Sunday, 10 January 2010

Tory All Women Shortlist- party mouthpieces or essential step to equality?

‘Women are the future of politics,’ so say the Conservatives, in what some might describe as a belated move. Ninety years after universal suffrage the fairer sex is being heralded by mainstream parties as the leaders of the 21st Century, ploughing forward to a truly representative government.

However, the means by which these women are entering the political sphere have attracted criticism across the board; from grassroots campaigners to female MPs who have struggle through the system already. The use of women-only shortlists (WOS) produce a female voice which, it has been argued, is controlled and vetted within the central party offices and gives rise to an artificially cultivated system allowing ‘Blair Babes’ and ‘Cameron Cuties’ to simply be party mouthpieces.

WOS are centrally imposed lists of potential female candidates for a constituency; usually a ‘safe’ seat which guarantees a place in parliament. These women need not necessarily have any links to the area, or, indeed, have to live there after nomination. The announcement from Conservative Head Office has been met with considerable resistance from both Association members and, indeed, other female MPs. When questioned on the policy Cameron replied, “There are many very, very good women on our priority list and I want to gave them a chance to serve in parliament.” The announcement was greeted with malcontent from many quarters as the editors of the influential ConservativeHome website issued a joint statement saying: “We feared this would happen, all women shortlists are fundamentally unConservative (sic) and they have no part to play in a party pledged to meritocracy.”

Although this is the first instance of Tories taking up the policy, it is certainly not the first time these shortlists have been used. The history of the WOS is chequered by rejection. First introduced by – the then Labour leader - John Smith in 1993, the lists were used to appease a number of large unions, guaranteeing a block vote in his favour. The policy was deemed unlawful by an industrial tribunal in 1996, after two potential male candidates felt their exclusion from the chance to run for office was unfair. However, the ruling conceeded that women already selected to stand could continue their campaigns. Allowing these female candidates to remain is widely credited with producing 120 female MPs – the highest number of women ever recorded in parliament- and 35 of the 38 candidates from the all women shortlists were successful. In 2002 the Government past the Sex Discriminations (Elections) Act, specifically to make it legal for political parties to use WOS until 2015.

The arguments for the system are clear. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister 30 years ago, and the number of law and regulations designed to ensure proportional representation have steadily increased since this time, with key industries accepting women in high-powered positions. It might appear, to the casual observer, that there is a semblance of, if not complete, equality. However startling statistics point to the converse. Of the 646 constituencies within the UK, only 129 seats are held by women: a trifling 19.5 percent. In terms of equality this places us behind Rwanda (56.3 percent), Iraq (25.5 percent) and even Afghanistan (27.7 percent).

Ceri Goddard, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for female equality in the UK, argues that these statistics show the current nomination system still fails to engage or incorporate women effectively into the system. She suggests that, in line with the UN’s directive to promote equality by using ‘special temporary measures’. WOS can help “accelerate de facto equality between men and women.
“The argument that women should get into parliament on their own merit assumes there is a fair and level playing field for women and implies, wrongly, that there are not enough ‘women of merit’ out there and ready to fill shortlists.”

Ann Widdecombe, MP for Maidstone and the Weald, has been a staunch critic of such measures. Struggling though the ranks without aid, she declares, made her the politician she is today. By carving out a route for women based on quotas and directives, she argues, a group of “second class citizens and no-one deserves to sit on the green benches with such a tag.” If a group of less experienced women are chivvied into power by a side-door, then parliament will be dominated by ‘bland babes’ who will be patronised and manipulated by ‘career politicians’. “We should be tapping good women on the shoulder and inviting them to turn their eyes to parliament instead of devising ever more restrictive rules to try and force selection committees to select by category instead of merit.”

Cameron’s enthusiasm to take on the policy has been condemned by many as a PR stunt to attract the, often overlooked, female vote. It is clear that within the party itself dissidence is rife. Critics of the policy maintain that skewing the pitch for women results in some constituencies being represented by someone without essential grassroots links to the community.

The most obvious example of this is the ‘Turnip Taliban’ of West Norwich. Unhappy with Liz Truss - the candidate handpicked by Cameron - who, it has emerged, had an affair with married frontbencher Mark Field. Despite the relationship ending five years ago, when the details surfaced it served to exacerbate the ill will surrounding what is seen as the disenfranchising the grassroots of the Association. Truss faced the electorate’s Association in a bid to quell calls for her to be de-selected.

Despite receiving a vote of confidence from some four-fifths of members present it is clear that a large proportion of the anger towards her had little to do with her misguided relationship choice. Being Norfolk, one can’t help but wonder if the outcry would have been less if she had embarked on an affair with her cousin instead.

More significantly, the fallout for Field has been non-existent, despite the revelation that his illicit clinches took place whilst he was meant to be on the job (as an MP). In the world of politics, where, if escapades of Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman has taught us nothing else, politics equates to power and there is nothing more seductive than power. Yet still the blame lies firmly on the shoulders of Truss.

Once a woman reaches the green seats of the House, the battle to ensure frontbench power appears to lie in the hands of one woman. Harriet Harman famously declared that “men cannot be trusted to run things on their own” in an interview where she described her own ascent to power as a way of ensuring that women were represented, citing it as “one of the reasons I was prepared to run for deputy leader”. She went on to suggest that there would never be an all male leadership again, saying “Do men want it all themselves? It just won’t happen again.” One of her first steps in her new role was an attempt to change the Labour leadership rules to ensure that there must always be either a female leader or deputy leader. Her proposal was shot down on the basis that merit should be uppermost when choosing such prominent figures. That and the fact that her proposition was seen as a ‘naked attempt’ to position herself for the leadership. Indeed the fact that she considers altering rules implies that there are not enough women of merit to be considered for the roles, making her even less popular with the party.

