All women shortlists are an insider’s charter

by Ben Cobley

“White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game”, these words, tweeted by Diane Abbott, ignited a storm of accusations and denials of racism and opened a window into the complexities of identity politics.

While it is doubtful that many white people were properly offended by the tweet, it does expose Abbott’s assumption that black and white people should be divided, and that they have different (and opposing) interests.

The “divide and rule” agenda that Abbott talked about in fact applies more to her in this instance. She was clearly trying to draw a racial drawbridge between black and white people.

This is the sort of political philosophy that George W. Bush espoused when he said, “You are either with us or against us”; one group’s identity is defined opposite to the other – and if you do not share the dictates of your own group’s “leaders”, then you are letting your side down. Bim Adewunmi herself made a strong argument about this.

As it is highly unlikely Diane Abbott is a racist, how did she get into such a tangle?

Part of the answer surely lies in the way that certain curious, arcane attitudes are still widespread in liberal-left circles.

Abbott herself responded to the tweeting controversy by saying that she was talking about the politics of colonialism. But she clearly was not discussing history in her tweet, and that is where the colonialist worldview belongs – and where the anti-colonialist mentality will have to find a home sooner or later. It is hopelessly outdated in a country where the evidence of integration is all around us, not least in the many children and young adults of mixed race.

The unthinking identity politics of the liberal-left maintains and extends this anti-colonialist narrative though, by simplistically inverting the racist, sexist and ruling class ideologies of past times.

So it is that dark skin is favoured over light, female over male, while the possession of assets and money is deemed as something to be ashamed of.

This attitude is woven into Labour Party practices and procedures, especially when it comes to candidate selection.

The Blairite blogger Rob Marchant explains it as follows:

“If you are from an ethnic minority, you are a special case and can leapfrog some part of the process. A woman? Special case. Disabled, or from a manual or clerical background? Special case, at least in theory. On a union’s national parliamentary list? Special case. Backed by a local affiliate? Special case.”

He adds, “Everyone becomes a special case; the only truly special cases are those which are not special. It is democracy à la Monty Python.”

All-women shortlists (AWS) are perhaps the most blatant and contentious example of special cases within the party. We can see the results of them every time we tune in to Parliament, with women now making up 31 per cent of Labour MPs.

This gladdens the heart; but what a crude and blunt instrument AWS have been.

In his diary volume of New Labour’s latter years, Decline & Fall, Chris Mullin laments how all three of the parliamentary seats in Sunderland where he lives were given AWS; in the event Sunderland Central (his former seat) attracted only five applicants; only four applications were received for Houghton and Sunderland South. This meant that no local Sunderland man had any chance of representing his local area.

Mullin also relates Dennis Skinner telling him that he would have stepped down from his safe Bolsover seat in 2005 if Harriet Harman had not been determined to impose an AWS there, something that he said would have excluded the local favourite.

One selection process in which I have been involved had an AWS imposed on it, and was almost farcical. The AWS was imposed after the deadline for applications closed, so local women who would not normally think of standing (and who are meant to be encouraged by the process) had no idea they might have a decent chance of representing their local area.

In the end, of the women shortlisted, only two came to hustings, and only one of these was credible. So it was effectively a shortlist of one.

Thus, in practice, all-women shortlists as imposed by Labour have all the hallmarks of an insider’s charter: protected or restricted access, central control, and a lack of any open democratic process. They play into a culture of stitch-ups.

The pain that many women feel from being in what is perceived to be “a man’s world” can be strong. But if we go with the logic of AWS, the lack of ethnic minority MPs is perhaps a more pressing problem – just 28 of 650 MPs are from ethnic backgrounds at the moment.

So should we be considering ethnically restricted shortlists in the same manner? If we apply the same criteria as AWS, certainly yes.

Or should we rethink these sorts of practices and the whole culture of favouritism.

Are our selection processes there to correct imperfections in society? That should be the purpose of our politics – and we will not achieve our aims by continuing to apply divisive criteria in our preferment processes (alienating good people in the process). Institutionalising separate identities as we do is a road to nowhere and nothingness.

Instead, we would do well to model ourselves on what we wish society to be – respectful of all people, regardless of religion, gender, creed, colour or sexuality.

If Labour is about anything, it is about striving for a promised land. Showing through our own practices how a promised land might work is a way to win trust. Crude prejudice, albeit in the pursuit of noble aims, is not.

