Why Croydon Central’s all-women shortlist is probably a good thing

By - Tuesday 26th March, 2013

Labour’s all-women shortlists have been in the news since 1993 and now they arrive in Croydon Central. Tom Black has been collating opinions, some of them his own

The news that the Labour candidate for Croydon Central will be selected from an all-women shortlist has received a mixed reaction. Mario Creatura, Parliamentary Assistant to Gavin Barwell, left a particularly detailed comment on the Croydon Advertiser’s coverage of the announcement, which prompted me to take a look at the complicated arguments on both sides of the all-women shortlist debate. Creatura’s remarks are just part of the wider debate that has taken root in Croydon – while he calls the move ‘a regressive step for women’s rights’, Maddie Henson, Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party member, said it shows that the CLP ‘totally agrees with the principle of encouraging a gender balance in politics’.

It’s an issue I personally have been interested in and undecided on for a long time. As a feminist, under-representation of women in Parliament angers me. Centuries of patriarchy are being rolled back in so many other walks of life, and yet our seat of government still has a 504:146 imbalance in favour of men. The issue of ‘the best candidate for the job is the only issue that matters’, something covered in more detail below, seems to wane in relevance when confronted with statistics that mean it’s necessary to argue with a straight face that men are, on average, three times more likely to be suited to becoming an MP than women. Stephen Mann, another member of Croydon Central CLP, summarised the situation as one where ‘with a severe deficit of women in Parliament, the problem is widely recognised but the solutions vary’. David White, a Labour member in Croydon Central since 1970 and former GLC councillor, said he was ‘supportive of them in principle and in favour of the one here’.

Labour have more female MPs than the Tories and Lib Dems put together

The statistics also make uncomfortable reading for those who would seek to portray the issue as Labour choosing to discriminate against women ‘for political advantage’. All-women shortlists were first introduced in 1993, having been demanded by the Labour left as far back as 1979 (Tony Benn, during his early 1980s populist heyday, was in favour of them). Today, sixteen years on from the ‘Blair Babes’ and thirty-four years since the first female PM entered Downing Street, approximately 50% of female MPs were elected using all-women shortlists, all of them Labour. At the time of writing, Labour has 81 female MPs, more than the Tories (49) and the Lib Dems (7) put together. Out of a Parliament of 650, there’s a long way to go, but Labour undeniably have something to be proud of.

This could be why David Cameron said in February 2010 that he would institute all-women shortlists for Conservative Party selections. Going on, he said it was undeniable that women were expected to ‘jump far higher barriers than men’. While Creatura and the Croydon Conservatives may choose to argue that selection of a candidate should always be a pure meritocracy (an argument not without merit in principle), they should remember their own leader accepted that ‘it doesn’t work’. It is also somewhat disingenuous for the Conservatives to criticise Labour for ‘proclaiming that Labour women can’t compete against Labour men on their own merits and need special consideration’. However rhetorically powerful that may seem, it falls apart somewhat when one learns that David Cameron’s ‘A-list’ of prospective MPs in the run-up to the 2010 election, on which Gavin Barwell was pleased to find himself, itself had a concrete requirement that 50% of the candidates were women. This isn’t the same as an all-women shortlist, but it shows that the Labour Party is not alone in believing there is merit to using some ‘blunt instruments’ in the short term to address the sexual imbalance in Parliament.

‘I don’t see a need to apologise for affirmative action or the righting of historic wrongs.’

For all-women shortlists are a blunt instrument. Nobody argues that they are a refined solution that will resolve a controversial issue without rocking any boats. They have been known to cause a number of problems in practice, however noble they might be in principle. Liz Sheppard-Jones, told me she’d joined and left the Labour Party on two separate occasions. The first was because of a lack of role models, male or female, in the party for her – Cherie Blair did not strike her as a model of sisterhood to aspire to. She said that ‘women, with identifiable priorities and multi-faceted lives, are what politics needs, and if men don’t like being discriminated against – well, suck it up. I don’t see a need to apologise for affirmative action or the righting of historic wrongs.’

