If any form of only selection list, women or otherwise, is the answer to getting more minorities into Parliament then I contend that you are, perhaps, asking the wrong question? Restricted shortlists, however well intentioned, are a recognition of failure and a craven submission to institutional discrimination. The problems facing women in becoming successful in politics also affect BEM/BAMEs, LGBTs, DP/PWDs and combinations thereof. The one group not in quite the same league are those of mature years. Kenneth Clarke has just been retired from Front Bench politics at the age of 75 and then, of course there is the House of Lords.
It may be going against received wisdom to say this, but most of the time it is local constituency parties that decide who stands for their party at election time. Moreover, in the case of safe seats, it is a handful of activists who elect the Member of Parliament. The wider electorate merely rubber-stamp their choice. Influence how these relatively small groups think and vote and you stand a chance of increasing the range and, possibly, quality of candidates that parties field at election time.
Party activists are, as I know from firsthand experience, rarely a representative sample of the constituency in which they live. They are even sometimes not particularly well attuned to local sentiment when it comes to picking the best candidate to fight and win for their party locally. However, they are the people who decide. They mostly resent being told what to do and women only short lists are just as likely to cause resentment as parachuted in potential candidates, backed by party headquarters. And, if you really want to raise their ire then impose a women only short list with at least one HQ backed parachutist on it.
If you are opposed to parachutists as being an imposition and an affront to local democracy then how can you then contend that imposed women only short lists, unless self-imposed by constituencies themselves, are any different? And where women are chosen through imposed short lists do they necessarily command sufficient support within their local party to head an effective election campaign? It is not enough to choose women as candidates; you need to get them elected too.
Party selection meetings, rather like the deliberations of juries, are rarely discussed outside of those meetings, except amongst a small, directly involved group. It is difficult to say, therefore, how people choose whom they do. Not every parachutist lands safely, but others are selected, because a name, likely to attract publicity is very helpful at election time. And, if HQ is done a favour, then may be the favour will be returned at a later date. Internal party politics, comrade, like life is not a simple affair.
Activists have their prejudices and many, regardless of party are a bit set in their ways, even conservative on occasion, regardless of the colour of their politics. For more on this topic, I refer, my Right Honourable Friends to John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better.
Discrimination knows no party boundaries. A former chair of my local Ward Party berated female members about their not campaigning on issues like the equalisation of the pension age. A little while later, he nearly had apoplexy when the party put on women only learning and development sessions to help them with campaigning and seeking election. The sessions were, understandably, on Saturday mornings and on site crèche facilities were provided. He had, like I, had received through our work the sort of training needed to turn raw talent into campaigners and candidates. I got the impression he failed to grasp that. As an aside, he resigned before 1997, alleging that the party’s future programme was going to include rehabilitating Phillip Snowden. Yes, dear reader, one element of Old Labour, red in tooth and clue, seemingly happiest when raking over the coals of yesterday’s battles. Keir Hardie, on the other hand, actively campaigned for votes for women.
Where does this get us though? We certainly do need a wider choice of candidates, regardless of party, at election times. The answer is very simple. If you are serious about this issue and want to see progress made then I am afraid you are going to have to put your money and your time where your mouth is. Join the political party that most corresponds with your own politics (and encourage like-minded people to do the same) in time to select future candidates; the easy bit. Organise within your party to make selections locally, more democratic and more accessible to all wishing to stand. Eschew top down policy statements, the good intentions of external pressure groups and pointless handwringing. Instead, favour direction action. Keep the pressure up and pick the best person to be your candidate and, crucially, campaign night and day for them, up to and beyond Election Day. It really is as simple as that, if you seriously want to see real, sustained change.
There has never been a Golden Age of Politics. Politicians have rarely ever been a representative sample of their electorate. In some cases, given the tendency of parts of the electorate to be racist and so forth, perhaps being less representative is not a bad thing? One might, on the other hand, contend that politicians should reflect extremist positions that we do not like? I fear that to be a quandary only liberals and progressives face. Political extremists of the Left and Right, being convinced of the rightness of their cause, usually claim that they perfectly reflect the views of the Silent Majority (or would do, if only someone would give them the necessary power to do so). Perhaps, if more people became more informed about the reality of political life then they might be in a better position to play an effective part in it (and less susceptible to simplistic policies)?
