Positive action for women on Westminster shortlists

The English Candidates Committee (ECC) has decided to retain positive action measures to address the under-representation of women in the Parliamentary Party.

Clause 24 in the Westminster Rules for Selection of Parliamentary Candidates stipulates that where the ECC has decided to adopt positive action arrangements which affect a shortlist, those arrangements shall be observed by the Returning Officer and shortlisting committee as if they were contained in this Rule.

The provision is that:

In strategic seats and aspiring strategic seats (those that have ‘opted up’ to the full selection process):

    a shortlist of three candidates must contain a minimum of one woman
    a shortlist of four or five must contain at least two women
    longer shortlists must include at least one-third of women

This was taken out of the main body of the rules following the process that the ECC underwent to comply with the Equality Act 2010, but must be treated as an intrinsic part of these rules. Appendix D of the Selection Rules now features all positive action measures for this electoral cycle.

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  • Say what you like but if you’re the beneficiary of “positive action” you know in your heart that you’re not there on merit. And so does everybody else.

  • “Say what you like but if you’re the beneficiary of “positive action” you know in your heart that you’re not there on merit. And so does everybody else.”

    Only if they believe that men are naturally superior to women, and that the predominance of male candidates is due to natural female inferiority rather than systemic discrimination. I don’t think that there’s the least reason to believe that female candidates would not be “there on merit” simply because they benefited from a very partial effort to counteract anti-woman discrimination. Perhaps all the men who have benefited from anti-woman prejudices ought to know in their hearts that they’re not “there on merit”.

  • Lorna Dupre 7th Dec '12 - 2:58pm

    Oh dear. Cue yet another round of the all too familiar phone calls to approved women candidates in 2013-14: “You’re approved. You’re a woman. Will you be on our shortlist so we can select the man we really want?”

    It was interesting to notice, by the way, that in the recent European selections in the East of England all three women (out of 12 candidates in total) made it onto the final list of seven, with two of them in positions 2 and 3 behind Andrew Duff. If we’d still had ‘zipping’, it would have been a woman who was discriminated against, to make way for the fourth-placed man. Perhaps we can achieve gender balance better without having to rig the system?

  • The predominance of male candidates is due to the predominance of male applicants. Not because women are being discriminated against by electors. The reasons for fewer female applicants are varied and groups like the 30% Club know they can be fought without resorting to discrimination.

    And, yes, anybody who benefits from any kind of discrimination whether legal or illegal is not there on merit.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Dec '12 - 6:43pm


    “Say what you like but if you’re the beneficiary of “positive action” you know in your heart that you’re not there on merit. And so does everybody else.”

    Only if they believe that men are naturally superior to women, and that the predominance of male candidates is due to natural female inferiority rather than systemic discrimination'”

    This is not at all true or logical. There are all sorts of behaviours which differ markedly between the two genders. Acts of violence are one example: there are many more. It may well be that women are largely intrinsically superior to men and disproportionately the more able of them eschew participation in the cut and thrust of the parliamentary process. There are dozens of other equally-plausible explanations which do not include discrimination. So, of course, is discrimination.

  • Richard Swales 7th Dec '12 - 6:51pm

    David wrote “Only if they believe that men are naturally superior to women, and that the predominance of male candidates is due to natural female inferiority rather than systemic discrimination.”

    By the same token, would we say that then that the higher results gained by girls in education must be due to discrimination against boys, as any possibility that it might be based on different abilities or more likely different choices/priorities is simply unthinkable – or do the rules of thoughtcrime only run one way?

  • Oh, yes, it’s completely “thinkable” that girls simply don’t want to have a voice in government, that’s something that’s just too complicated for their tiny little brains, and they’re perfectly happy to sit back and let the boys do all the thinking and planning for them. You can think that. And other people can think other things, too, about people who think that.
    My opinion is that massive disparities, whether in application or selection, don’t arise without the presence of a systemic problem. Lots of people tend to have the illusion that problems go away if they are pretended not to exist. People under those illusions, however, tend to be the beneficiaries of the problems.

  • Richard Swales 7th Dec '12 - 7:26pm

    As you don’t answer it I assume you accept my charge that this kind of thing is only ever applied in one direction. So you do find it “thinkable” then that boys don’t want to get qualifications, what is your explanation for the different results?

    Secondly, the vast majority of people in the UK never attempt to enter parliament. Given that men and women are not just copies of each other there is no reason to expect this small, non-representative group to contain equal numbers of good candidates who are local to any given target seat, so yes I find that thinkable. In fact to me and many other people, one of the strongest arguments for the actual proposal above (which I am not actually arguing against, just against your way of shutting off thoughts) is that getting more women in parliament is good precisely because female perspectives and experiences are different, leading again to different priorites and choices by female MPs – do you also find that unthinkable or do gender differences suddenly thinkable when they support what you want?

  • Richard Dean 7th Dec '12 - 8:08pm

    Selectors need to assess a variety of characteristics, not just things like cleverness or connectedness or analytical skills, but also things like whether someone has knowledge and experience that will help them represent constituents.

    Being a woman gives a person a rather different knowledge and experience than being a man does. In my experience women think differently too, and are taught differently too. So a woman will likely score higher than a man in some merit categories, just because she is a woman, such a category about understanding how women think and feel about issues of the day.

    Since half the voters are women, fair selectors ought to be selecting women half the time. So the fact that they don’t is likely to have very little to do with applicant numbers or actual merit, it’s evidence that selectors are noy doing their job properly, because of bias. Positive discriminaton is a way of countering that bias.

  • Simon McGrath 7th Dec '12 - 8:09pm

    Discrimination is always bad but in this case at least constituencies can have the people they think are the best candidates and then add women on as required.
    Much worse was the situation in the recent euro list selectiosn where white people were moved down the list to make way for people from ethinc minorites – pure racial discrimination.

    @ david by the same logic i suppose that you would argue the fact that there are more post by men than women on LDV is proof of discrimination

  • Labour imposed an all-women shortlist on Blaenau Gwent in 2005.
    It led to one of the safest Labour seats in the country going to an independent (effectively a Labour man) (Peter Law) at the General Election.
    Not from an anti-women backlash as such: Peter’s widow Trish Law was elected as the independent AM a year later.
    Voters don’t like having candidates imposed on them.

    Making politics more attractive to women would be better than potentially picking a not-very-good person for a shortlist over a better one, just because of her chromosomes.

  • Simon, it’s evidence for something: but not, I presume, that Liberal Democrat Voice is actively deleting messages from women. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that that kind of thing is the only form that systems that effectively discriminate take. One very common form of discrimination that one sees in online communities is that a number of male users of a group create an environment hostile to women, e.g., by put-downs, sexist jokes, condescension, or simply ignoring women when they have a contribution to make. When faced by a hostile climate of that sort, most women simply leave; even those who initially choose to stay and fight it out get wearied and worn down by every single exchange being turned into a confrontation, and, with very rare exceptions, they decide that it’s not worth their time.
    Even when this kind of overt hostility is not displayed, however, the perception that a particular group is a “boys’ club” can be sufficient to deter large-scale participation by women, unless that participation is actively encouraged. Male-dominated fields of any sort tend to remain male-dominated. In such cases, it’s very easy for males in those fields to retain blinders on, and insist that the absence of women is related to a problem with the women themselves, or else is just “one of those things” — and then to resist any efforts to gain equal representation for women in them, with spurious arguments about “merit”. This resistance in turn can be very effective in reducing the number of women who wish to get into that field. Who wants to join a club that doesn’t want them? The lack of attempted entries is then cited by the defenders of the status quo as evidence that the real problem is that “the girls just aren’t interested”. And so the vicious cycle continues to revolve, unless and until someone takes positive measures to stop it.
    This is not an especially controversial view of the situation. Almost all women have encountered it. Most men have observed it at one time or another, even if they weren’t paying attention enough to recognize it for what it was. But if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see that it happens all the time.

  • No, David, not resistance to any effort to increase representation. But resistance to to do it by introducing sex (and other kinds of) discrimination. It is not only lazy but divisive and possibly even counter-productive. There are plenty of other ways to achieve the same ends.

  • Richard Swales 7th Dec '12 - 10:07pm

    I think it’s important to remember that the proposal isn’t to have all-women shortlists, it is to make sure the selectors have at least considered some female candidates, which much less problematic (although for symmetry it should also include the requirement to consider some male candidates).

    I am inclined to believe David’s assertion that many intelligent women are put off from forums like this one, because exchanges develop into confrontations. Whether women rather than men are more choromosomally predisposed to react in that way to “rough and tumble” style debate, or whether this apparent predispostion is due to different societal expectations of women and men from an early age is something others may discuss, but couldn’t such a predispostion be connected to the reason why there are not equal numbers of men and women interested in entering politics?

