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Tag Archives: harriet harman

There are not enough women in politics. They are undoubted outnumbered by their male counterparts and this is a problem that is neither new nor party political. It is over 30 years since the male hegemony was broken in number 10 Downing Street with the election of one Mrs Margaret Roberts Thatcher. Yet since then, there have been four different Lib Dem leaders without a woman making a clear claim to their leadership. There have been five Conservative leaders and Ann Widdecombe’s efforts aside, there has not been one major female contender, likewise Labour, who aside from Margaret Beckett, have failed to produce a female politician to stake a serious claim the leadership. It needs stressing that this is not a party political issue and all parties need to do more to nurture their own talent in their respective parties.

This issue has of course come to ahead with the current acting leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman proposing that a quota of 50% men and women should make up the shadow cabinet. Her hope is that such a rule would drive forward gender equality and by making it compulsory for half the cabinet to made up by female members of the PLP. This represents, in my view, a fundamental miss-understanding of the nature of politics, identity and representation. Politics should not be about the identity of the individuals involved. It is about having a vision and a set of ideals for how the world should be shaped. The people that I personally want to be in power are those that I think can delivery on the values that I aspire to and the goals that they achieve. An individual’s gender, race, sexuality, fashion sense or choice of football team should be relevant when considering who a voter wants as a representative. Discrimination, of any kind, is an evil that should only be discouraged and defeated; it should be used when it is convenient because there is always an unfair victim, who loses out through no fault of his or her own. Thus discrimination goes against the core values that the Labour party stands for and is what drives many of us into politics.

The issue of positive discrimination and the arguments that surround it are not new to the Labour party. It was Labour that that controversially embraced all women shortlists as a short term measure and it has to be said had a big impact. When Labour swept to power in 1997, they did so with arguably the most diverse group of MPs in any parliamentary party in the country’s history. The role that all women shortlists played in this success cannot be understated. So is the 50-50 rule the natural next step? The next tough short term measure to strengthen party and country in the long term? Is an all-women shortlist the same as a quota? This is not clear.

The shortlists were introduced to aid the problems that wannabe female candidates had in getting selected, and the problems they had in being taken seriously by Constituency Labour Parties across the country. So the real question needs to be, is whether the leadership of the labour party can be trusted or not to give potential members of a shadow cabinet an equal chance, regardless of gender? It is not clear whether within the PLP; female MPs have had their chances restricted to warrant such a change. In fact the opposite would appear to be the case, with some excellent women ministers many of whom have held the great offices of state, notably the first ever female home and foreign secretaries, amongst many other positions taken up by women that previously had been part of the male monopoly on power. We, as a party, should be proud that we have led the way in diversifying parliament, but it is not only women that has broken through, with first ethnic minority cabinet ministers, first gay and disabled minsters as well. This is tantamount to way in which the party has grown to utilise talent from a wide range of backgrounds. Furthermore, it was notably how this was not case when the first Lib-Con cabinet sat; it was actually a return to the upper middle class, white male hegemony of power.

So which is the right way forward? There appears to be very little evidence to suggest that there is unequal opportunity within the PLP to warrant the constraints of a quota. It appears that the problem is numbers, or lack of them. Amongst the 258 Labour MPs, a mere 89 are women. This is the problem and it needs to be looked at by the new Labour leader. But this should be a wholesale review of not just the candidate selection process, but the whole way in which we engage people in politics. As we rebuild in opposition we need to consider how to engage the disenfranchised and the disinterested into politics, and how we best serve their interests. We need to ensure that we are recruiting members, supporters and candidates that we are looking beyond the end of our proverbial noses. I have personally thought for sometime that there are far too many MPs who have travelled a similar route into politics, from studying politics at university, to working in a think tank to becoming an MP by their late 30s to early 40s and touted as the next bright young things. We need to look further afield. The other major change should be in reforming the selection process, which is in need of being opened up so the same familiar faces do not become candidates.

Since the 1990s there have been too many stifled debates and contests, too many mates parachuted into safe seats and too many of the same old faces are in the PLP as a consequence. Thus, in rebuilding Labour we must heed the lessons of these fixed rules and contests control freakery with the purpose of delivering a pre-ordained narrative and objective. Thus the 50-50 rule is a natural extension of this habit of stifling real debate and real contests in favour of the pre-ordained narrative to show that we are reflective of society and delivering the aim of more women in politics. But this, like the 1990s reforms, fails to get to the heart of the issue and is more about image and headlines, than real hard won progress. I want the party to open up, engage with more than the familiar faces, engage people from different areas and different backgrounds, to take tough decisions and face the consequences of opening up debate, even if we do not get the outcome we wanted. All women short lists were good in many respects, but why are we, 13 years on since the 1997 election still discussing the issue? We are still discussing the issue because of our failure to delve into a real discussion of who were engaging with and how we select candidates. We need real reform here. We need to heed a lot of lessons from President Obama on how to utilise a young, energetic network of supporters and emulate our own open primaries where local residents can choose not only the MP but the candidates as well.

Thus there are two paths for the party to choose here. One based on the same principals that failed in the 1990s and another based on a radical change about to whom we are talking to and how we select individuals as candidates. This should be part of turning Labour party membership into real community organisers and not just a glorified postman of our own propaganda. The quota if introduced will fail to get to the real issue, which is not about who the leader picks in their cabinet, but who that leader has to chose from. By reforming the process around selection, we will, in the long run improve the talent pool that said leader has to choose from. When equality quotas have been introduced elsewhere, there are clear trends that for those who are discriminated against, are put off in the long term, if anybody wants evidence for this look into so many South African cricketers play in England. Quotas are not designed to drive real change but act as a symbolic sign of progress, but it is a fake progress that will hide the real issues, when they should be highlighted.

If the party makes the right choices to open up debate and participation, to engage in the issues that affects their lives, understands the different issues that affects a wide coalition of society then the party will win back power from the Conservative-Liberal coalition. However, if we fail to radically change how we engage, which would be exacerbated with more stifled debate and fixed rules (like 50-50), the public will have no reason to believe we are any different. It was notable yesterday that one Miliband backed 50-50, whilst the other talked about nominating another leadership challenger so that the party has the widest possible debate. It has been those two moments that made my mind up that only through David Miliband will the party look to radically change the way it operates and engage in real debate.

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