by Atul Hatwal
Last week Ben Cobley wrote for Uncut about all women shortlists. It wasn’t a reactionary rant. He wasn’t dressed in a batman costume, sitting at the top of Big Ben when he wrote it. The tone was measured and the points reasoned.
While most comment, on both sides of the discussion was similarly nuanced, some of the responses were pavlovian, at best. Little effort to engage with what had been written, just a standard rehearsal of long established positions.
Yesterday, Luke Akehurst gave us one of the better versions of the conventional case for AWS over at Labour List.
In theory, I should support what Luke is saying.
I believe in all women shortlists. I see the logic of why AWS is needed – a second best solution in a third best world. And not enough has been achieved to achieve greater women’s representation. 81 female Labour MPs out of a parliamentary Labour party of 258 still leaves Labour nearly 50 MPs short of achieving equality.
But Luke and similar defenders of AWS lose me.
In his piece, Ben raises the rhetorical question – why only shortlists for women? Surely the same logic could be applied to other groups?
Ben is consistent in the way he draws his conclusions. All types of discrimination are wrong, therefore preferential shortlists should be ended.
If only the official party line, which backs positive action to tackle inequality, were similarly rigorous.
For of all those who manned (so to speak) the barricades in defence of AWS, equality seems to stop at gender. Zero discussion about ethnic minority or disabled communities. Equality is a principle worth fighting for, but not worth applying equally.
Labour has 15 MPs from minority communities, roughly 6%. By the next election the minority population in Britain is projected to be 11-12%, so if ethnicity were to matter as much as gender, then the party will need to double its representation in parliament.
Does anyone seriously think that is going to happen?
The figures on disability are even worse. The number of MPs in the House of Commons with a significant impairment is in the single figures. But in their submission to the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation before the last election, the disability campaign group RADAR estimated representation that reflected Britain’s population would entail there being 65 MPs with a major disability.
How different would the debates over changes to disability benefits have been with fairer representation?
The pro-AWS lobby within the Labour party has pulled up the ladder. Defending what they’ve got and ignoring those left behind.
Enshrined at the heart of this country’s anti-discrimination law is an important principle. Freedom from discrimination based on peoples’ identity. That’s why there is specific legislation to tackle prejudice on grounds of gender, race, disability and sexuality.
For the first three of these groups there is clear evidence of systematic and long term under-representation in the parliamentary Labour party.
While discrimination against gay members of the party undoubtedly exists, there is nevertheless proportionate representation in parliament. The latest government figures estimated 1.5% of the population to be gay and there are clearly more than four openly gay Labour MPs.
Nineteen years ago at conference in 1993, women secured an important step forward with AWS. To many who had campaigned through the 1980s for fair representation, it was a critical staging post on the road to a more equal Labour party.
But something changed. In the subsequent years, the impetus for reform slowed. The voices went quiet. AWS became a destination, journey’s end.
For Labour party members in minority communities or with a disability, the prospect of action on equality within the party is a dim and distant memory. But the experience of discrimination an ever present reality.
For many from this generation AWS has been instructive.
It’s shown how quotas can work. Great strides have been made in improving women’s representation. And demonstrated the quality of women who have always been there waiting for their chance.
But it’s also shown that some members of the Labour party are clearly more equal than others.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut