Harriet Harman is right to demand half the cabinet is female


1:56 pm - June 3rd 2010

by Hopi Sen    


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Harriet Harman has called for half of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet to be women.

She’s right.

There’s no good reason why Labour’s shadow cabinet should be male dominated.

If the issue is that there aren’t enough “Brilliant/ Talented/Experienced/whatever women” that’s a fault of the system we’ve employed, not a reflection on the abilities of Labour women.

In the short term, a more “woman-led” shadow cabinet will provide a strong contrast to the government. In the medium term, forcing a leader to have a strong top team of women will give them an incentive to promote, develop and encourage strong women candidates, MPs and frontbenchers.

Nor should we worry about a few bruised egos amongst ambitious younger men. Those of us who survived in politics without patronage have dealt with AWS for a while, so it’s right that the golden children who comprise the younger end of the Shadow cabinet shouldn’t be excepted either.

Of course, having a fifty per cent women shadow cabinet will make the shadow cabinet elections even more ludicrous than they are at the moment, but that’s no bad thing.

A situation where a woman MP gets 70 votes while a male colleague gets 110 and is not elected will make it abundantly clear the Shadow cabinet elections fail as a test of PLP popularity.

But PLP popularity is no guide to good performance in shadow cabinet. So why should we care? Good relations with colleagues is an important element of being a frontbencher, but other skills, from forensic questioning ability to campaigning strength, to being good with the media are also valuable.

As is being a diverse, representative group.

So if we must have elections for the shadow cabinet (and I personally think it’s a relic of a failed era of Labour politics) then the PLP should elect perhaps ten people, half men and half women, with the leader able to appoint another ten (again, half men and half women).

You might argue for a slight further gender flexibility (because a degree of flexibility is always useful, as recent selections have shown!), but the principle should be clear. More gender equality, more variety in routes to leadership positions.

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This is a guest post. Hopi Sen blogs here.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments


Shouldn’t the cabinet be picked on suitability for the job, rather than some sort of enforced gender based rules?

I’m all for more women being represented in the Shadow Cabinet but an exact 50/50 split seems rather inflexible. Which can’t it be something like at least 40% must be from each gender, leaving the remaining 10% up to Labour?

I’ll bet that left-handed and bald people are also substantially under-represented in the cabinet.

Why stop at wimmin? Why can’t we have quotas for English citizens to address the recent over-abundance of Jocks lording it over us wee Sassenachs from Cabinet?

5. the a&e charge nurse

Why has HH stopped short on gender – surely if we roll her argument out to its logical conclusion there should be additional quotas reflecting age, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious outlook, etc?

Are her proposals an example of Bristol City Council’s approach to ‘trainees’ writ large throughout an entire political class?

Spain has a similar 40% quota, which allows some flexibility, but I fear a situation whereby whichever gender gets ‘only’ 40% would be an endless source of debate/blog posts/flame wars. Labour might as well go for it now they’re in opposition – they’ve got five years to (a) make it work (b) find out who the talented women are as a result – even though the proposal is still a ‘top down’ model that would have to be replicated all the way through the party if it has any chance of being something more than Harman’s latest attempt at populist feminism.

One further thought…this sorts out Labour’s ideological/philosophical problems how, exactly?

Do people actually read the article or do they just copy and paste crap they’ve posted elsewhere?

Shouldn’t the cabinet be picked on suitability for the job, rather than some sort of enforced gender based rules?

Right. And there’s no reason why half of them can’t be female.

Yes thanks, Sonny, read it and rejected it as daft cant.

10. Watchman

Sunny,

Indeed. In fact there’s no reason the shadow cabinet (I always wondered why this only applied in opposition) should not be entirely female. Oddly though, stating it must be 50% male, and therefore reserving half the jobs for men, seems to discriminate against the many talented females in the Labour party.

To be honest though, considering the leadership candidates Labour could fill its cabinet with hemaphrodites and get nowhere. I doubt tokenism is going to attract many voters outside the already converted, whilst it will lose more of the white working class male who already feels put upon. Whilst an internal matter, I don’t think this sends a good message to voters.

I can see the advantages of promoting certain groups in cabinets, and shadow cabinets…but the reality is that you need to do things to support it that are ultimately undemocratic, and it is absolutely no guarantee of better representation or governance.

I’ve put down my thoughts here, they’re too long for a comment.

http://niaccurshi.blogspot.com/2010/06/equality-inside-democracy.html

Just thought of something.

