The recent photo of an all-male government front bench has meant that all-women shortlists have once again been a topic of conversation, this time with suggestions from within the Conservative Party about whether they should adopt them. But the discussion on AWS is still happening in the Labour Party. As an NEC member, I often receive correspondence from members lobbying me about AWS decisions. While I welcome members’ thoughts and take into account every email and letter, it’s clear there are some common misconceptions about AWS that we need to tackle.
The most common myth is that all women shortlists are “unfair”. This misses the point of AWS entirely. We live in a society where women are unfairly and systematically oppressed – day-in, day-out, in political life, at work and in the home. As a party we use tools like AWS to try to combat some of that unfairness that women face. Don’t believe me, look at the minuscule number of women who are elected in open selections.
Someone recently cited to me the relatively good number of women Labour MPs in a region as a reason for an open shortlist, but until there is the same amount of women in a region as men, or more, I will continue to believe that this is a shortage. But even if we did have equal numbers of women as men in a region (as it happens, the only region with as many or more women Labour MPs than men is the South West, where we have a total of 4 MPs) that in itself would not mean that discrimination in our selections procedures had been eradicated, and AWS is just as much about that as it is about getting more women MPs.
I think the argument that I’ve heard most often recently is one of the worst: that imposing an AWS “prevents talented people standing”. This is nothing short of offensive. Women are no less talented than men and it is open shortlists that often prevent talented women getting selected. Take Betty Boothroyd, for example, who only got selected on her 14th attempt; I doubt that was due to a lack of talent. I have one question for all those who express this view: which talentless woman, elected through AWS, would you like to see thrown out of the Shadow Cabinet, or do you have no idea who was selected this way because those women are just as talented as their colleagues?
Bizarrely, another argument that seems to be being made more frequently is that AWS is a hindrance to diversity among our candidates. There’s no doubt that we need more BAME, LGBT, disabled and working class people in parliament, but this argument seems to suggest there are no women who are also BAME, LBT, disabled and working class. I want to see more women like this in parliament and AWS has been proven as the best way to achieve that. I don’t believe that all-women shortlists deprive the party of talented and diverse candidates; in fact, I know that they do quite the opposite.
Despite us being 50% of the population, women still only make up a third of the Parliamentary Labour Party and 22% of parliament as a whole. How can we begin to say we’ll be the party who gives a voice to the voiceless and represent minorities when we can’t claim to represent the majority? Gender is not the only consideration in achieving diversity but it is nonetheless an incredibly important one.