Lord Palmerston overlooks Parliament Square, with Jan Smuts in the background. There are no women enshrined in stone around them.
(Image used under Creative Commons License)

‘Parachuting’ – the act of sending ‘Westminster bubble’ candidates to safe or winnable seats at the expense of the wishes of a local constituency party – is often unfairly portrayed as being inseparable from all-women shortlists. It’s certainly a controversial point, but local champions such as Calder Valley’s Christine McAfferty – hardly a Blair Babe – have been selected on all-women shortlists. However, to use a random sample of male MPs, David Cameron did not spend his childhood in Witney, Nick Clegg is not a Sheffield native and Ed Miliband didn’t grow up campaigning for the Labour group on Doncaster Council. Parachuting is not gender-specific, and it’s an issue that isn’t going to go away if we try to fight all-women shortlists.

‘Being being kept out of a job just because I’m a man offends me as deeply as being kept out of a job just because I’m a Jew.’

The noisiest issue that all-women shortlists create is the question of a bias against men. While the cliché of ‘discrimination against white men’ never sounds anything other than faintly ridiculous, Creatura avoids this and makes a much more potent argument when he writes that if he were a male Labour member who had been working for years to have a shot at becoming Croydon Central’s MP, he would feel disenfranchised. Fabian Hamilton, now Labour MP for Leeds North West, was told in 1995 that despite having been the unsuccessful candidate for the 1992 General Election, an all-women shortlist meant he would not be reselected. A messy process ensued, with the eventually selected candidate being a parachuted Islington councillor (beating two women from the constituency). Hamilton said to local press, ‘being being kept out of a job just because I’m a man offends me as deeply as being kept out of a job just because I’m a Jew.’ Eventually the new candidate was rejected by the NEC, and Hamilton went on to win the seat in 1997. But the scars have yet to heal in Leeds North West, and Hamilton’s words still ring true for many male Labour members.

Is it liberating or patronising to deny women a straight fight with men? One Labour member told me that in their constituency (which is a long way from Croydon), a directive to select women for council seats was seen as ‘patronising’ and had led to talented and capable women shunning the selection process. This can exacerbate the ‘parachuting problem’, with the only women who’ll enter a selection being those who aren’t from the constituency. But all these problems have not yet emerged in Croydon. Whether they will remains to be seen, but judging by the united front described by Simon Hall (Croydon Central’s CLP Chair) and the members I spoke to, it seems unlikely.

‘MPs represent us in how they communicate, not how like us they are.’

The breadth of debate across Croydon’s political spectrum, however, is interesting – out of fairness to Mario Creatura, having cited his comment in such depth ( it inspired this article), I asked him if he had any comments to make on any of the rebuttals I planned to offer. Perhaps the most interesting was his contention that it the House of Commons doesn’t have to represent Britain like-for-like. ‘The beauty of representative democracy,’ he said, ‘is that it allows how our MPs represent us to come down to how they communicate, not how like us they are in gender, ethnicity or social background.’ This view contrasted with David White, who suggested that all-women shortlists were a way to ensure Parliament eventually looks like the country it is supposed to represent. Following on from this, White speculated that a logical next step might be ‘ethnic minority shortlists’ – what the British political establishment would make of such a concept would surely make for an excellent edition of Question Time. I also asked Creatura to explain what he meant by the assertion that Labour had chosen an all-female shortlist for ‘political reasons’. His answer was that when running against a ‘forceful’ figure like Gavin Barwell, ‘there’s an obvious instinct to sympathise with someone who is less macho or, literally, masculine.’ The idea that Labour’s decision to select a woman is driven by a desire to create a clear choice in style between her and the incumbent is perhaps not without merit, but colour me unconvinced.