Men and women are different.

They look different.

They tend to have different interests and attributes.

Why should it be assumed that they must have an equivalent natural ability and congenital propensity to succeed in politics and that a quota system to equalise numbers in control of a political party is therefore appropriate?

Pulls pin. Throws grenade. Retires.

Perhaps the best way to do this is as an explicitly short-term measure: say for three years.

This then gives women MPs an opportunity to shine in the shadow cabinet (and thus to retain their places when the quota is removed), while ensuring that the Tories/Lib Dems can’t accuse Labour’s shadow cabinet of not being appointed on merit at the next election.

14. the a&e charge nurse

[8] “there’s no reason why half of them can’t be female” – so are you implying that female candidates are held back unfairly, or undemocratically?

And it still doesn’t answer why HH is fixated on one variable (gender) rather than all of the others, for example is there anyone in the shadow cabinet with a disability?

There are so many reasons why this is a crap idea.

First, Labour has bigger fish to fry. Right now it has few distinctive ideas and none of the three leadership candidates who has so far received the appropriate number of nominations has offered any new ones. Nor have any of those three distinguished themselves from one another to any significant degree.

In theory, the new leader would need to set out what his (they are all men) vision for Labour is and to select a shadow cabinet to drive it forward. When appointing this shadow cabinet, will it help or hinder that, instead of selecting the 24 people he wants from the 258 members of the PLP, he has to select 12 men and 12 women from the respectively smaller pools thereof?

And once you open the door for one sort of quota, why not others? Why not racial quotas? why not quotas based on sexuality? On faith? On disability? On whether you went to Oxbridge? On whether you went to a state school?

Finally, once you have assembled the cabinet, why would you want the women in it to have to battle the charge that they were only there to make up the numbers? It isn’t as if we haven’t seen that charge leveled at female ministers already. Caroline Flint comes to mind as an example (although she was startlingly useless)

And P.S.

Didn’t Harman herself backtrack significantly on her support for all women shortlists in order to ensure the election of Jack Dromey a.k.a. Mr Harriet Harman?

Nope she’s wrong, plain and simple. The current MP split for the Labour Party is roughly 32% female to 68% male. If she’d argued that the Shadow Cabinet make-up should reflect that it would be better but still not right.

As GeorgeV points out, the leader should be appoint those best suited for the task not fill out the panel due to some never-ending quota system.

Harriet Harman has called for half of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet to be women.

She’s right.

There’s no good reason why Labour’s shadow cabinet should be male dominated.

She’s, again, wrong!

I don’t care if the shadow cabinet is 100% female! As long as they are the best of the best with the aptitude, talent and ability to do the job. What is always wrong with the quota system is that once you fill it you then leave those who can do the job in the twilight zone.

What if, with the quota full, a male member drops dead and you have a fantastic woman waiting in the wings – you have to chose a lesser ability male to fill the quota – stupid!

Pick whomever is the best to do the job and sod this gender nonsense – I want who is best, not the fact they have, or have not a penis or a vagina.

@15

Spot on.

20. Nick Cohen is a Tory

Why ?
Most head teachers are now women, 80% of primary school teachers are female.
Do we have positive discrimination in those areas.
Surely it ois best person for the job.

Oh God, apparently Ed Miliband supports it.

Who else is worth backing for the leadership?

22. Diogenes

hey once we elect Diane Abbott into post, these age-old problems will disappear. The select school, reserved for kids of the government…the special shops….this is progress as Hopi and Sunny know it.

Only a muppet would support this crackpot idea…

24. Vicarious Phil

Labour have just lost an election, so what’s their first new idea? To advertise to the world that the PLP can’t be trusted to vote for the right people in the election for the Shadow Cabinet!

Difficult one this. I didn’t much like the AWS idea but I can’t deny it was a huge success. The problem here is that until the PLP is 50% female then you are fishing in a much smaller pool. We have only about 75 female backbenchers and I would struggle to identify 8 cabinet minsters from that pool once you exclude the more senior members.whose frontline careers are now behind them. The main benificiaries of this idea would be women who held junior posts in the last government and failed to impress. On the other hand a quota requiring a number of women proportional to their numbers in the PLP would be easier to justify and would still represent an advance on the current position.

The other objection is that the proposal is superficial and fails to address our apparent inability to nurture the best of our female talent, why someone like Yvette Cooper feels she cannot run for leader or Ruth Kelly appears to have abandoned politics altogether.

