Saturday, 30 August 2014

Forget All-Women Shortlists, We Need All-Merit Shortlists

Labour MP Austin Mitchell has made a tit of himself recently with some ill-conceived remarks about women in Parliament. However, despite a lot of misjudged waffle he is right about one key thing - that all-women shortlists are un-democratic and pretty much always a bad idea.

On Newsnight feminist Labour MP Stella Creasy took Austin Mitchell to task for his views, reminding him that “Only 23% of MPs are women, barely more than one fifth” despite women making up just over half the population. So what? Less than 1% of garage mechanics are women, but that doesn’t mean women are being discriminated against in that profession, it probably means that very few women want to mess around with oily engines all day. Less than 13% of primary school teachers are men, but that’s also not evidence of discrimination, it is evidence of there being more women candidates for the role of primary school teacher.

Even if it is true that women are under-represented in Parliament, representatives are voted in democratically, which only goes to show that in a democracy more men get voted in than women. Perhaps voters have a greater preference for men MPs than women. Or perhaps not. Either way, you have to decide how much you value democracy, and to what extent you’ll let democracy run its course. Britain and America celebrated the first democratically elected president in Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein. When it turns out he was too sectarian they influenced his un-democratic removal. Some people championed democracy in Palestine - and then they got Hamas, and everyone knows what a disaster that has turned out to be.

More women in Parliament may well be desired - but the problem with artificially advancing one group is that you have to artificially disadvantage other groups in the process. Why should one group, be they men, white people, heterosexual people, or whoever, be discriminated against purely on grounds that they happen to belong to the wrong group on a particular issue? Promoting MPs just because they happen to belong to a group called ‘women’ is not only unfair on the other group called ‘men’ it rather deindividuates the individuals in question too. The process of demanding high calibre MPs while at the same time artificially increasing the probability of low calibre MPs by swerving merit-based selection is not something we should champion.

Don’t get me wrong, it may well still be the case that society still has too much of a bias against women, and that there is a serious redress needed – but that redress must come about by changing attitudes, increasing openness and opportunity, and extension of choice where it is lacking – not by affirmative actions that discriminate unjustly against the group(s) not in favour. Merit-based societies are the best way to go, precisely because they are unbound by group preferences. Imagine the absurdity of trying to artificially improve the education results of under-performing working class students by changing the meaning of grades instead of encouraging their academic prowess. From now on if you go to a private school you need A-level As to get into a top university, whereas if you go to a State school grade Cs will do. Just as such a system would undermine scholastic gradation, so too do all-women shortlists undermine the qualities perceived by a democratic body (the electorate) to be worthy of selection as an MP candidate.

As black student Clarence Thomas once pointed out, “As much as it stung to be told that I’d done well in the seminary despite my race, it was far worse to feel that I was now at Yale because of it.” MPs that are in Parliament because they are women have every reason to feel the same.

Finally, the other reason why all-women shortlists should be discouraged is because a democratic process like our voting system (it isn't exactly wholly democratic, but it's close) is the only power the citizens of the UK have against their elected MPs. Democratic accountability - and how I wish there were more - means feedback from political performances. Remove the ability of the electorate to vote in or vote out individuals based on their skills, merit, views and performance alone and you unleash discord through the gradual disempowerment of the voter. As we've seen in previous blog posts (here and here), diversity has to be considered with all its merits and demerits factored in.   

* Photo courtesy of