Opinion: Sexist Labour needs All Women Shortlists, the Liberal Democrats can change without them

The Independent reported on Sunday that Nick Clegg 2ould consider imposing all women shortlists for the 2020 general election if the party did not select enough women in winnable seats.

I defected from Labour earlier this year and I want to share my experiences of a party that needs to use all women shortlists to select female candidates for parliament and councils.

Earlier this year, Mark Fergusonrightly pointed out on Labourlist  that no women had been selected in open shortlists since before the general election. It pointed out that when local labour parties had the choice between a man and a woman they tend to chose a man. That’s why Labour needs all women shortlists – an inability to select a woman on merit.

When I first joined the Labour Party I was a strong opponent of all women shortlists I thought it to be unnecessary and fairly insulting that a so called progressive party needed to have shortlists just for women. The implication was  that women weren’t good enough to be selected on merit. Oh how my opinions changed! I saw that local parties were mainly made up of old men, that the environment wasn’t very welcoming and that women weren’t really taken seriously. I heard comments about women I wouldn’t expect to hear from a so-called progressive party. I saw how vicious a local party could become when all women shortlists were mentioned. These people were never  going to select a woman out of choice.  I spoke out when the topic came up. I spoke out in favour. I wanted my constituency to be an all women shortlist, and I wanted some of our council selections to be all women shortlists because it seemed like the only way a women would get selected and elected. I even spoke on women’s representation at Labour Conference (after my speech was vetted naturally…

So I moved to the Liberal Democrats who, despite not having all women shortlists have managed to select women. I know we don’t have enough women elected but we are taking steps in the right direction. I don’t think it’s necessary to introduce them. I haven’t come across anything like the sexism I saw in Labour.

For me though, it’s not just about getting more women in Parliament or Council Chambers, it’s about increasing the diversity in politics overall. We need politicians from a  range of backgrounds and with a range of different life experiences to make politicians seem more real. What we have now is an electoral system that is male, pale and stale and this has to change. So let’s make the changes, but because we want to, not because we have to.

* Sarah Brown is a Liberal Democrat activist who lives in Manchester.

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  • Maybe ‘sexist’ labour needed shortlists. But their female representation, along with that of the Conservative Party, and even the minor parties, in parliament is greater than that of the Lib Dems.

    Whatever you are doing isn’t working. If it’s not sexism holding back female representation, then it is something else unique to the Liberal Democrats.


  • R Uduwerage-Perera 30th Oct '13 - 8:59pm

    “let’s make the changes, but because we want to, not because we have to.”

    I totally agree with the sentiment but alas sometimes a legislative approach significantly speeds up the process of change and is more beneficial in the short term to create the equitable society that we are seeking.

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Oct '13 - 10:10pm

    “We need politicians from a range of backgrounds and with a range of different life experiences to make politicians seem more real.” Quite.

    A very interesting article, Sarah, thanks for writing. It’s something I’m really torn on. Instinctively I’m opposed to all-women shortlists (or all ethnic minority/disabled/working class, etc. lists), and I do believe that by far the biggest problem we have is getting anyone – man or woman – elected, not selected.

    That said, as these discussions over the merits of ‘rigging’ selections have gathered pace, I have become persuaded that it’s not ALL down to the electorate not voting for the right party. All-women shortlists won’t deal with many of the problems either – of the cost of running for election, of the need for childcare, of the need from time out from jobs, etc. (not that these are exclusively barriers to women, but I think they’re probably more commonly cited as barriers by potential female candidates than male ones).

    None of this alters the fact that our parliamentary party is very unrepresentative and that we owe it to ourselves and to the country to change that. If we can’t rely on the public to elect hordes of new Lib Dem MPs, which would include lots of women and other under-represented groups, then I think we have to seriously consider using all-women/all-minority shortlists in safe seats, IF there is a chance that they might make a difference. My feelings either way could be very much influenced by who gets selected to stand in the various held-seat and target seat vacancies.

    And of course, the issue exists below the level of parliamentary representation too. Our various party committees are not very representative either. In fact, it might make more sense to ‘rig’ these elections than the selections for parliamentary constituencies. We have full control over them, we can guarantee that Lib Dems will get elected, and we have an achievable and important goal: improving the diversity of the party, improving the opportunities (and role-models) for members from diverse backgrounds, and becoming a stronger party.

  • How many ‘safe’ seats do we have where we could do this?

