‘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.”