All Women Shortlists
June 9, 2011 4 Comments
All Woman Shortlisting for a party’s selection of MP candidate is an often contentious point. The justification for it is that despite women making up roughly half the population of the country, they have never come anywhere near this proportion of seats in the House of Commons. A dearth of women is a problem for many reasons, chief among them that ‘women’s issues’ are given less attention than they deserve, that there is a lack of positive female role models demonstrating a woman’s capacity to exercise power and that, symbolically and literally, our political system is revealed to be dominated by, and managed in the interests of, men (and white men, at that). As important as it is to see the hugely discrepant male to female ratio rectified, AWS seem to be an imperfect, and potentially damaging, tool.
The most obvious reason to oppose them, and one which is sufficient for many to make up their minds on its strength alone, is that refusing to allow someone to run in an election on the grounds of gender or any similar characteristic is inherently at odds with the basic values of our democratic system. In fact, Labour’s use of all women shortlists was ruled illegal in 1996 under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and remained so until the Labour government introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 to allow themselves to continue the practice.
There is also an argument that the women elected through these lists are not respected because they haven’t had to go though the same rigours as other MPs. The Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson made her opposition to all women shortlists unambiguous with a t-shirt bearing the legend “I am not a token woman”.
To some extent, though, it is for each party to decide how they select their candidates, and as the women selected through this process still have to go on to legitimately win an election, it could be argued that this does not constitute a serious democratic shortcoming. Aside from this, AWS are fundamentally at odds with another key ideology of our democracy; the idea of representation. The suggestion is that for women to be adequately represented in the House of Commons, the proportion of female MPs must be (or at least must approach) the proportion of women in society; approximately 50%. The first response to this is to recognise that women are not the only under represented minority group*. Other groups, who are also likely to be adversely affected by ignorantly made policy, might also be justified in demanding electoral manipulation to ensure representation. Why not all black or Asian shortlists? Why not all disabled shortlists? Why all openly gay shortlists? I’m not being facetious. Why not engineer things so that there are a few more working class MPs, or better still, benefits claimants? A number of MPs end up in prison, but why not engineer things so that some ex-convicts are elected; would their experiences not be useful in informed law making? Yesterday in Parliament Labour MP Paul Flynn suggested shortlists to get more people over 80 into the Commons. There is not one (acknowledged) transgender MP. Isn’t it time something was done about that? Shouldn’t a few more of our MPs be unemployed? (Ok, now I am being facetious)
Though it would be nice to see a more diverse Parliament, all women shortlists are built on the notion that in order for women’s interests to be protected, women must be represented by women. This is problematic for a representative democracy; ultimately, if you consent to be represented by someone else in a political system you must accept that they will not share all of your characteristics, up to and including gender. (Practically, if you are lucky enough to find a candidate whose political views are compatible with yours, other concerns become secondary). Furthermore, this debate focuses on the composition of the Commons as a whole, and somewhat neglects the role an MP has in representing their own constituency. Is my sister, whose MP is female, better represented, benefiting from a greater democratic empowerment, than my mother, whose MP is male? Am I served less well by my female MP than I would have been by a male one? It is worth remembering that the women of Mid Bedforshire are represented by Nadine Dorries, who, with her views on abortion, abstinence only sex education for girls and ‘just saying no’ to sexual abuse can be viewed as one of the most pressing threats to the dignity and sexual equality of women in the current Parliament. She doesn’t even support all women shortlists, so anti-feminist is she.
All of this is to say that, within the context of our democratic system, any attempt by the major political parties to influence that type of person who is elected is fundamentally undemocratic; all women shortlists are built on a rejection of the most basic concept of representation; and that women in power are no guarantee that women’s issues are being properly championed. The very idea of all women shortlists is fundamentally at odds with the internal logic of our political system.
It’s also worth looking at this in a wider context, though. All female shortlists are intended to address the recognised problem that our political system is dominated by men and maintains masculine, patriarchal privileges. With this in mind, it is seriously doubtful that this system can be a mechanism for protecting (or even understanding) women’s best interests. Put bluntly; if you do not believe that our democratic system is institutionally prejudiced in favour of men then there is no need for all female shortlists. If you do believe that our democratic system is institutionally prejudiced in favour of men then there is no reason to trust it as an agent of female empowerment. A policy handed down from above, by men, within a patriarchal system will not empower women; it is a gesture of condescension. Women cannot be given equal democratic power, as the very act of giving is an assertion of superiority. Fundamentally, our representative parliamentary democracy is a hierarchy of power and privilege which has consistently disenfranchised women. Genuine gender equality cannot be achieved with in it.
*It is worth pointing out that at half the population, women are not in any meaningful sense a numerical minority, but are referred to as one because they suffer the same effects of marginalisation, victimisation and ‘othering’ as is common for actual minorities.