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Oct '13 - 11:59pm

    @Paul – not many. And not all of those are going to be selecting new candidates for 2015. But Lester Holloway finds that “It is commonly said that there is no such thing as a safe Lib Dem seat but my research for Operation Black Vote found almost a third of Lib Dem held seats are not marginals, so regardless of the definition of ‘safe’ they are highly unlikely to be lost” http://cllrlesterholloway.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/all-women-shortlists-are-needed-for-the-same-reason-all-bame-shortlists-are/

    I don’t agree entirely with every point he makes in the article, and ‘almost a third’ of not many seats is not a large number . And although the ‘no safe seats’ line isn’t quite as true as it sounds, I also don’t think it’s _as_ misleading as he suggests. Some Lib Dems have built up big majorities with activists and campaign teams working hard. But the margins of victory are probably far more down to the work, personalities and efforts of the people involved than are safe seats held by other parties, which rely on a predictable block vote from parts of the public. The two main parties can stand literally anyone in some of their seats and expect handsome wins. Lembit Opik (and I have nothing against him personally) demonstrates that a Lib Dem ‘safe’ seat can be lost by a landslide if the wrong candidate is selected.

    Still, the point is that we have very few seats where we could try this. Hence my saying that there might be a lot more to be gained by trying this out in other parts of the party. I have become open to the idea of all-women shortlists for parliament, but there’s only a point in doing so if it would actually increase the number of female MPs in parliament.

    Given that we’re unlikely to be gaining many parliamentary seats in the forseeable future, it would at least be useful to be able to counter charges of sexism/racism etc. within the party by pointing to positions of power within the party being filled by a diverse bunch of people.

  • Liberal Neil 31st Oct '13 - 1:20am

    If Lester Holloway equates an existing Lib Dem MP having a large majority with the seat being ‘safe’ he should go on a fact-finding mission to Harrogate.

  • How iss diversity defined though? At the moment people like Lester who work in London-based talking/writing jobs are massively over represented. Should we have non-London short lists?

    I think the real test question is whether you see a result like Redcar last time, where a middle-aged white man with a background in the chemical industry took a seat off a London-based female lawyer, as being good or bad for diversity.

  • Worth repeating –

    the real test question is whether you see a result like Redcar last time, where a middle-aged white man with a background in the chemical industry took a seat off a London-based female lawyer, as being good or bad for diversity.

  • David Evans 31st Oct '13 - 7:51am

    I agree with Richard S. Sadly diversity is defined, by those who push for it, in terms of what you can see. The important diversity is in what people think, and Liberals think very differently to those who follow the party machine approach to politics, simply because they understand that it is what people think that is important, not what people look like. We need more Liberals in parliament – end of.

  • Just occurred to me that the last few selections I have noticed in seats where a (male) Lib Dem MP is stepping down in 2015 have seen women selected as PPC in succession. Have I got the wrong impression?

  • So you moved from a party that recognises the need they have to take progressive measures and does so to one that believes that such progressive measures are wrong, even when they accept, as you do, that there is need for them.

    The Liberal Democrat position on all women shortlists is illiberal and confused. It is accepted that there is a social discrimination blocking a gender-blind meritocracy but Lib Dems keep repeating the false argument that artificially equaling the terms of competition is insulting to women. Alternatively they repeat the equally false argument that discrimination cannot be fixed by adding another discrimination to it; discrimination can only be fixed by discriminating against it.

    It is though to their credit that no individual in the Liberal Democrats is sexist and that every member can rise above the societal norm and ignore the particularities of their upbringing that create the bias against women. It is a shame though that the women that join the party have repeatedly failed to make it into parliament. At least in your perfect world it is clear that they fail entirely on merit.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 31st Oct '13 - 9:36am

    Edis, in the 5 selections in held seats that have taken place, 3 have selected women. One is in Annette Brooke’s seat so it’s not a gain in gender balance terms. We’re only 2 up at the moment which isn’t that great. And of course that’s just selection – getting elected is another story altogether. It’s good to see these seats get their acts together and select quickly though.

  • cough cough Lisa Smart (Hazel Grove) cough cough Julie Porksen (Berwick) more coughing Layla Moran (OxWab) – let’s not beat ourselves up about by defining ourselves by Labour – let’s get women that want to win (inlcuding cllrs and those leaders of groups on councils – Sue Derbyshire (Stockport) just one example.

  • @David Allen,

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say that what the candidate looks like is totally irrelevant – things like gender and race are correlated with what working and other experiences a person has in their background, so it can be useful flag as to who is underrepresented, and it can be related to sexism in the rest of society.

    To give a made-up but probably true example (you would have to run actual numbers to see if this is the case) when women are underrepresented as a whole, the next question should be to ask which women are underrepresented and which women who are not. I suspect you find that women who either have no children or who have had financial circumstances that allowed them to hire au pairs would be overrepresented, while other women would be massively underrepresented (in the case of men, this would apply to a much lesser extent due to sexist assumptions about childcare and gender roles in society, not the party). So it seems to me that Labour’s solution of trying to get even more female London-based professionals to represent steelworkers’ wives in far flung consituencies is not a solution to why whole sections of the population or career histories are just not represented at all.