Politicians (shock, horror) have never been popular from the moment the human race started to live in polis. And, why not? They have to seek votes and support from the likes of you and me! However, as Winston Spencer Churchill remarked, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” We are stuck with it and so need to make the best of it. Either that or stop complaining, if you have no intention of participating?
Institutional discrimination needs to be faced head on. The myths around the abilities of women and other minorities, not just in politics, need to be challenged, not acquiesced in and not skirted through dubious quick fixes. It will not be easy, but what is, that is worth achieving? In addition, I am afraid, cynicism about politics in general and politicians, in particular, needs to be dialled down. Women and other minorities already have a hard enough time getting on in politics without being painted as the spawn of Satan. Who, in their right mind, would risk everything to stand for Parliament in the current climate?
A bigger, more diverse activist base in political parties would do much to improve the range of candidates, but only up to a point. I outlined above some efforts taken to refine raw female talent into campaign ready candidates. Many of our current crop of Members of Parliament come oven ready. Their education, their family backgrounds and so on make them ideal candidates. They are the sort of people that the media and the voters expect to see at election time.
We may say we want more people who are better connected to the electorate. That we do not want identi-kit politicians, until we get them, of course. Someone on Twitter remarked recently that Ed Miliband does not look like a leader and that alas looks do count. In other words, the electorate can be rather superficial in deciding as to whom to elect.
Robin Cook felt his short stature, red hair and beard alone meant he would never be taken seriously as a candidate for leadership of the Labour Party. No one would elect a garden gnome, his words, not mine, Prime Minister.
Is this superficiality something we have imported from the United Stars of America? Over there, one can be too clever to be suitable for election. Over here, Roger Helmer, during the Newark by election, said that Ed Miliband was probably too intelligent to become Prime Minister. It would seem that Mr Helmer possesses (with due apologies to The West Wing) “a .22 calibre mind in a .357 Magnum world.” We surely need more, not fewer intelligent candidates in political life who recognise that complex problems require complex solutions and not gesture politics.
The electorate are, therefore, not, it seems, as a group as reasonable and rational as some idealists seem to think them to be. Often, these dreamers are big on political theory, whilst being blissfully ignorant of the grubby side of politics. In particular, the uplifting experience of going door to door asking people to vote for you. Winston Spencer Churchill spoke for many, regardless of party, when he observed that, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” My father, four years as a Councillor, expands on that point. In his view, most of the electorate, most of the time are not incapable of rising to the challenge of participating fully in our representative democracy, but they are woefully ill informed. Mostly, this is not their own fault, but it makes them conservative and, sometimes, even hostile to change. The support ukip draws from our society’s social and economic luddites would seem to provide evidence for that point of view. Add in the Russell Brand approach to politics and you get a disconnection created by both the electorate and those they elect.
The views that ukip’s supporters have of most of the rest of their fellow citizens neatly encapsulate the difficulties that the majority have in being selected and elected, let alone being treated fairly in their everyday lives. Put simply, it is traditional for white men to be primus inter pares and be elected to Parliament, regardless of class and background; a view that unites the blue rinse brigade and many another activist across the political spectrum. Dilute their power and influence and I think we are in with a chance of beginning to shake up the demographic landscape of modern politics in the United Kingdom.
Getting non-traditional candidates selected and elected requires concerted, sustained effort not warm words, A Lists and cosmetic reshuffles. It demands that armchair political experts desert their comfortable positions and get up close and personal with the political process. You may keep your principles bright and not get your hands on the levers of power or take the shine off your principles, get your hands on the levers of power and do something (with due apologies to David Lloyd George). May be with your hands on the levers of party selection processes you might just get the politicians you say you want?
Ultimately, in the immortal words of President Josiah Bartlet, “Decisions are made by those who turn up. Have we failed you or have you failed us? I think it is a bit of both.”