching 50/50 and then dropping the baton isn’t good enough. We need to maintain that representation to ensure that women are not politically disadvantaged as they have been historically. Selecting women more often than we are now sounds so simple that it’s ludicrous to even have to be defending it, but with a long way to go to equal gender representation in parliament, we’ve got to keep saying it and, more importantly, we have to start doing it.