  • Labour’s motives for enacting all-women shortlists may have been different, but that doesn’t mean the mechanism itself is inappropriate for us.

    Richard S is right too. Basically we need a comprehensive plan to tackle all the reasons people think “becoming an MP isn’t for the likes of me”.

  • Julian Tisi 31st Oct '13 - 2:30pm

    @g “If it’s not sexism holding back female representation, then it is something else unique to the Liberal Democrats”
    There is indeed something unique to the Liberal Democrats amongst the main 3 parties – we have almost zero safe seats. We have a very high incumbency factor in our held seats and we have to work much much harder than the other two to win new seats. Aside from Tessa Munt winning Wells (hurrah!) at the last general election we lost a disproportionate number of female MPs even though our share of the vote overall went up.

    The next election is going to be much tougher and if we’re to give ourselves the best chance of electing more women as LibDem MPs it’s important we try to fill a good proportion of held seats with retiring MPs and top target (esp Tory-facing) seats with female candidates. The good news is that we seem to be doing this.

    Sadly even this won’t guarantee us more female MPs, particularly where we are in the polls at the moment. But in all our hair-shirted navel-gazing about how bad we are at electing female MPs let’s not try to pretend the fault is mainly ours. We’re up against an awful electoral system which is stacked against us and we don’t have the luxury of being able to place someone into a safe seat as the other two parties do.

  • Ms Brown calls Labour sexist, I would have thought that after the recent scandal of women being groped in the Liberal Democrat party and their protests being ignored by those at the top of the party, it would be prudent for Ms Brown to keep quiet on the subject of sexicism.

  • David Allen 31st Oct '13 - 3:51pm

    Richard S, please note that it wasn’t me who made comments above about whether a candidate should be judged on their looks!

  • Jonathan Brown 31st Oct '13 - 7:26pm

    Well put Lester. For me the only remaining question is whether or not all-x shortlists will deliver. Although I confess I hadn’t really thought in terms of the electoral benefit of being seen to stand BAME candidates even if they don’t win.

    For me I think that would be the main benefit of having all-x shortlists for internal elections: success would be guaranteed and, as you say, the party is not short of BAME talent, female talent, etc. I’m not against all-x shortlists for parliamentary seats, despite my misgivings. I’m just not sure how effective they would be.

  • A Social Liberal 31st Oct '13 - 10:47pm

    How many Lib Dem MPs claimed disability benefits? How many come from a minimum wage background? If we are going to manipulate in one area we should also discriminate in these areas, amongst others

  • @David Allen & @ Richard S

    Indeed no one I can see in this thread has said “what the candidate looks like” or “whether a candidate should be judged on their looks” are criteria for getting elected. What has been said is that real diversity should not be based mainly on what we can see about candidates (most usually sex and race are referred to), but on candidates attitudes (i.e. how they think). Thus if being asked to choose an MP for Redcar, I would always prefer a white, middle aged, local man who is an engineer, to an identikit woman from the home counties, with a degree in PPE and whose only work experience is as a political advisor, even if it meant the ratio of men to women was increased.

  • Sorry but selection should be on ability not gender! Any kind of discrimination is wrong, even ‘positive’ discrimination.

    As liberals can we really say that a whole section of society is not allowed to stand for selection of certain posts?

    If a female is the best person for the job, then great. If not then she should not be chosen. Simple!

  • Tracy,

    Discrimination is not always wrong it is a fundamental part of human interaction. Even negative discrimination is almost always wrong but not always. Positive discrimination on the other hand is not always right but is definitely not categorically wrong.

    That selection should be on ability rather than gender is desirable but our society is prejudiced against that. The chances of a female being selected, even if they are the best person for the job is not guaranteed; for some categories of men it is guaranteed. If they are equal on merit then the chances of the female being selected are slim. This requires positive action to correct. Positive action by its nature will mean that males who are given positive discrimination as a societal norm will have that inherent bias withdrawn, this is a negative discrimination when balanced against the status quo but not when balanced against that which ‘should be’. When society has developed an inherent bias that precludes a whole section of society from access to certain positions then liberalism requires that to be stopped. The problem that liberals have always had though is that they will the ends but never the means.

  • Jonathan Brown 1st Nov '13 - 2:52am

    Further to JRC’s comment above, research in France and the UK has shown that CVs submitted to various employers were much more likely to be offered interviews if they had ‘white’ names than if they had ‘Muslim’ names, despite the CVs being basically identical. Society is not colour blind, gender blind, disability blind, etc.

