ALL-WOMEN SHORTLISTS ARE SEEN AS TERRIFYING. BUT SO IS THE STATUS QUO
It’ll be 2055 before we get gender equality in the House of Commons. Politics already has an invisible quota system – one that shuts down diversity
Sometimes it’s not a matter of sitting patiently, it’s a matter of working out how long you have got. You begin to realise that what you thought would happen “naturally” has not happened at all. I would have predicted by 2015 that about half of the people in important jobs – in public life, in parliament, in business, on the telly – would be vaguely female. It’s a meritocracy, right? Girls are doing better at school so they would be climbing every ladder held steady by supporters of fair play. Well, either I was stupidly optimistic or I must accept what meritocracy tells me. And it is this: women simply aren’t as good as men at most things. Ditto black and ethnic minority people, working-class people, queer people or disabled people.
Take the figures for the most visible form of democratic representation: you may not be interested in individual MPs, but the basic fact remains that these people represent us when they don’t even look like us. To have equal numbers of women and men in the House of Commons, we have to wait until 2055. My eldest daughter will be 70. I will be past caring.
This is not an argument about women being better or nicer; it is simply time we were recognised as the majority. Any kind of “new politics” would incorporate this, but the hard left “anti-austerity” politics enacted by the holy triumvirate of Corbyn, McDonnell and Watson appears to pay lip-service to an equality that will miraculously arrive when neoliberalism magically collapses. Feminism is a bit bourgeois, and the gender stuff can wait. This part of the left has been on a loop for a decade.
Actually, a new politics would figure that there are sound economic arguments for closing the pay gap between men and women. The more that women work, the more economies grow. The more that women control household income, the more children benefit. Half of the growth in OECD countries has been attributed to increased educational attainment by women. The UN calculates that closing the gender pay gap and the employment participation gap would increase women’s income by 76%. Globally, this is estimated at £11tn.
Equality and anti-austerity politics are interlinked. It is not enough to note that austerity has hit women hardest; this was a deliberate policy. So is the closing of rape crisis centres. So is the impoverishment of children. We can continue to ignore, too, the gendered nature of the refugee crisis, but we are seeing mobile young men, with women left behind.
The ruling elite may speak up for the interests of women, but their polices do otherwise. This meritocracy has produced a government of mediocre millionaires challenged by a party that had done “well” for women. Just not well enough to allow them to lead them, or give them the big jobs.
The great lie of meritocracy is that it is not underpinned by social engineering. Go to the right school, meet the right people, get the right job and you will run law, politics, the media, and you can all stand around convincing each other of your individual brilliance. Anything that might disrupt this is a threat. But it’s time.
The LSE commission on gender inequality and power, looking at senior positions in the public and private sectors, called for quotas to boost the number of women in all parties to balance decision-making in parliament. This is increasingly happening across Europe because, whatever the parties say, without quotas they continue to reproduce a stale homogeneity. The key phrase from the LSE is not about the under-representation of women “but the unjustifiable over-representation of men”.
This stuff frightens the horses all right. Sir Brian Leveson, responding to a government-backed report about putting more women in senior jobs in the law, described quotas as “demeaning”. The alternative, I guess, is a preponderance of men in wigs until some women are deemed good enough. All-women shortlists are seen as terrifying. But so is the status quo.
One of the polices of the new Women’s Equality Party, which I support and whose policy launch is next week, is to introduce special measures to increase the number of women both in the Commons and in the Lords, where, on existing trends, we will have to wait until 2100 for gender parity. These temporary measures would mean that women made up two-thirds of new MPs and three-quarters of new peers. We want to ensure that two-thirds of those replacing retired candidates are female. Each party may choose how it achieves this, but we would support women-only shortlists.
This is hardly radical stuff. No man is being asked to step down. We are simply trying to achieve a gender balance in two to three elections so that quotas will no longer be necessary. Politics as it currently operates is an invisible quota system that shuts down diversity – of every kind. As Sophie Walker, leader of WEP, says: “We have 30 million women in the country. I think it’s highly unlikely you would struggle to find 325 brilliant ones to become MPs.”
If we want to grow this country into a better place socially and economically, women’s equality is the quickest route to it. The smart guys surely know this.
By Suzanne Moore