The Labour party’s double standards on all women short-lists

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?

He’s right.

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


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4 Responses to “The Labour party’s double standards on all women short-lists”

  1. Ben Cobley says:

    I posted this comment last night on the LabourList thread for Luke’s article but it probably just as much belongs here.

    Hi Luke, since you’ve written this in response to my article, I think it’d be good for me to make a few comments in return.

    You make quite a few decent points, and also some interesting observations about where this policy of AWS is going. Myself I agree we want a greater proportion of women in Parliament, and even that AWS has, albeit crudely and grindingly, had some benefits in correcting the gender imbalance. I only see it as at best a very short-term fix though. The real problem here is our political system with its safe seat syndrome that mitigates against change generally – not just in terms of gender. Trying to fix the gender imbalance is a small part of a much greater whole, and if we applied the same principles as AWS to the whole we would be in a real, ahem, hole.

    Anyway, to move swiftly on, this would no doubt not go down well with a certain other demographic, but I favour mandatory re-selections every couple of Parliaments, and the more community involvement in selections generally the better. You admit to lack of confidence in CLPs – not nice but undoubtedly fair in many cases. But surely AWS is no solution to that? What we need is to get more people involved (the emphasis there on people, not preferred types of people), and this means having the guts to give them some power.

    [Was that some tumbleweed going past? I do believe it was. Labour's hierarchy really seems to get the fear when it comes to actually giving people power....]

    There is one aspect of your article I really want to take issue with though. This is expressed in your first three sentences, in which you invoke gender as a tool of argument three times.

    What you say here is analogous to saying, “As a man, I think Liverpool have the greatest team ever in history.” You would be wrong, but you would not be wrong because you are a man – your gender has absolutely nothing to do with it.

    Likewise my gender surely has no relevance to my argument. If my argument is wrong, then attack it for being wrong. Also, you invoke being male yourself as a reason for us to agree with you supporting AWS (again, right up top, as if it was the most important thing). What does this have to do with anything?

    What is worse though is your bizarre inference that us menfolk shouldn’t be allowed to discuss this issue publicly, even once every few years. As someone who put you No.1 on my NEC voting form and urged others to support you given what I thought was a generally quite sensible approach to life and politics, I am not desperately pleased by your contempt for the basics of free speech.

    It is one of those revealing instances that comes out of delicate debates like these, that there remains a powerful body of thought on the Left and in Labour that sees its mission as being to exercise control over the individual’s speech and thought in the interests of a supposedly greater good (that always remains over the horizon). It is particularly unattractive and unwelcome.

    Let’s grow up, open up, treat ourselves like adults and set an example of fairness that the public out there (all of them, not just certain ones that we have decided to favour) can gather around. The subliminal messages this sort of thing sends are awful – almost a template for how to alienate a huge bulk of the population without even coming out with any policies. Time to get rid and move on.

    P.S. Opposition to affirmative action is by no means a purely white, male preserve…

  2. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Atul, sadly Labour is now the primordial party associated with valueless double standards and hypocrisy demanding people live in such a way while they promote families and friends and exercise conduct that has nothing at all to do with equality.

    The weird aspect to all this is that they still believe themselves to be some kind of self-righteous body when in reality any claim to morality or values is dead in the still dark waters of sycophantic and incestuous Nepotism and corruption. Until the Fundamentals are addressed both in the Party women will not get a fair deal from Labour that can only project its attitude towards privilege as its core belief into the wider world.

    Leaders lead by example, and Labour sets a damn bad one.

  3. swatantra says:

    Ben is wrong.
    The two most glaringly obvious unrepresentative strands underreprented are women/gender and BAME. Women has been addressed by positivr active which I favour, but the BAME issue has not. And I’d agree to BAME shortlists in at least 30 winnable seats. Other strands of diversty such as disability and sexuality are being addressed but those involved are not as open as they should be,. And Age is generally being addressed as some of the fossils in the Chamber are being replaced by younger versions.

  4. It’s not that Labour has ~50 too few female MPs, it’s that it has ~90 too many male ones :-)

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