As you, dear reader, may have noticed, there aren’t enough women MPs. Or, to be slightly more precise, there are too many white, cishet, male, fee-paying-school-and-Oxbridge MPs. But let’s just stick to the men for the rest of this blog post. We’ll get to the rest of the kyriarchy later.
Now, you’re not the only one that’s noticed the shortage of women MPs. Amazingly, the political parties took a look at themselves and noticed the problem too. Labour, being the most centralised of our parties, came up with a solution. They called it All-Women Shortlists. Under this, the Organisation Sub-Committee of the National Executive Committee decides, for each constituency coming up for selection, whether it should be an open selection or an all-women shortlist. I believe (though I can’t find a copy of the actual selection rules – I assume because it’s a confidential document internal to the Labour Party) that 50% of seats have to be open and 50% all-women shortlists.
This has greatly increased the number of women MPs from the Labour party, but has done so at a price. The two other major parties, both Liberal Democrat and Conservative, have recoiled from those costs and have sought to achieve greater female representation by providing additional training and funding to women seeking to become MPs for their party, and also by operating systems that ensure that women are shortlisted. The Liberal Democrat process requires at least one women on a shortlist if any women apply (an all-male shortlist can go forward only if there are zero female applicants), while the Conservatives operate their “A-list” mechanism to also prevent all-male shortlists.
While these approaches have increased female representation in both of those parties, it seems to have stalled in the twenties per cent, while Labour continue to increase their fraction of female MPs.
The big prices paid in the way Labour operates all-women shortlists are these:
- Increased centralisation. Labour’s Org Sub decides on an open shortlist vs an AWS in each seat. This is often done to manipulate the selection – a locally popular man whom Org Sub doesn’t like will see an AWS. Equally, a local woman that Org Sub does like will get an AWS to shut out external competition.
- Late decisions. The decision between Open and AWS is made only when the constituency starts the selection process. Hopeful candidates may well have been working for months or years before the decision, only to find an AWS imposed and their efforts wasted. More importantly, people within the constituency (sitting MPs, party officers, councillors, etc) could have been encouraging able local women to develop their skills to the point of being selectable. Instead, the local party often gets one of a small pool of middle-class women from professional politics (parliamentary staff, party staff, trades union officials, think-tanks, voluntary sector) with little or no local connection.
- All-women shortlists put off non-binary candidates and trans women, both being groups that often face severe discrimination. Non-binary candidates aren’t women, so even if they are eligible (I believe that Labour’s rules say that they are), they’re not likely to feel very welcomed in an “all-women” space. And trans women are well aware of the reactions they have historically faced in all-women spaces – not very good ones.
For a party that, unlike Labour (or the Conservatives), does not have contested selections in every constituency in the country, there would be a fourth problem:
- In the weakest seats, there are very few people that want to stand; generally, the problem is finding a candidate at all, not in selecting between multiple capable choices. Excluding people from standing will make running a full slate of candidates much harder.
In addition, of course, there are principled arguments against AWS – either that men and women should compete on an equal basis, that women selected through AWS are seen as second-class, or that local parties should choose whoever they want. I’m quite deliberately not addressing these questions here. My experience is that very few people are persuadable on this, so it’s a waste of time to write on the topic.
So, turning now to my own party, in the Liberal Democrats, what do I propose, and how does it resolve these practical issues?
My proposal is simple.
“After each General Election, a determination shall be made by the Federal Executive of the gender of membership of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons. In the event that there are 10 or more MPs and 60% or more of them are of a single gender (the ‘overrepresented gender’) then the following rule shall be imposed until the next General Election:
In any selection for a constituency where 50% or more of the electorate was represented by a Liberal Democrat MP at the last General Election, and any by-election selection where the former MP was elected as a Liberal Democrat at the last General Election, then members of the overrepresented gender may not seek selection, be shortlisted, or be selected, except that current Liberal Democrat MPs may be selected regardless of their gender.”
This rule makes the selection not subject to manipulation by some committee; everyone knows which constituencies are subject to this rule years in advance. MPs know their successor will have to be a woman, so they can start looking for one; psychologically, men will not be seen as potential successors. By excluding men, rather than making selections all-women, it makes it clear and unequivocal that non-binary people and trans women are included.
The 50% language is related to boundary changes – a seat that has one ward transferred in from a held seat doesn’t become a held seat as a result, and a held seat that has one ward transferred in from the neighbouring black hole doesn’t stop being held.
It only affects constituencies where an MP is stepping down – the existing MP is allowed to continue for as long as they wish, but once they step down, their replacement cannot be a man until we get men under 60% of MPs.
The other problem – a problem much worse for a locally campaigning party like the Lib Dems than for Labour – is that applying AWSs in so-called “target” or “key” seats (those seats where the party lost narrowly in the previous election) can be very unfair to candidates who were narrowly defeated last time; often, their efforts over many years are the reason that the seat became winnable for the party in the first place, and few will be inclined to pass on the baton this close to the finishing line.
So, men who want to be MPs will have to concentrate on (a) encouraging good women to push forward to get the male percentage below 60% to open up some slots for themselves or (b) on campaigning in seats that we don’t currently hold and getting more Lib Dem MPs elected. Either of those is a positive result.
Finally, the clause automatically suspends itself once it’s succeeded enough. If we get men down under 60%, then the rule is disabled for a parliament. If they bounce back, then it comes back on again; if not, then selections are open permanently. Labour’s AWS doesn’t have a finishing line; there’s no way of ever knowing if it’s succeeded.