by Rob Marchant
Sexism is alive and well in modern Britain. Wherever it is to be found, it is a blight on our society; it lowers people’s horizons and expectations. An indisputable social evil. Obviously not like it was a hundred, or even twenty, years ago: but there.
Arguably, its most persistent manifestation is in the workplace: like the difficulty of women returning to work after children, pay inequality and prospects of reaching top management. The last Labour government helped somewhat in these areas by, for example, improving access to childcare and consolidating equality legislation. And perhaps it could, and should, have done more. Inequalities persist which, being about opportunity and not outcome, rightly concern all of us on the left.
But agreeing on the problem is not the same as agreeing on the solution. And we don’t to need enter into the complex debate over the many methods of combating sexism, in order to evaluate a specific one: quotas. Aiming for gender equality and aiming for numerical gender balance, to state the obvious, are not the same thing.
Is it not telling that, in all the years of putting in place legislation to fight sexism, the western world has seldom got to the stage of implementing gender quotas for jobs? Could it be because (a) they’re often pretty unworkable in practice (just think for a second about how you’d ensure gender balance across all comparable roles and departments in an organisation, and you’ll start to see the logistical nightmare)? And (b) a lot of women, as well as men, don’t like the idea?
However, for some reason, in the Labour party, we have long ago come to a majority view that quotas are not only desirable, but unquestionable. It’s as if we, with our more developed moral compass, provide a beacon of best practice which all other right-thinking organisations should follow. They’re a bit behind us, that’s all: given time, everyone will come round to adopting our advanced ways.
Well, some news: the British public doesn’t agree. The rest of the country looks at these practices – introduced into the party, for the record, by a tiny knot of politicians and NEC members – and think us odd, not advanced. Look, here comes the Labour party. With its strange gender-target obsession.
Naturally, that group includes a vast number of proud, upstanding women and men who are not content to leave sexism unchallenged in the pub or the workplace. Yes, there are people without a sexist bone in their bodies, who just don’t think much of quotas. A lot will want to see more women in positions of power, but don’t see this as the right way. Many of them may not be against affirmative action per se: the debate is more nuanced than that. Many may not even be entirely against quotas, in extremis: but they aren’t for them in general.
And then there is our unhelpful habit of choking off debate on the matter. How? By viewing any questioning of this logic through the following prism: that a challenge can only come from a well-meaning but misguided woman; or a reactionary, Neanderthal man. And, for the record, neither does the debate-stifling trick necessarily follow gender lines: it is often as likely to come from men as women.
But is it not understandable that some of those many party members who are not sexist, and have spent their lives fighting sexism in all its forms, might at some point get frustrated at having the sins of the few visited upon them? Because there is a respectable, differing point of view which deserves at least a hearing, rather than a moral judgement.
It is this: that the numbers game has become an end in itself rather than a means to an end. And it is the cumulative effect of this thinking which, bit by bit, avoiding sensible debate and taking quotas as a universal good, ends with what Neil Kinnock might term the “grotesque spectacle” of the summary Refounding Labour strategy document suggesting, with a straight face, that we might have not just a cabinet chosen by quota, but a leader and deputy leader chosen by quota. Well, no.
That’s right: you vote for two people, but if the leader turns out not to be a woman, all male candidates for deputy leader will have to withdraw. Or two separate, hugely expensive, all-member ballots. Or some similarly unworkable scheme. And, by the way, insisting on a 50-50 cabinet, if Labour were in government, would be an extraordinarily unhelpful constraint on a prime minister to get the cabinet which best fitted skills to positions (not to mention quite possibly illegal).
Finally, we patronise decent male politicians by assuming that, should they find themselves in a majority in a non-quota system, as a group they cannot be trusted not to make sexist decisions or policy unless we remove some of their number and replacing them with women, to “even things up”. It doesn’t make sense, unless you believe that there are seriously sexist men at the top of the party. Who are these cavemen? We should name names.
Yet one of the great attributes of the twenty first century Labour party is that, itself, it is already way ahead of the curve. Yes, you can be sure to find the odd situation when you’ll find some old feller with a dodgy opinion, and you can also be sure he’ll be roundly condemned for it. On average, you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of people less likely to be sexist than at a local Labour party meeting. We mostly fall over ourselves to get this right and we should be proud of that. But if we spent as much time and energy fighting sexism in the workplace as we do on tinkering with our internal processes to mixed results, you can’t help thinking that we might be helping the cause a lot more.
As a grown-up political party of 110 years standing, we’re surely self-confident enough to have an open debate about this. No name-calling, no ad-hominem judgement of the person voicing the opinion, or their sex. Just a simple, clear-headed analysis of where positive action is appropriate, and where it is not.
Peter Hain, who is in charge of Refounding Labour, in 2006 apologised for the fiasco in Blaenau Gwent, where an imposed quota led directly to the loss of a seat. A recognition that quotas are not a universal good. Surely he, of all people, should encourage this debate?
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.