Rosie Campbell reviews the debates around the use of gender quotas by the Labour Party. She writes that although they are unpopular with many voters (and some sections of the party itself) the evidence continues to suggest that they are an effective way to boost female participation in politics in the short term.
The Labour Party’s continued use of all women shortlists (AWS) remains controversial but the international research shows that the use of gender quotas (such as AWS) is the only reliable way to improve the representation of women in the short to medium term. All women shortlists are unpopular with voters; a YouGov poll conducted for the Times in August 2014 found that 56% of the British public are opposed to AWS. Men were more anti-AWS than women, with 63% of men opposed compared to 51%. Nonetheless there is no denying that as a concept gender quotas are unpopular with the British public. And yet research conducted by David Cutts and Paul Widdop shows that voters don’t seem to punish women selected by AWS at the ballot box. It is perhaps for this reason that the Labour party was and continues to be willing to employ AWS, even in the face of some times pretty vehement opposition from some of its members; although AWS are unpopular, women candidates are not and parties may fear an electoral penalty if they are perceived as male, pale and stale.
The internal battle within the Labour Party over AWS continues to play out. Veteran MP Austin Mitchell used the occasion of the announcement of his retirement to complain that the influx of women MPs had ‘weakened parliament’. In response women politicians and feminist commentators defended the use of all women shortlists to overcome bias in the parties’ selection processes. Labour constituencies are also divided as to the efficacy and merit of employing AWS. Members of the local Labour Party in Cyon Valley threatened to go on strike if an all women shortlist was imposed on the constituency, but at the other end of the spectrum Cardiff North chose to use an all women shortlist to select their parliamentary candidate.
What does the evidence about candidates selected so far for 2015 tell us about Labour’s continued use of AWS? Of all the 1325 new candidates selected so far to stand in the upcoming general election 485 or 27% are women, but the figures vary considerably by party. In the Labour Party’s retirement seats they have so far selected 21 women out of 31 candidates (68%) compared with 9 women out of 30 (30%) selected by the Conservatives in their retirement seats and 5 women out of 11 (46%) by the Liberal Democrats in retirements seats. Unpopular as they may be with some sectors of the Labour party and with many voters all women shortlists continue to give the Labour party a significant boost in its selection of women candidates in their own safe seats.