Andrew Eaton-Lewis: A view of all-women shortlists

The X Factor could be used as a shining example of democracy. Picture: REX
The X Factor could be used as a shining example of democracy. Picture: REX
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ARGUMENTS against positive discrimination in favour of female candidates simply don’t make sense, argues Andrew Eaton-Lewis.

To argue for all-women shortlists is to step into a minefield, particularly if you’re Scotland’s First Minister. A majority of the British public – 56 per cent, according to a YouGov poll last year – are against them (28 per cent were in favour). A majority of women, according to the same poll, are against (51 per cent, with 30 per cent in favour).

Let’s not delude ourselves that sexism against women is the same as sexism against men

There is limited support (40 per cent) even among members of the Labour Party, which introduced all-women shortlists in 1993 and remains the only party in the UK to use them. Last year, Labour’s Harriet Harman told the BBC the process made her “really uncomfortable”.

No wonder. In the past few days, I have seen supporters of all-women shortlists branded sexist, undemocratic, patronising and “stupid” – by women as well as men. And yet here I am, stepping into the same minefield. I think Nicola Sturgeon is making a brave stand in pushing the SNP to introduce all-women shortlists, and that the more men who support her in this, the better.

Here’s another set of numbers. Only 148 of our 650 MPs are women. Just 45 of our 129 MSPs are women, which is marginally better but fewer than ten years ago. You can, of course, agree that this is a problem but disagree that all-women shortlists are the right response. Labour’s argument is essentially that they tried other responses – 50 per cent female shortlists, for example – and they didn’t work. This was the only thing that did, and it has. Labour now has 86 female MPs and 169 male ones. The Conservatives, the only other party with enough MPs for a comparison to be meaningful, have 48 female MPs – and 256 male ones. Labour’s numbers are still a very long way from equal representation, but it’s a start.

The SNP, if it wants to be a more progressive political force than Labour, needs to do better than 17 female MSPs out of 64, and one female MP out of six. Nicola Sturgeon’s argument for all-women shortlists feels more robust than Harman’s, who has a tendency to sound defensive, and to shoot herself in the foot with easily ridiculed ideas like Labour’s pink bus.

The case against all-women shortlists is seductive in its simplicity – surely candidates should be chosen purely on merit? – and Sturgeon’s response has been equally simple: we don’t live in a meritocracy. “Unless you think that women are somehow less capable,” she told a radio station this week, “then if we had a merit-based system, we wouldn’t have these problems of under-representation of women.”

This fact, though, tends to get drowned out by a barrage of undermining questions. How do you fix sexism with sexism? Isn’t it undemocratic to exclude male candidates? Why just women? Why not shortlists for other groups under-represented in Westminster and Holyrood – the working classes, gay people, ethnic minorities, the disabled? And – my favourite one, this – why should 50 per cent of politicians be female anyway? Maybe the inequality is simply down to men wanting to be politicians more, or being more suited to the job? I spotted an eye-catching new variation of this argument on Twitter this week. Apparently far more women than men now study to be vets, so why is this imbalance OK?

Let’s start with the suggestion that all-women shortlists are sexist. Yes they are, purely in the sense that they discriminate on grounds of sex. But this relies on a highly reductive definition of sexism. Please, let’s not delude ourselves that sexism against women is the same as sexism against men. The first reinforces centuries of entrenched privilege, in innumerable ways, from lower pay to street harassment. The second does not. That power imbalance will never be addressed, in any significant way, unless men concede some power. I, for one, am fine with this. Those men who aren’t … well, I’m intrigued to know why.

Is it undemocratic to exclude men from selection? This question implies two assumptions. First, that a system in which political power is overwhelmingly exercised by men is democratic in any meaningful way. Second, that democracy means little more than the right to vote. If so, The X Factor, hugely popular and open to all, is a shining beacon of democracy – except that the only musical choice it offers is one between various bland covers of already famous songs.

Any serious discussion of democracy has to address the myriad ways in which voices can be silenced or excluded with no need to take away their vote – in candidate selection, in how meetings and debates are conducted, by hidden levers of power, and far beyond political processes too, in education, and in the range of opinions given a platform in the media. Who do we sideline or ignore without noticing? All-female shortlists are a way – one of many – to confront all this.

Why not shortlists for other under-represented groups? This question reminds me of the argument that Scotland was getting special treatment with all that referendum business, and that parts of England should get more powers too. Well, if you think parallel debates are needed, go for it (Labour already is, with its proposed quotas for judges from ethnic minorities). But that’s not what we’re talking about just now. Also, women are not a minority; they’re the majority.

And finally, my favourite – women don’t want to be politicians as much as men, and that’s OK. Well no it isn’t. If the way in which we currently do politics is systematically alienating more than half of the population, then that’s a crisis for democracy that merits urgent attention.

And no, being a politician is not the same as being a vet (or a nurse or a teacher for that matter). Vets exercise no political power, and I doubt animals care if the person worming them is male or female. Politicians, though, shape the future of a country, on behalf of millions of men and women. And an overwhelming majority of them are men. How is this OK?

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