In his Lib Dem Voice piece “Too male and too pale” – Why shortlists and the Leadership Programme are not the answer, Paul Head states that he is totally opposed to all-women shortlists (AWS) because they ‘ignore the real problem’ that this reflects in the party as a whole; and that we need to engage more with women and BAME people on a grassroots level and change from below.
This is a sensible argument, and is something that we should strive for. However, I believe that there is a place for AWS in the Liberal Democrats, despite the fact that the specifics would likely be hard to pin down.
Paul Head states that shortlists are a ‘quick fix’. On one level, this is true, with the outcome of gaining more female MPs. The long-term effect, though, is that those women would become role models; other women will see them and think ‘I could to do that too’, further increasing the number of female MPs. For this reason, AWS could be temporary and still produce results.
If there is any perception, conscious or not, that being an MP is a male or masculine job, increasing the number of women MPs in this way will help to correct this. Furthermore, these women would evidence the fact that we are a female-friendly party, a point which is harder to make if we are not seen to trust women to represent us.
A more contentious issue is whether women can be properly represented by men. Work by Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs and Joni Lovenduski finds that the attitudes of the public mirror those of MPs; that is, the average woman on the street has views broadly congruent with a female MP. This means that if women are disproportionately under-represented in the Commons, female concerns might not be properly highlighted, and therefore, a greater number of women MPs is desirable as soon as possible. The Fawcett Society suggests that this could take 70 years to happen organically, and this just isn’t good enough.
Even if you don’t accept the representation argument, it is difficult to argue against the fact that if there were truly no barriers to becoming an MP, then it could be expected that MPs would be a random selection of people, coming from all walks of life, with different characteristics. As scholar Jane Mansbridge argues, the fact that this is not the case indicates that something must be holding some groups back.
Equality is a Liberal Democrat passion, and unless we believe that it is right for certain groups to be denied access to what is currently a rather exclusive club, this is something that we must make every effort to change.
* Nat Jester is a Lib Dem member in Bristol South.