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Move over darling

Val Price questions the motives but welcomes plans to amend the Sex Discrimination Act.

It is now widely accepted that in a modern democracy parliament should properly represent the whole population. Few people would accept that a parliament which was 80% male could adequately do this.

Over the past 80 years, close on 4,500 Members have served in the House of Commons. Only 239 have been women. Although many women have long argued for better representation on the basis of equity or in order to see different policies delivered, it was research following the 1987 defeat which showed the Labour Party that voters found masculine party images old-fashioned and unattractive and believed that Labour was more male-dominated than other parties. The gender gap where more women than men were likely to vote Conservative was so pronounced that, had women not had a vote, there would have been no Conservative governments between 1945 and 1979.

The cynic in me therefore reasons that the Labour Government has supported the current legislation going through parliament to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to exclude candidate selection from its provisions, to attract women voters to the Labour Party as much as for egalitarian reasons. It is well known that the result of concerted efforts to feminise the party image in 1997 resulted in the gender gap disappearing in all but the oldest age groups, and among younger women a reverse gap in favour of Labour was apparent.

Maintaining its appeal to women is therefore one of the most important factors in Labour's strategy for future elections. This was forgotten in the run-up to the 2001 General Election and the gender gap became more obvious again. Fortunately for Labour, the Conservative Party was still weak and in disarray. However, the support of women cannot be taken for granted and the Party must campaign vigorously for their vote.

Are all-women shortlists the answer? To answer that question we need to look briefly back to 1993 when the Labour Party adopted the new selection procedure where 50% of candidates for winnable seats were selected from all-women shortlists. Although the policy was controversial, it was hugely successful and resulted in 35 women becoming MPs. Then two disgruntled male would-be candidates took the Party to an Industrial Tribunal under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Although political parties were exempted from parts of the Act, the tribunal maintained that selection as a parliamentary candidate led to employment, and that the selection procedure breached the vital employment provisions of the Act. Many people believe this decision made all-women shortlists illegal. That was not true but only an appeal could have confirmed or overturned the decision and the Labour Party decided not to appeal since this would have stopped any further selections, and taken up to 18 months to process with no guarantee of winning.

The 1998 Fabian leaflet High Time or High Tide for Labour women? by Maria Eagle and Joni Lovenduski, examined in depth the question of quotas and equal opportunities. They concluded the Sex Discrimination Act needed amendment to permit widespread use of positive action strategies to achieve sex equality. Once positive action was permitted, then parties could decide what form they wished to adopt. Even with compulsory all-women shortlists in half the seats which become vacant it will probably take a generation to deliver equality. They argued that if the Labour Party kept its nerve and stuck to its commitment to achieving equal representation, women would at last be fairly represented throughout the British structure of government.

In March 2000 Joan Ruddock MP with cross-party support, brought forward a 10 minute rule bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act. This would apply at elections to Westminster, Europe, Scotland, Wales and local government. It had no chance of becoming law but Tony Blair agreed he would be willing to see a legal change after the next General Election. The current Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill is the result. This will shortly become law but the next battle will be the most important - deciding which positive action strategy Labour should adopt. It is obvious to many involved in this debate that the only viable mechanism is all-women shortlists. However, this needs to be argued within the constituencies and die-hard beliefs must be challenged. For example, 'Everyone should be chosen on their merits.' 'I don't want to be a token woman.' 'We want to choose who we want, not have someone imposed upon us.'

These are the most common statements made against the creation of all-women shortlists. They have some validity and sound democratic but argue only for the status quo which has chosen more than 80% male Members of Parliament whilst women make up 51% of the population. This profound democratic deficit should be rectified. We need to argue for true democracy so that all of us can take our equal place in society. It is time for democratic socialists to stand up and be counted!

January/February 2002