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Reasons why I’m for All Women Short-lists

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on March 30, 2010 at 11:09 pm

By Stephen Wan

The idea of All Women Short-lists (AWS) for parliamentary candidates is a contentious issue, not least because it seems to give a job to someone not on merit or ability, but just on the fact that they are female. David Cameron has come out in favour of it, hoping to create a more representative Conservative party. I am inclined to agree with Cameron’s position, seeing the necessity of creating a more representative Parliament out-weighing the apparent patronisation of women.

Firstly, AWS are a way of dealing with the problem of under-representation of women in Parliament. There are 126 women MPs in Parliament, compared to 519 male MPs – if it was done by the percentage of women to men in the UK, it should be 331 women MPs to 314 male MPs (the male:female sex ratio is 0.95). At the current rate of increase in the number of female MPs, it would take another 200 years before it is equal to men. This is seriously worrying, because we want an affective Parliament, and the most effective Parliament is one which best represents the British society, which is in turn best achieved by having a cross-section of society hold Parliamentary seats.

A common argument made in response is to say it is better to educate society and change its attitudes, to the point where it becomes normal for a women to be elected an MP in the same way as men are. However, such an argument ignores the reasons behind why some women choose to not stand; because Parliament is seen as a predominately male environment, and women simply do not see it as a career choice. This illusion would be shattered if more women entered Parliament, and appropriate provision such as crèches and flexible working hours are provided. The more female MPs there are in Parliament, the stronger the feeling that politics is a career that women can pursue. Currently, the low levels of women in Parliament is self-perpetuating, and the only way to break this cycle is through positive action.

Another argument is to say entering Parliament should be as meritocratic as possible, and not based on one’s gender, either male or female. I agree that jobs that are meritocratic should not be based on gender, which is why I oppose positive discrimination in almost every other job. However, an MP’s job is very different, by virtue of the very fact that they are a member of a Parliament that seeks to represent people. What is the measure by which someone becomes the ‘best person for the job’ for an MP? There is no appropriate answer, although the closest may be one who most commands the confidence of the electorate within their constituency. However, when the question becomes by what measure is Parliament itself ‘the best institution for the job’, that job being to represent the British people, then clearly a Parliament that has an appropriate percentage of males to females would be better than one that does not. A Parliament that commands the confidence of the country is more important than one that does not.

It is a mistake to think MPs are given their job based on the sort of merit that is the same as why other people are given jobs; that’s simply not how Parliament should function. A great deal of people are given jobs based on their qualifications, or their past experience. If Parliament was to be a place where the most qualified or experienced get a job, then Parliament would be horribly out of touch (and to a great extent it currently is). Parliament instead needs to be seen as a place that understands the views and needs of society, and particularly the half of society that seems to have been missed out.

However, one should not make the mistake of thinking AWS is the final solution to the problem of women’s representation; major social attitudes and structures still need to be changed, such as violence against women, female poverty, equal pay and childcare. Nonetheless, AWS is a means by which the voice of women with regards to violence and poverty can be channelled, which in turn re-enforces the ability of women to make an impact in politics, leading to more women wanting to become involved in the first place. It would be naive to think we can bring about a change in social attitudes without a role for women in representing women; a change in the nature and structure of society is best done with the input of women in the first place.

One thing that should not happen is that women are appointed to ministerial positions just on the basis that they are a women (with perhaps the exception of the Minister for Women and Equality), because these positions are ones that are more fundamentally about merit, and about who is best at organisation, running a department, providing reports and press speeches etc. Notice here though the difference between a ministerial position and a parliamentarian position; the latter involves representation whereas the former does not. There should not then be any criticism of an executive that may happen to have an under-representation of women, because the role of the executive is not to represent women like Parliament should.

In conclusion, I welcome AWS as a means to kick-start the representation of women in Parliament when it most badly needs to have people regain trust in it as an institution. Part of that trust relies on the ability of Parliament to relate to the people, best achieved if it was more representative. There should not be a feeling that women elected into Parliament got there on less of a mandate than others who weren’t on a short-list, because the most important thing is that Parliament is effective at representation. Whilst perhaps someday in the future the need for AMS will no longer be, which I hope is soon, without AWS that change would take far too long. People need to be represented now, not some 200 years in the future.

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