‘All Honourable Men’, but men nonetheless: Gerry Ryan, Alan Johnson and Tony Newman
(Image used under Creative Commons license)

Creatura’s comment on the Advertiser website concluded, unsurprisingly, with a ringing endorsement of his employer. With no paycheck at the end of the month from the Labour Party coming my way (although one would be more than welcome), I feel I’m a little more free to draw my own conclusions. I’m reminded of something Maddie Henson said: that this measure is about ‘improving the under-representation of women in politics generally, by making sure there are many women candidates in Labour-held and winnable seats’. The key here is that Croydon Central, like every other seat selected for an all-women shortlist, is a seat that Labour can win. Whatever else one may say about all-women shortlists, they are not tokenistic and they are sincere. They are the product of decades of thought, debate and, at times, argument. Liz Sheppard-Jones glumly told me ‘if we wait for natural progression to bring gender equality we’ll be waiting another 200 years’, and it’s this argument that is the most potent.

‘A central organisation wielding a big stick is always more likely to create backlash than to achieve results.’

I’m never comfortable with quotas – for anything – but in this case the statistics do demand action. All-women shortlists are a blunt instrument, one that causes trouble in the short term but will bear fruit in the long term. With more women in Parliament and by extension in senior positions in politics, by sheer weight of numbers politics will become less of a man’s game (Labour)/old boys’ club (the Tories)/trainspotting circle (the Lib Dems). This is an attitude cautiously echoed by Liz Sheppard-Jones, who warns that ‘women beware women’ is still a very real issue. ‘There’s a problem,’ she says, ‘around senior political women’s contempt for women who do step away from a career focus when they have young children.’ All-women shortlists undeniably put more women in parliament, but are they the kind of women that make their peers want to join them?

Creatura is not convinced that all-women shortlists even achieve what they’re meant to. ‘A central organisation wielding a big stick,’ he says, ‘is always more likely to create backlash than to achieve results.’ It’s true that the Labour NEC – a national body – asked Croydon Central CLP to choose an all-women shortlist, but they held a vote and they chose to agree. There may well be anger simmering below the surface among male Croydon Labour figures who feel cheated out of a shot at a seat. The Croydon Conservatives probably won’t balk at using this as another stick with which to beat Labour. But if Labour win Croydon Central at the next election, Croydon will have its first ever female MP. Stephen Mann was not the only person to point out that this historic first would be something to be proud of. The debate here in Croydon, as well as nationally, is clearly going to run and run. But for the left, all-women shortlists are an uncomfortable home truth. They are a solution to a problem which everybody wishes didn’t exist. As a solution, they are divisive and messy. But they work. And in politics, isn’t that what matters?

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • http://twitter.com/MarioCreatura Mario Creatura

    As ever a fair and fascinating piece Tom – I do though have a few rebuttals. Ok if I write it up and send it to you as a ‘response blog’?

    • http://twitter.com/tomblackuk Tom Black

      Would love to read that, Mario. It’d be great to be able to publish a response piece – let’s keep the debate going!

  • http://twitter.com/juanincognito juanincognito

    Interesting piece. If this discussed solution is unsatisfactory, then what other options does a party have? The also mentioned 50% of candidates requirement? This could be an interesting companion piece if you are feeling game?

    Another, un-useful solution (for Westminster anyway) is of course a party list vote as in AV+ or MMP. If a party values diversity of representatives then in that system it is free to act on it’s beliefs. Cursory reading does suggest that many such systems are able to achieve an increase in diversity for that reason

  • Nightwatchstate

    Or.. women could be simply less predisposed to enter politics than men. For men, political wealth and status confers improved dating prospects. For women there is no such incentive and their dating pool actually shrinks as potential dates are faced with the prospect of being emasculated. what Cherie Blair is actually saying is that she wants to get special privileges at the expense of men (no doubt so women can secure more special privileges at the expense of men). I would say the statistics ‘demand’ that one reconsiders the belief that men and women have only cosmetic differences and denial of innate preference.