“The language of priorities”, as Nye Bevan once told Labour conference, “is the religion of socialism”, and the time has come for a hallowed Labour party institution, the All Women Shortlist (AWS), to be subjected to some ritualistic scrutiny.
Let us cast aside the old incantations: the ambitious Labour man’s cry that constituencies should be allowed to pick the best ‘man’ for the job; the smug Tory female MP who says that MPs chosen this way lack legitimacy. There is a new development this time around. The new question is less a matter of whether we should still be doing AWS - ultimately, there is, still, a problem of female representation in the Labour party in parliament, and all-women shortlists are the only way to fix it, we definitely should be doing it – the question is whether we can justify it when we have failed to take action in other areas.
Because while the Labour party has been changing its composition in terms of gender, parliament has also changed in terms of its members’ occupational and educational background. Between 1992 and 2010, the percentage of women in parliament doubled, while the percentage of manual workers halved. 72% of Labour MPs have a degree, compared to 35% of the British population at large (never mind Labour voters).
The arguments in favour of addressing this disparity should be familiar to advocates of AWS. First is the moral argument. These people need representing. Would Labour have announced plans to introduce 25 hours of free childcare for children aged 3 and 4 if it weren’t for the pressure of women inside the Labour party? Would Andy Burnham be developing plans to introduce a National Care Service, allowing thousands of women in their 50s to remain in work, on whom the burden of looking after elderly relatives falls disproportionately? Put simply, those in power are acutely aware of the problems of people like them, and are very good at taking steps to solve them. Perhaps if we had had more bin men and dinner ladies in the last Labour government, ministers wouldn’t have been so intensely relaxed about outsourcing so many ancillary public services.
Second is the electoral argument; the advantage in being seen to represent a group, of having ministers and spokespeople which look and sound like voters. Back in 2010 Tom Freeman compared who voted for Labour in 2001, back when we were winning elections and in 2010. He found that while Labour had lost only 3% of its support from professionals in the A and B socioeconomic groups, it had lost 39% of its support in the C2 skilled working class group and 23% of its support in the DE group. Now, UKIP are jettisoning unpopular policies like the flat rate income tax with the objective of winning these groups over. A coalition of ethnic minorities and the liberal professions will win us romping majorities of the type we enjoyed in the London local elections this year, but will it be enough to return a working majority?
The classic argument against instituting working class shortlists (WCS) is that the mechanics are too difficult. Not to put too gender normative a point to it, the argument goes, but gender is binary, and it is quite easy to work out who should and shouldn’t be on an AWS. Short of having a prole-off, it would be a lot harder to work out eligibility for a WCS. This is true enough, if you want to make sure that you both include everybody who is eligible and exclude everyone who isn’t eligible, but really, to ensure a more representative Labour party, you only have to achieve the latter. I should imagine excluding anybody who got a degree before they were thirty would be a good way of ensuring a more representative parliament. Excluding anyone who’s ever earned more than median earnings for the constituency they’re applying to would probably do the trick too. There are a hundred different ways of arranging it, one for every way that the family you are born in determines your life chances in this country, and a hundred objections to each one. Opponents will fixate on this aspect of WCS because it’s the only respect in which the argument differs from the system we’ve had in place for the past twenty years to guarantee female representation.
I have no desire to see AWS abolished, but when the Shadow Cabinet is 47% female, but there’s only one without a degree (university drop-out Jim Murphy – sorry, Jim), it speaks volumes about the priorities of the men and women who currently run the Labour party. Accept no excuses, no substitutes, no procrastination – we need WCS now, or the Labour party will lose its soul.