At our 2001 party conference I donned a shocking pink t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I am not a token woman” and spoke in opposition to all-women shortlists.
Eight years on, I am still opposed to the use of single gender shortlists, but I wonder if I was then taking aim at the wrong target.
Research done by the party in advance of Nick Clegg’s recent appearance before the Speaker’s Conference showed, as I argued back in 2001, no evidence that our party discriminates against women in candidate selections.
Far from it: analysis of 237 selections shows that two thirds of the time where a woman is on the shortlist, a woman is selected.
However the most worrying figure for me, was that of these 237 selections, only 90 had a woman on the shortlist. 147 all-men shortlists were nodded through, giving our members no choice to select a woman. It’s not just in “unwinnable” seats either. Norwich South, St Albans…
At the recent Speaker’s Conference hearing with party leaders, Nick rightly made several mentions of our rule requiring at least one man and one woman on each shortlist. But it is empty rhetoric if it is not enforced. I’m not saying that in special circumstances we shouldn’t allow the rule to be waived – where a popular, incumbent PPC has come within a few hundred votes of winning it is not surprising that no challengers emerge even after two advertisements.
It should not, however, be standard practice, as it now clearly is. When 147 seats are ending up with all-men shortlists, it’s a pretty clear sign of a problem. The solution is not to sit back and do nothing. In approaching the Regional Candidates Chair to waive the gender balance rule the local parties say: “There are no women candidates” or “We’ve advertised twice and emailed every approved woman on the list”. These are not good enough excuses. Finding candidates – men and women – is not something local parties can outsource to the federal party. If local parties know in advance that the rule won’t be waived, they will have a clear incentive to ensure women apply – and that means getting women to become candidates in the first place. The experience in our party, and others, is that women often need extra encouragement or nudging.
The Campaign for Gender Balance has an excellent record in supporting women to become approved, and helping women get selected in winnable seats. 40% of our target seat candidates are women. 67% of candidates in held seats where the MP is standing down are women.
This cannot though be solely a centralised initiative. Local parties must actively engage in the search for and encouragement of our next tranche of women candidates.
If we enforce our own rule to have both genders on every shortlist, I believe we can prove that it is possible to achieve gender balance without resorting to positive discrimination.
We need to campaign now to get all parts of the party to agree that after the election, in the new round of selections, this rule will have meaning. Local parties will have to ensure women apply if they want to proceed with selection. That means winning arguments in the English, Scottish and Welsh Candidates Committees, and possibly at Conference.
“Say No to All-Men Shortlists” – I can see the t-shirts now. Who’s with me?