Ben Cobley is a journalist and writer, based in South London

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15 Responses to “All women shortlists are an insider’s charter”

  1. Nick says:

    There is a simpler way.

    Open primaries. Then the question of short lists go out of the window.

  2. swatantra says:

    I am in favour of AWS as the only way of correcting the disproportionate representation of certain groups, and would also be in favour of an All BAME shortlist in ‘safe’ seats.
    Its a pity that Mullins Sunderland seats were all AWS and that has to be avoided; but I am sure that the women chosen as MPs are as competat as the men, regardless of how many applications came through. Bolsover should be an AWS; its an old working class male shortlist of one and he’s been there far too long. The constituents derserve a change.

  3. Will says:

    I’ve always felt that AWS are fine, but there should be an exception from local male candidates.

  4. John P Reid says:

    Without getting into ‘I’m working class me’ type cockney accent, it’s class now more than monrity status that’s the real descriminatiory factor, I’ve met Incredibly Inteligant Black and white working class men ,who just don’t get the chances , that others get, Nad it’s going to cause a backlash, As Middle class universtiy types go into working class estates and start telling people there, that postive descrimination is needed to change the balance of those who get the best public sector jobs.

  5. paul barker says:

    I dont think this piece really gets to the heart of the matter. Labour was set up as The Voice of the Organised (male) Working Class. Take the Identity Politics out of Labour & theres nothing left. Simply adding new Identity groups doesnt change the fundamentals.
    Now most of The Working Class are no longer interested in organising themselves Labour are left as a “Rainbow” alliance of public sector staff & nostalgic lefties.

  6. Ben Cobley says:

    Hello everyone, thanks for the thoughts. I’ll give a little response to each one.

    Nick – open primaries? It’s an intriguing prospect certainly. I am very interested in how we can open up our local parties to local communities and get more people involved, if possible as members. I can’t think of a better way than asking people to participate in selecting candidates, and even other posts. At the moment selections is a very closed world, and many people clearly want to keep it that way, for understandable reasons. We could do with a bit more democracy; certainly we could hardly have much less.

    swatantra – yes I sympathise with your point of view. The major thing for me though revolves around that word “representation”, and it brings up a whole host of problems. MPs represent local areas, yet we select candidates based on completely different criteria – given the dire state of democratic participation and engagement I am not keen at all on further weakening that bond between representative, local party and local community. We need to be strengtheing those bonds.

    Will – yeah that’s potentially a workable compromise. Like I said above, I think it is crucial that we work to strengthen local bonds.

    John P Reid – yes I agree to an extent, but this whole thing of defining people on the basis of where they come from, their race, sex, sexuality or whatever I find inherently problematic. Once you institutionalise systems of preferment, you will get people who game the system.

    I am much more in favour of strengthening the local democratic element – do that and get the centre to back off (as long as processes are conducted fairely and openly) and you will get your diversity of candidates. They just won’t be necessarily the people the central party wants. As it is we have groupings based on gender, skin colour etc institutionalising themselves in the party as interest groups and thereby becoming part of the cosy insiders’ club that gets people so annoyed. Frankly, it stinks.

  7. Tris says:

    “I am in favour of AWS as the only way of correcting the disproportionate representation of certain groups, and would also be in favour of an All BAME shortlist in ‘safe’ seats.” Swatantra.

    Would you then be in favour of dealing with other minorities in the same way: Gay, or Jewish, or Disabled? (I appreciate that there are far fewer of them than woman, but they too have a hard job. Would you consider an easier pass for these minorities than for a white male?

    I don’t believe in positive discrimination in any grouping. Firstly we deserve the very best representation there is, regardless of race, sex, colour, sexuality, religion. Secondly, I think it is so degrading. As has been said many times, does the winning candidate not think to themselves: “I’m only here because I’m a woman/black/gay/disabled/Jewish…” etc?

  8. Yorick Wilks says:

    28 out of 650 MPs from ethnic minorities—isn’t that about right? What else should it be?

  9. Kevin says:

    Women are not one lumpen bloc of the population and it always seems crazy to frame the debate in this way. A middle-class, Home Counties, privately-educated female management consultant has nothing in common with a single mother living in a block of flats trying to bring up three children. A local man from the same community living in similar circumstances is plainly better able to understand her interests.

