All-Women Shortlists: Operationalising Utopia?

All-women shortlists do not tackle the deeper causes of the lack of female representation in Parliament.All-women shortlists do not tackle the deeper causes of the lack of female representation in Parliament. (Source: Jose M. Vasquez)

“All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” (Voltaire)

With just months to go before the next general election, the debate over all-women shortlists continues to divide politicians as well as the electorate. Harriet Harman, the highest-ranking woman in the Labour Shadow Cabinet, stated in 2014: “If you’re against all-women shortlists, you’re supporting inequality.” Hyperbole aside, Harman’s speech was a striking example of a politician attempting to mash the square peg of society into the round hole of their personal utopia.  By way of a response to such invective, let us examine this issue in a more considered way, starting by unpicking the arguments for women-only lists.

The problem

When we consider that women make up only about 22% of MPs and cabinet & shadow-cabinet members, the argument for engineering an increase in the number of women in Parliament seems obvious – ‘50% women in society should mean 50% women MPs’. Yet trying to create a parliament that is a perfect miniature reflection of society is clearly doomed: how would such a parliament reflect the proportions of the old, young, black, handicapped etc.?  In response to this problem, the supporters of All-Women Shortlists (AWS) have put forward a number of more specific reasons to bring more women into parliament: the need to promote women’s issues, the need to inspire young women, and the need to change society’s attitude towards women. These reasons were cited in 2001 as the justification for introducing a law overruling the Sexual Discrimination Act, which banned such lists. There is, however, scant evidence that engineering an equal number of male and female MPs will have the slightest effect on these important goals.

The argument that the current 22% of female MPs is insufficient to inspire young women to enter politics, whereas 50% would somehow elicit a flood of applicants, is difficult to accept. Many other professions such as teaching, law and medicine have not used such strikingly interventionist techniques, and yet have seen a very significant increase in the number of women working in these areas.  Women now make up more than 50% of GPs and almost 50% of solicitors; perhaps even more importantly, between 50% and 60% of all doctors and lawyers in training are women. As for the notion that inserting more women into parliament will mean the promotion of women’s issues, we need only look at the efforts of women in parliament in recent years to see that for most, only a tiny portion of their time has been spent on the promotion of women’s issues. Additionally, and most importantly, increasing female representation in politics seems unlikely to effect a change in the general perception of women in society and behaviour towards them. The evidence of countries like South Africa (where 40.8% of the Parliament is female) clearly shows that having large numbers of women in parliament has had no discernable effect in reducing the shockingly high levels of violence, sexual and otherwise, against women in that society. This is not an isolated or egregious example. The situation is replicated within the EU, where Denmark, Finland and Sweden – each with around 40% women in parliament – hold the dubious honour of the three highest reported levels of violence against women in the EU.

The argument for women-only lists tends to be presented within a critique of a male dominated political machine. This machine, it can be argued, with its local party committees made up of misogynistic men, systematically discriminates against women. The evidence for this is largely anecdotal, but what cannot be denied is that in the three main parties, over two thirds of members are men. In the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, the proportion of female prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) roughly reflects this (33% and 36% respectively for the forthcoming election). In the Labour party the proportion of female PPCs is 57%, due to the AWS policy. All these figures represent an increase over 2010 – with the Labour party having the greatest increase. However, before we get carried away cheering the Labour party, let us think what these figures mean. For Conservative and Liberals there has been a general growth in women PPCs which now reflects the party membership – we might see this as the ‘par’ score for women PPCs – up 7% since 2010. For Labour, we see a party with over two thirds male members having almost 60% female PPCs. Instead of seeking to redress the balance in party membership by recruiting more women, the Labour party has decided to impose more women on the local parties from above. This can only surely be justified if there is a clear wider benefit to the community, but as we have shown, the existence of such a benefit is, at best, unclear.

Political realities, not political utopia

Considering this lack of any rational evidence that any broader advantages would result from more women in parliament, it seems we must seek another, hidden, motivation behind the push to put more women in politics. I believe that this driver is the persistence of utopianism in some elements of the British political scene.  Here it is argued that, in an ideal state, there would be equal numbers of men and women in parliament and in high office. Therefore (and here comes the logical disconnect) by placing more women in such offices, we would move our society closer to that ideal state – the utopian dream operationalised. This is not merely wrong, but illogical, impractical and illiberal.

From Thomas Moore’s ‘Utopia’ to Ernest Callenbach’s ‘Ecotopia’ and beyond, a striking feature of the utopian genre has been how the description of the elements of an ideal state take centre-stage while the narrative of the how such a state comes about is blurred or non-existent.  It is therefore unsurprising that many of those who, like the early Fabians, believe we should be advancing towards an ideal society, think that progress along that path of righteousness can be made by superficially engineering society to implement features of that utopian society. This approach has led to such travesties as the early Fabian promotion of eugenics, justified on the basis that a utopian society would naturally have fit, healthy, intelligent members, therefore the fewer ‘unfit’ people we had in society today, the nearer we would be to the Fabian utopia. In reality, it is clear to see that the superficial imposition of the characteristics of an ‘ideal state’ upon an indifferent or antagonised society does not amount to progress. A powerful example of this is the imposition of AWS, which will not bring about the New Jerusalem of the socialist utopia – especially not by the end of 2015, when such lists will again be banned under equal opportunity legislation.

The issue of women in politics is commonly represented as a critique of our political structure, whereas it is better viewed as a critique of society. The question that really needs addressing is: why doesn’t our society create the conditions for an organic gender balance to emerge in Parliament? The answers to this are complex, but the focus is clear: if we wish to find an explanation, we must look first to ourselves. The formal barriers to women in parliament came down years ago; we must now create the conditions, motivations and encouragement for women to enter politics. The electorate must be persuaded of the simple logic of more women in politics as well as the wider benefits this will bring. To win the argument will involve effort, and there is no doubt that simply catapulting some of our sisters into Parliament will be a cheaper way to elicit headlines, but it will not reflect or beget significant social change.

This is not to propose that we should simply wait until society gradually changes its view on the role of women – that would be a counsel of despair. Society may not be ours to engineer in pursuit of this or that utopian vision, but neither is it an uncontrollable jungle that must simply be endured. Society is a garden, which, by judicious encouragement, will improve. Sometimes drastic measures are needed, but generally we progress by creating an environment where good things may flourish. We remove barriers, encourage growth and fertilise young shoots. This has been the approach that has resulted in massive growth in female participation in medicine and the law.  This is the approach which is increasing women’s participation in the Church, natural sciences and the military; and such an approach has guided the development of Cambridge as a university with a largely non-interventionist, gender-neutral, admissions policy, as well as a diverse student body and faculty. The current situation in Cambridge is not a utopia – in every garden there is always more to be done – but much progress has been made, not by forced engineering, but by winning the argument against discrimination. In Cambridge, and in wider society, we can look at the last 30 years and see significant, continuing progress on women’s issues. In this particular part of the garden, it would do no good to reach for the JCB of legislation or the concrete paving of compulsion.

  • anon

    A superb article.

    • Anon 2

      A bit long and repetitive.