t is now widely accepted that in a modern
democracy parliament should properly represent the whole
population. Few people would accept that a parliament which
was 80% male could adequately do this.
Over the past 80 years, close on 4,500 Members have served
in the House of Commons. Only 239 have been women. Although
many women have long argued for better representation on the
basis of equity or in order to see different policies delivered,
it was research following the 1987 defeat which showed the
Labour Party that voters found masculine party images old-fashioned
and unattractive and believed that Labour was more male-dominated
than other parties. The gender gap where more women than men
were likely to vote Conservative was so pronounced that, had
women not had a vote, there would have been no Conservative
governments between 1945 and 1979.
The cynic in me therefore reasons that the Labour Government
has supported the current legislation going through parliament
to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to exclude candidate
selection from its provisions, to attract women voters to
the Labour Party as much as for egalitarian reasons. It is
well known that the result of concerted efforts to feminise
the party image in 1997 resulted in the gender gap disappearing
in all but the oldest age groups, and among younger women
a reverse gap in favour of Labour was apparent.
Maintaining its appeal to women is therefore one of the most
important factors in Labour's strategy for future elections.
This was forgotten in the run-up to the 2001 General Election
and the gender gap became more obvious again. Fortunately
for Labour, the Conservative Party was still weak and in disarray.
However, the support of women cannot be taken for granted
and the Party must campaign vigorously for their vote.
Are all-women shortlists the answer? To answer that question
we need to look briefly back to 1993 when the Labour Party
adopted the new selection procedure where 50% of candidates
for winnable seats were selected from all-women shortlists.
Although the policy was controversial, it was hugely successful
and resulted in 35 women becoming MPs. Then two disgruntled
male would-be candidates took the Party to an Industrial Tribunal
under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Although political
parties were exempted from parts of the Act, the tribunal
maintained that selection as a parliamentary candidate led
to employment, and that the selection procedure breached the
vital employment provisions of the Act. Many people believe
this decision made all-women shortlists illegal. That was
not true but only an appeal could have confirmed or overturned
the decision and the Labour Party decided not to appeal since
this would have stopped any further selections, and taken
up to 18 months to process with no guarantee of winning.
The 1998 Fabian leaflet High Time or High Tide for Labour
women? by Maria Eagle and Joni Lovenduski, examined in depth
the question of quotas and equal opportunities. They concluded
the Sex Discrimination Act needed amendment to permit widespread
use of positive action strategies to achieve sex equality.
Once positive action was permitted, then parties could decide
what form they wished to adopt. Even with compulsory all-women
shortlists in half the seats which become vacant it will probably
take a generation to deliver equality. They argued that if
the Labour Party kept its nerve and stuck to its commitment
to achieving equal representation, women would at last be
fairly represented throughout the British structure of government.
In March 2000 Joan Ruddock MP with cross-party support, brought
forward a 10 minute rule bill to amend the Sex Discrimination
Act. This would apply at elections to Westminster, Europe,
Scotland, Wales and local government. It had no chance of
becoming law but Tony Blair agreed he would be willing to
see a legal change after the next General Election. The current
Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill is the result.
This will shortly become law but the next battle will be the
most important - deciding which positive action strategy
Labour should adopt. It is obvious to many involved in this
debate that the only viable mechanism is all-women shortlists.
However, this needs to be argued within the constituencies
and die-hard beliefs must be challenged. For example, 'Everyone
should be chosen on their merits.' 'I don't want to be a token
woman.' 'We want to choose who we want, not have someone imposed
These are the most common statements made against the creation
of all-women shortlists. They have some validity and sound
democratic but argue only for the status quo which has chosen
more than 80% male Members of Parliament whilst women make
up 51% of the population. This profound democratic deficit
should be rectified. We need to argue for true democracy so
that all of us can take our equal place in society. It is
time for democratic socialists to stand up and be counted!