Earlier today I was on LBC Radio with Iain Dale to discuss Nick Clegg’s proposals for all-women shortlists. It is an interesting dilemma.
The first question to ask is simple - do we have a problem? Absolutely we do.
The general population is 52% female, yet only 147 of 650 MPs – about 23% - are, with only 5 women MPs attending cabinet.
There is a wealth of evidence that we would be better off with more female politicians – and not just on what are considered ‘female’ issues. Talent is not limited by gender, race, or other characteristics, so it is reasonable to deduce from such figures that we are missing out on some very talented potential Parliamentarians.
So why not all-women shortlists? It is true that this method has helped increase the number of female MPs for the only party to have used it, Labour. But it is no silver bullet: even now only one-third of Labour MPs are women.
If we accept discrimination as wrong, how can we find the solution in yet more of the same?
Positive discrimination is still discrimination – it doesn’t become morally acceptable because we adjust the object of prejudice. Nick Clegg recently launched an impassioned defence of his Europhile credentials, part of the underlying principle of EU law is that discrimination should not take place on the basis of gender.
In seeking to create true equality, we should hope to create equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. As F.A. Hayek said, to impose equality of outcomes, we must therefore treat people not equally, but differently.
This policy defines women politicians as different, an ‘other’ in need of help from men like Nick Clegg to create something less than a level playing field in order to succeed. It reinforces the completely false idea that female politicians are less capable than their male counterparts.
It can also breed resentment, such as in 2005 when Peter Law won the safe Labour seat of Blaenau Gwent standing as an independent after being denied the opportunity to stand for Labour due to an AWS. Are we really to believe his opponent Maggie Jones, a former party chair and now peer, wasn’t competent enough to defeat a male opponent on her own merit?
All three parties sadly use all-women shortlists as a gimmick for political gain. It is no coincidence that Nick Clegg has floated them a couple of weeks ahead of an election, while David Cameron’s own flirtation with the idea was with a firm eye on his ‘detoxification’ strategy.
Even Labour have shown that it can easily be jettisoned when they wish; AWS champion Harriet Harman was accused of failing to back the process in Birmingham Erdington because her husband Jack Dromey wished to run for the seat.
These calls also ignore the fact we are in the middle of the process of organic change. The number of female MPs has increased in general, in the Labour Party, and in the 2010 Conservative intake, from 17 to 49. These numbers are not good enough but they represent an improving pattern.
As Isabel Hardman wrote in her excellent Spectator article last week, girls are now outperforming boys in school, college and at university. The tide has turned not to equality – girls are simply doing better. We should expect to see this reflected to some extent in politics, business and finance over the coming years.
It is true that the Liberal Democrats are somewhat behind the game in this regard, but Clegg himself has embraced policies that have not been given time to work. Mentoring and support is being offered to female candidates. Encouragingly, five of the six constituencies where a Lib Dem MP is standing down have selected women candidates.
This suggests Nick Clegg’s problem might be with the electorate rather than internal party policy.
Again, we are in the process of organic change– female candidates are now seen as an electoral asset by the main parties, women were elected in record numbers to the Senate in 2012, and blind tests confirm voters no longer hold male or female candidates to different standards on criteria such as competency or the ability to handle a crisis.
While undoubtedly more can be done, politicians should ask how can we solve this problem with more freedom, not less.
Parties need to encourage female candidates and their adoption through non-coercive methods. Clegg is right to pursue mentoring and training options.
Questions could still be asked about the lifestyle and working conditions of MPs. Despite radical changes to Parliament under Tony Blair to make it more ‘family friendly’, a large number of his (patronisingly so-called) Blair Babes quit, and four of Cameron’s 2010 intake of female MPs will have stood down by 2015.
Most importantly, strong female role models are required. CPS co-founder Margaret Thatcher famously said: "There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime—the male population is too prejudiced." Through the strength of her example she changed minds. Many candidates - of both sexes - cite her as an inspiration for their choice to stand.
The Conservative Party has Theresa May, Labour figures such as Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves, they can and should serve as inspirations – perhaps the Liberal Democrats need their own figures (let’s remember Nick Clegg chose to appoint an all male team to Cabinet positions rather than the likes of Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, despite their obvious talents). Perhaps she will emerge from their 2015 candidates.
We know as a society we need to stop caring so much about what heels these leaders have on and more about the policies they espouse. That our language sometimes betrays us – words such as ambition and demanding can be seen as positives in men but negatives in women.
We should also recognise we are in the midst of change. As a society we will achieve a more equal level organically, not as a politically imposed gimmick.