Here we go again - in defence of All Women Shortlists
I was a bit surprised to get an invite to join a Facebook group entitled "Support equal opportunities: oppose all-women shortlists" (http://www.new.facebook.com/group.php?gid=30014641020).
I thought this debate had been settled in the early '90s but it looks like some colleagues want to reopen it.
I think it might have made their case look better if the creators/administrators of the group had not both been men. Particularly in the case of the one of them who I know wants to be a parliamentary candidate, there's a bit of a whiff of self interest. I notice Kerron Cross who I had some intemperate exchanges with about this subject in the early days of this blog has joined the group.
There's a legitimate debate to be had about whether the Labour NEC's Organisation Sub Committee is over-doing their interpretation of the rules around which seats should have an All-Women Shortlist (AWS) for their selection. Personally I think that the Party needs to ensure a national level of 50% AWS in vacant Labour seats and aim for a level of 50% AWS in each individual region where this doesn't affect the national total. At the moment the 50% per region target, because it involves rounding up on small numbers of vacant seats per region (i.e. 1 of 1 or 2 of 3 vacancies must be AWS) is meaning that the national total is likely to be over 50%, which is excessive seeing as women can also contest the other 50% of "open" seats. There is also some micro implementation going on around specific boroughs or counties e.g. there are 3 Labour seats in Anyshire, all of them held by men, so any vacancy in Anyshire must be AWS (even if next door Upshire and Downshire have plenty of women Labour MPs), which has a distorting effect.
There also needs to be a debate about how allegations of the political use of AWS to block particular candidates or help others can be put to rest and complete transparency ensured, so that the principle is not undermined.
We also need to work out how to address the contentious issue of whether AWS damages the chances of increasing the number of BME candidates.
But the principle needs to be stuck with until we get a PLP that represents the electorate and is at least 50% women. The only proven way to get there is AWS. In years where we have had AWS selections Labour has managed to get lots of women MPs selected and elected. In years where we haven't, the numbers have gone backwards. This is something to be ashamed of. We shouldn't need to force Constituency Labour Parties to pick women candidates but the reality is that left to their own devices, all but the most progressive pick men. Unless you believe women are less capable than men as politicians (which there is no evidence for) the only explanation must be conscious or unconscious discrimination by the format of the selection process itself or by members of what is supposed to be a party of the left.
If this discrimination didn't exist then there would be no need for AWS, but it does, and we as a Party believe in equality, so we must use the only proven tool for tackling this, AWS.
Whilst AWS has been unpopular with voters where disgruntled male candidates have made an issue of it, such as in Blaenau Gwent, the net result of AWS, and the thing that only it is proven to deliver, a line-up of candidates with a lot more women in it, is popular with voters and is a major differentiator between us and the Tories and Lib Dems.
I write this as a man who has personally had all the seats near me that I was interested in contesting in selections this time round declared AWS so I was unable to go for them. But if you are a male candidate who believes in a more representative House of Commons, and a Labour Party whose candidates reflect the electorate, you have to accept someone has to miss the opportunity to run in order to move towards our goal of gender equality in our parliamentary party.
As my partner Linda sensitively put it when I moaned a bit about one of the AWS decisions that affected me: "Blokes like you have been in the Commons for hundreds of years, women haven't, get over it!".
That's why I won't be joining that Facebook group and why I disagree with the premise behind it. I'd urge the members of it to "get over it!" and support the principle of Labour's initiatives for getting talented women into the PLP, their council or wherever else rather than worrying about how it impacts on them personally. A little bit of self-sacrifice in the wider interests of the Party and our principle of equality is never a bad thing.