Hopi says that he doesn’t agree with Shadow Cabinet elections, it seems to me that a 50:50 quota scheme would help to “delegitimise” them – especially if there ended up being only 9 or 10 female candidates for the 8 female positions. Hence, those who believe in Shadow Cabinet elections and internal democracy in the Labour Party should oppose them.

It’s one thing to say quotas should apply to _appointed_ positions, I’ve got no problem with a rule saying a Labour Leader – when they appoint to various positions – should have to follow a rigid gender balance quota. But, for _elected_ positions, to impose a quota is to _take away_ the electorate’s choice. That is a problem with all-women shortlists and it is a problem with applying a rigid quota in Shadow Cabinet elections. The choice of the PLP is constricted.

Furthermore, I would add that, as far as I know, only a minority of Labour Party members are women and this carries through to all levels of the party (and, of course, despite years of AWS the PLP is still 2/3 male). To impose a 50:50 quota irrespective of the ratio at the grassroots strikes me as foolish.

27. the a&e charge nurse

[26] “To impose a 50:50 quota irrespective of the ratio at the grassroots strikes me as foolish”.

Doesn’t this statement imply that the leadership actually takes any notice of the little people – I thought the topdown culture had become pretty hard wired during the Blair era? .

Great idea.
Most will be useless.

Isn’t it rather more important to sort out the policies for another Labour government before deciding whether or not half the Labour cabinet will be women?

@29

It’s a shame that Hopi Sen hasn’t come on here to defend his arguments, but I suspect the thinking is that with half the shadow cabinet female they will have a more expansive way of thinking and take in different viewpoints, thus have better chance of creating better policy.

I dunno though, am very much on the fence on this one.

Doesn’t this statement imply that the leadership actually takes any notice of the little people – I thought the topdown culture had become pretty hard wired during the Blair era? .

That’s one of the reasons why party membership halved during his presidency leadership – a lack of say at grassroots level.

@30: “I dunno though, am very much on the fence on this one.”

Reflecting on many contributions to policy decisons by that arch-Blairite Patricia Hewitt – the Rover Group, Iraq War, joining the Euro, spending £12.7bn on a national database of personal medical records etc – I’m inclined to be deeply pessimistic about the likelihood of better policy development emerging from a greater feminine input.

The outstanding counter-examples were Betty Boothroyd and the late Gwyneth Dunwoody, both of whom were mutually incompatible with the Blairite ascendancy – to their eternal credit IMO.

The first priority has to be for a greater gender balance among MPs, not least to ensure that the talent pool of women MPs for cabinet posts is sufficiently large. There’s absolutely no point in having women in cabinet posts just because they are women IMO. The fact is that some women are more equal (up to the job) than others. Harriet Harman’s own policy proposals on women’s issues so far seem to be to me mostly ill-considered.

I’m generalising here, but I think it’s true to say that women tent to be more consensual than men, looking for points of agreement in an argument on which to build a consensus, so the adversarial nature of our Parliament, particularly the Commons, won’t necessarily appeal to the majority of women. I think many women exclude themselves rather than find themselves discriminated against. Maybe we should make Parliament more women-friendly. I know many of the women Labour MPs of the 1997 intake found the barracking and sexism on the Tory benches off-putting and puerile.

As for having a quota of women in the Cabinet: I think that would be a grave mistake. Look at the problems the Coalition is having after the resignation of David Laws. The most obviously able man to take over is Philip Hammond, but he is a Tory and the quota system in place demands a Lib Dem – so we’ve got Danny Alexander who looks like a sixth former doing the job for a bet. It would be counter-productive, not to say very unfair, if a woman got a cabinet place instead of a more able man, purely on grounds of gender. (And vice versa, of course). She might not be the most able, and even if she were, the suspicion would alwyas be there that she’d got the job just because she was a woman – very damaging to self-confidence.

I’d like to see more able women in government but the quota system is not the way to go.

@32

Don’t forget Mo Mowlam!

1) An exact 50-50 split is too rigid; a minimum quota would achieve the end Harman’s going for without meaning that any resigning member would automatically have to be replaced with somebody of the same sex.

2) If the PLP is 32% female, then what’s wrong with a 40% quota? It would be unrealistic and unfair in a party whose parliamentary membership was, say, only 20% female – such a party would have to address the problem at candidacy level before imposing quotas on the front bench – but in this case it seems perfectly reasonable.


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