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The trouble with all-women shortlists

Tony Blair surrounded by new women MPsThe lack of women represented in the House of Commons is nothing less than a national disgrace. We’re over 80 years on from winning universal suffrage, but only one in five Members of Parliament don’t have a Y chromosome. There are 56 countries on earth with more women represented in their legislatures, including well-known citadels of feminism like Pakistan, Sudan and Lesotho.

Laudably, Labour has done more than any of the three main parties to tackle this scandal. Its principal instrument has been the All-Women Shortlist. When there is a vacancy for a prospective Labour candidate in certain seats, applications are only accepted from female would-be politicians. In part, this is how the Party has upped the proportion of women Labour MPs to 81 – or nearly a third of the Parliamentary Labour Party: more than all of the other parties combined.

But the All-Women Shortlist shows us what happens when you strip class out of politics. It may have helped redress the yawning gender gap in politics: but the politicians who have benefited are often far removed from the lives of millions of women in modern Britain.

Women in this country are disproportionately concentrated in low-paid, part-time jobs in the service sector or public services. Take retail: it’s now the second biggest employer in the country, and among the lowest paid. The average pay of a checkout worker is £6.12 an hour. Two-thirds of shop workers are women.

These are not the women who have been promoted by All-Women Shortlists. Like their male counterparts, they are disproportionately university-educated professionals. As the number of women represented in the corridors of power has steadily risen, the number of people from working-class backgrounds has continued on a steep decline. Fewer than one in twenty MPs started out as manual workers, a number that has halved since 1987. A staggering two-thirds of MPs hail from some sort of professional background.

When I interviewed women shop workers for my (shameless plug alert) upcoming book on class, I was struck by the fact that they lacked any real political champions. The woman shop worker must be among the least represented groups of people in the country.

The fight to properly represent women – unfashionably driven by the Labour left in the 1980s – was absolutely correct. “Basically, what the London left was doing [in the 1970s and 1980s] was rebelling against that Old Labour culture because it was quite sexist and racist,” Ken Livingstone told me. “It had huge weaknesses, and in a sense so much of what we were doing in the 1970s and 1980s was forcing the labour movement in London to recognise that it had to organise women and ethnic minorities.”

But the tragedy is that we have ended in a situation where it is not working-class women who have benefited. Instead, the All-Women Shortlist has been most successful at expanding the career options of a tiny elite of professional, university-educated women.

Of course I’m not saying we should scrap the All-Women Shortlist, which would clearly make the situation a whole lot worse. But it is clearly far from enough, on its own, to secure genuine women’s representation in Parliament.

Above all, it means strengthening the role of the trade unions within the Labour Party. One of the major reasons for the decline in working-class political representation in general is the battering of the unions, which once provided one of the chief means for catapulting working-class people into political office.

Over half of today’s trade unionists are women – even if, despite some improvements, they remain scandalously underrepresented among the upper echelons of the labour movement. Trade unions have a major role, not only in promoting women rank-and-file activists within their own ranks, but in getting them elected at every level of political life.

Whether it is the struggle for the emancipation of women or of ethnic minorities, class has been stripped from the debate. Successes in achieving these goals have been measured by how many women or, say black Britons, are represented in political circles, or (more depressingly) in the ‘boardroom’. But we will only address the specific issues facing women or ethnic minorities – like low pay or higher rates of unemployment – if we have more working-class politicians.

That means fewer lawyers and business-people in Westminster, and more shop and call centre workers. Only then will we be able to say that we are winning the battle for women’s representation.

One Comment

  1. Gary Elsby says:

    Which Democratic Socialist Political Party stands accused of fiddling ‘all women shortlists’ in a deliberate attempt to keep certain men out of standing for public office?
    What is the name of the Labour Party ‘all women shortilst’ champion who claims the above and considers the shortlisting of women to be corrupted.
    Hint: Ed won’t like your answer and may thoroughly disagree with it.
    Fact: Seen it with my own eyes.

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