    It seems infantile to reduce this debate to ‘male MPs bad, women MPs good’. Parliament has a deficit of women MPs from ordinary backgrounds representing their home turf and we desperately need more of them. But AWS isn’t improving their representation; merely allowing professional women to use the system to their own advantage. Fair play, I guess, this is politics after all, and we’ll undoubtedly see an overall increase in the number of women MPs.

    But when you disaggregate gender I suspect we’ll see that the percentage of MPs from comfortable backgrounds, who where privately educated, went to university and worked in a small professional world encompassing either law, business, politics or the media will go on increasing. That’s the problem we should be addressing.

    Ben deserves credit for shining a light on an issue that has remained silent too long.

  10. Ben Cobley says:

    @ paul barker You say, “Take the Identity Politics out of Labour & theres nothing left”.

    That is definitely the fear, and the indications I have received that Labour is to go further down this road are seriously alarming. We are in the invidious position of treating ourselves as if we were institutionally sexist, racist etc and need to be forced to do the right thing – not exactly a template for retaining and increasing membership but there you go. The result will be an increasingly hollowed-out party in which decisions are only reached by reaching messy compromises between the interest groups. In these circumstances, truth and right go out of the window, and all those who believe in them will slowly leave the building. It’s a grim prospect for the Left.

    @ Tris Yes you point out nicely one of the contradictions of identity politics, which is that there is never enough favour and patronage to go around. You also force people back upon these identites, causing them to ask “what about my/our share?” The identities that get the favour reflect the prejudices of the day/party. It is an inherently divisive and depressing way of doing politics.

    @ Yorick Wilks. 28/650 is around 4%. In the 2001 census non-whites accounted for around 8% of the population, projected to rise to 20% by 2050.

    @ Kevin. Yes, you bring in some of the aspects I didn’t cover in the article for lack of space. By using such blunt instruments you barely touch on the underlying problems behind under-representation, which are cultural. AWS may have been a necessarily grinding way of dragging up women’s representation in the short term, and there are some positive aspects to it in terms of providing more female role models. But I look around and I see those benefitting from it being people who are already motivated and involved and self-confident.

    Nothing wrong with that on a personal level, and nothing against them, but it is a general feature of affirmative action systems. This can also be seen in the way that the only qualification to be defined as “BAME” is to have a little colour in one’s skin – despite the fact there are widely varying levels of integration and educational/social success between different ethnic groups. I would find it deeply patronising to be defined as in need of favouritism on such bases of these, and there do seem to be a lot of people out there who feel that way.

    But when we come down to it the core problem with AWS and other forms of positive discrimination are their inherent unfairness. They are unfair by definition; as a result they should really be got rid of at the earliest possible opportunity (i.e. now) and we could start getting on with trying to build up a properly broad based of support without giving signs to large swathes of the population that we don’t really want them in our tent (baffling many of those whom we do in the process).

  11. Mike Homfray says:

    I think initially, the AWS approach was needed because there was a ridiculously low number of women.

    Whether it alone should be institutionalised I’m not sure about. I think there can be a need for positive action to ensure some representation and diversity, but I’m not greatly enthused about permanent quotas

  12. John P Reid says:

    Ben cobley thanks for the reply, What did you think Of paul barkers,view I think He hit the nail on the head,

  13. Les Abbey says:

    Control of the selection process by the Westminster and NEC leadership has led to clones of these becoming parliamentary candidates. With the AWS, middle class women have selected more middle class women to be the new candidates. With the non-AWS selections we get the same with men, many just more Oxbridge bag carrier types.

    It’s well known in business that mediocre managers promote mediocre employees. It now looks like New Labour have managed to do this rather well in politics.

  14. Bryn Davies says:

    How does Diane Abbott’s tweet complaining about the use of divide and rule tactics “expose Abbott’s assumption that black and white people should be divided”?

  15. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Lol Luke Akehurst feels this item witten by Ben is an “atack”, what I have just read and from enjoying reading the comments as an outsider is ta healthy non-judgemental debate about process and equality.

    Luke is doing well, truly ingratiating himself with the Leadership and feeling all important in his NEC “role” as spokeperson of the regressive minority.

    Well done to all those commenting plese continue in future on any blog site and remember the countless deaths and sacrifices historically by our better in history for the Freedom of Speech and Democracy that people like Luke despise so much because it hurts his career prospects and is the natural enemy to him and people like him who desperately need to feel important in their nihilistic and vain quest for vanity and money at public expense.

    Does,’t matter if you are for primaries, against them, for AWS or against it keep it coming!

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