    I don’t believe we Lib Dems are immune to unconscious bias, and I certainly don’t believe that our institutions are as accessible to some groups that are currently under-represented within the party. All-x shortlists are a blunt tool, but have proven effective in some instances.

    There’s a big difference between saying that everyone has the same chance of winning and everyone starting on a level playing field. Some of that is not our fault. Some of it we may not be able to change. But if we can reform our party to better enable those – often very talented people – from under-represented groups to make it within the party we will all benefit.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Nov '13 - 3:20am

    I object to being overly critical of Labour on sexism against women, but I agree all women shortlists are a bad idea and I thank Sarah Brown and Tracy for speaking out against them. We’ll never delight everyone on this subject, but I think aiming for positive discrimination when candidates are hard to split is the right balance.

    I also agree that racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination need to be treated just as seriously. At this point I regret changing my long term support of gay marriage because of political positioning and the level of public opposition at the time.

  • Stuart Mitchell 1st Nov '13 - 8:07am

    Labour had a problem with under-representation of women. They solved it.

    Now, one can like Labour’s solution or not, but shouldn’t Lib Dems be trying to come up with their own solutions instead of constantly carping about Labour’s? Because the unpalatable thing here is not that Labour did something about their problem, it’s that the Lib Dems are doing nothing whatsoever about theirs.

  • Eddie Sammon,

    Just to pick you up on a point: Tracy argues that discrimination is wrong , which does include all-women shortlists but also includes everything else that could be done about prejudice in society so therefore whether or not sexism, racism, homophobia etc. exists it would be wrong to try and correct it and Sarah Brown argues in favour of all-women shortlists where sexism exists, only not in the Liberal Democratic Party because it is a sexism free nirvana.

  • David Evans 1st Nov '13 - 10:41am

    @ Helen Tadcastle – You ask “how come there are some male MPs in the House of Commons who are not ‘up to it’ then?” and the answer is “For the same reason there are some female MPs in the House of Commons who are not ‘up to it’? Not due to prejudice, just the way things work out sometimes.

  • David Evans 1st Nov '13 - 11:30am

    @ Helen
    Clearly that is your opinion, but without any objective analysis it cannot be verified. However, I am certain there are below average female MPs, just as there are below average male ones. Your last post didn’t acknowledge that there could be below average females, but did emphasise that there were below average males, was it an omission, or do you not think there are any below average females in parliament?

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Nov '13 - 12:11pm

    Ah right, sorry JRC, I see. Thanks.

  • David Evans 1st Nov '13 - 12:38pm

    Go on Helen, I’m sure there must be one or two out there you can think of, or at least one or two female ex MPs who were found to be well below average recently. No names required.

    More seriously though, I remain convinced that the most under represented group in parliament (and sadly now in many areas Local Government as well) are Lib Dems, and this will remain my focus until it is rectified.

  • David Evans 1st Nov '13 - 6:10pm

    @ Caractacus – What is even more worrying is, as you point out, we lost three of our six seats in Cornwall, and all were lost by female candidates, two selected to replace male candidates who were standing down, each handing on a reasonably safe majority. If this is true in a wider sample, surely it isn’t the Lib Dems’ selection process that is the problem, but the electoral system as a whole.

  • Are you comfortable with a system that excludes a much large number of women than men from full political participation? Are you comfortable shrugging your shoulders and saying “that’s just the way it is”? Do you think that, faced with evidence of systemic discrimination, the best thing to do is nothing? If so, please explain why women should vote for you.

  • David Evans 2nd Nov '13 - 2:10pm

    David-1. The only problem with your post is that it is not true. In 2010 there were 8 Lib Dem MPs standing down, four women and four men were selected as successors. Sadly the four women all lost, and the men won. So there is nothing wrong with our selection mechanisms, the problem is in getting women elected.

  • Ruth Bright 2nd Nov '13 - 5:07pm

    I am sure Labour has its problems but there is at least a critical mass of women in the Labour party such that issues around families, equalities and work/life balance have become mainstream . As a Lib Dem PPC I can remember running a campaign about a threatened birth centre in our FOCUS newspaper. With a few honourable exceptions the largely male older activists were baffled by my interest in what they saw as an irrelevant fringe issue when we should have been filling FOCUS full of exciting articles about planning, parking and refuse disposal.

  • David Evans 3rd Nov '13 - 12:21pm

    @ Lester Holoway – I never mentioned BAME candidates in my post. if you could explain your post, maybe I would uncerstand what you are trying to say.

  • David Evans 3rd Nov '13 - 2:16pm

    @ Lester – As we all know, one of the easiest things two people are likely to reach is a misunderstanding. So what parallel are you drawing?

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