  • Richard Dean 7th Dec '12 - 10:09pm

    The objective of the selection process is to produce a collection of people who can represent the population. The process is not doing that, since so few women are selected. That’s discrimination, by definition – the process discriminates against women, and has to be fixed.

  • Richard Dean 7th Dec '12 - 10:15pm

    … To achieve that objective, each selection committee needs to arrange its selection invitations and procedures and criteria so that there is an even chance of ending up with a man or woman being selected. It’s about results, not inputs, and the results need to be that way. Not doing that means the selectors are discriminating.

  • Richard D, I could not disagree with you more. If 80% of applicants are men and only 20% are women than you have a fundamental problem that will not be fixed by discriminating against men to ensure a 50/50 outcome. You don’t have a representative pool of candidates to begin with so the outcome will not be representative no matter how much you manipulate the process. The women who do apply are not representative of women as a whole. The legitimate question to ask is what is putting off so many women and how do you make politics (or whatever else) more accessible?

  • daft h'a'porth 8th Dec '12 - 12:31am

    @Simon McGrath
    How do you actually know the gender of people posting here?

  • The real ‘discrimination’ we need is in favour of people who have some useful and relevant life/work experience to offer and against people who have lived throughout in the Westminster bubble as assistants and advisors! The trouble with focusing on the gender issue is that there are so many ways in which a team of candidates can be either ‘representative’ or ‘unrepresentative’.

  • Simon McGrath 8th Dec '12 - 10:23am

    @Daft – I was speaking of the main articles not the comments.

  • Tony Dawson 8th Dec '12 - 12:10pm

    @ David:

    “it’s completely “thinkable” that girls simply don’t want to have a voice in government, that’s something that’s just too complicated for their tiny little brains, and they’re perfectly happy to sit back and let the boys do all the thinking and planning for them. ”

    I see the possessors of ‘tiny little brains’ (among whom I’d NOT include the women of Britain!) might appear to have found the perfect advocate!

    Having a say in government is NOT the same as being prepared to put yourself through the bear pit of FPTP elections followed by participation in a similarly animal Parliament. I have met many able women who I think would make great candidates and/or great MPs (not always the same people in our present system). Almost without exception they consider the participation in our present process to be something they would not entertain unless their lives depended on it.

    Incidentally, male single parents of young children are probably treated as badly in the current UK political system (and are less-well-‘represented’ in Parliament pro rata) as are their female counterparts. Candidates (male and female) tend to be expected to have a ‘wife’ like Dennis Thatcher.

  • Two thoughts:
    1) Three Euro constituencies selected a woman in a place where we won an MEP in 2009 but selected a male this time (Yorks & Humber, West Mids and South East). Since the zipped 1999 selections the balance of women in the European parliamentary party has fallen – we will almost certainly have no more than 3 female MEPs after the next election.
    2) The affirmative action for BAME candidates wouldn’t have got more BAME candidates on the list and did nothing to get BAME candidates into winnable positions.

  • Simon McGrath 9th Dec '12 - 6:40pm

    @ lester “The evidence tells us that the party membership are not selecting enough women and BAME’s when there are quality candidates on offer. ”
    So are you suggesting our members are racists and sexists.?

  • Do women represent greater than 30% of the membership of the party? If not I suggest redress this issue and the creation of more balanced shortlists may naturally follow.

  • In the East Midlands an Asian candidate came second after the incumbent without any subversion of the democratic process. The ticket probably won’t get enough votes for him to be elected but if Bill stands down next time he stands a good chance of winning the number 1 spot.

  • Simon
    I don’t know but the pattern of these elections is replace women with men in winnable positions

    As Mark says the %age of women members has been stable for a long while and the percentage of women MEPs has falled since 1999

  • Tony, there must be a school somewhere offering a class in Remedial Sarcasm that you could take.

    I don’t think that your notion that women are, for some (social? genetic?) reason unwilling or unable to go through the “bear pit” of elections is any improvement on your previous expressions. Even if it were true on some level, it would be very far from excusing the dismal imparity of male and female candidacies, and would rather argue more for positive efforts to encourage women to run and to provide women full support and backing as legitimate candidates. But that doesn’t sound like your argument; I get the impression that you’re just shrugging and saying “that’s just the way it is.” I have to ask if that’s a fundamentally liberal position.

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