Its is clear that by using these lists there is a real risk of women being selected for statistical purposed rather than based on the merit of their own value, But until women are able to manoeuvre through the halls of Westminster with the same ease as their male counterparts these interim policies seem to be the only solution. The real issue, which the parties seem less willing to tackle, is why women do not engage so readily with politics than their y-chromosomes counterparts. Goddard argues that the current measures “need to be seen as a wider package. We need to make practical and cultural changes to work towards a culture where all girls and boys grow up believing in their equal value and worth. A society where we no longer need women-only shortlists.”

Monday, 4 January 2010

Oh, What A Difference A Year Makes

A brief consideration of the year that was.


Last year was the year of Nigella Mania. Men ogled and drooled over the Christmas cookery that drizzled and oozed all over Mrs Saachi’s delicately plump fingers. Naughty winks, simpers and sojourns to the local café all lead us to feel that is was our right to fritter our money down our gullets (why make your own caftiere of espresso if you can get dressed, styled and made up to walk ten minutes down a road and then pay 2 quid a pop for them instead?)

As sober times came upon us, we realised that we frankly couldn’t give a honeyed fig whether we’ve provided enough cream in our macaroni cheese to kill a small buffalo because, well, have you seen the price of dairy produce?

We were weary of rich rich foods, the kind of food Fred Goodwin (probably) eats, every day off gold plates (possibly) while Nigella does some kind of erotic fondue based striptease (unlikely, I’ll admit, but the metaphor remains.) 

Nigella offers a panacea of Creole soup, for the over-induldged, but what the nation needed was something more. No exotica, no promise of fortune, we needed sensible fare, bland, the foodie equivalent to magnolia paint to ease the fiery heartburn of a decade of excess.

Delia was our Gaviscon.

Simple, basic fare. How to cook the turkey not garnish, trim and puff it up until we think it’s some kind gastronomic marvel before tasting it and remembering we don’t like turkey anyway. Bland, comforting basics are the fodder for the Christmas year. Virtuosity overwhelms as we feel the rational purse keeping surrounding us once more. How we sighed with relief, watching the google box, as the safe soothing tones of reason guided us through how to have a satisfactory Yuletide dinner.


Shoulder pads were the 80s trend which could be considered the gift that just kept on giving in 2009. Like herpes. The warrior-woman of the boardroom look represented money money money in a Brownite move. The rational was that if we look like money and spend like we have money, then maybe, just maybe, we will get some. The same logic supported sky-high shoes- look like you only ever take taxis then someone is bound to order you one on the company account.

Looking to the year ahead the key looks are jumpsuits (because fixing your own boiler well be a messy, messy job), deconstructed (to ward of enquiries about your worn, frayed clobber with a ‘bang on trend’ retort), ditto for vintage, and milkmaids (a version of grown-your own taken to the next level). Pragmatism in extremis will be a bitter pill for many of us to swallow.

Of course, one trend is set to weather through the noughties into the, um, new decade (any ideas on what this one is?) The curse of the harem pant. The fantasy-wear favoured by genies and Conservative candidates for Stoke-on-Trent requires little sartorial explanation. Recommended wear of choice for any minister planning a Budget report this year, me thinks.


In a time honoured tradition the Christmas charts last year was ruled by the X-Factor scourge. Within the top five singles, there were two X-Factor winners, a duplicate version of an X-Factor single and a satirical number by Peter Kay as the winner of Britain's Got the Pop Factor... and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice.

Alexandra Burke’s re-interpretation of ‘Hallelujah’ with its with mass choral support and heightened production seemed to split the nation into the 576,000 who bought copies of the single, and everyone else who much preferred the beautifully pared-down Jeff Buckley version. Hell, most of us would even have taken the Leonard Cohen version. 

However, the seeds of malcontent were stirring, as half a decade in the grip of the musical mogul seemed to loom towards us. This grip, as tight as his smile after another round of botox, weakened as a facebook phenomenon gathered momentum to block the his latest ingénue, Joe McElderry, from reaching the top spot.  The baby-faced winner’s version of The Climb was trashed by the expletive-filled Killing In The Name by rock band Rage Against The Machine.
This remarkable turn off affairs blossomed from a Facebook group started by Jon Morter, 35, a part-time rock DJ and logistics expert from South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, who’s campaign followed on from 2008, when he attempted to get Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up to the top of the Christmas charts. This time, he was aided by comedian Peter Serafinowicz, who urged his 268,000 followers on Twitter to buy the alternative record. It became so popular that even dear old Sir Paul McCartney got in on the game.
The choice of song was so beautifully oppositional to the shmaltzy ballad previously performed by Disney’s latest cashcow and star of the Hanna Montana franchise.
While McElderry urges listeners to “keep the faith”, the Rage track challenge accepted conventions with the now iconic phrasing: “Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me.”

Does this mean then that the reality pop bubble has truly burst? Unlikely- Alexandra Burke is still storming the charts, little Joe made it to number one in the end and Simon Cowell’s company is still a subsidary of Sony, who happen to manage Rage Against The Machine. It looks like ‘the man’ will still be in charge of the music business for a few years to come.