Gender Politics #5: The Quota Question


I’m not certain there are that many people in this country who wouldn’t agree that it would be a good thing to see more women involved in politics, as well as more generally in civic and commercial positions of leadership and power. The question is how can this be achieved?

One approach that some are in favour of is very simple, just introduce quotas insisting on a minimum level of female representation, or in the case of UK election candidates introduce female only short-lists thereby ensuring that whoever your supporters are eventually asked to vote for, above all other factors, you can be sure it will be a woman.

Now before we examine the pros and cons of such an approach, let’s pause for a moment to consider wether or not you believe such action could potentially be construed as blatant sex discrimination?

If you think the answer to that question is NO then, before reading on, you may want to review the (inevitable) finding of direct sex discrimination in the case of Jepson and Dyas-Elliott v the Labour Party and others [1996] IRLR 116 IT.


Such an approach clearly runs completely contrary to the fundamental concept of ‘equality of opportunity’.  That said, politician’s do often behave like there is  one rule for them and another for the rest of us which is why, in the interests of ‘equality of outcome’, as soon as the Labour Government were found guilty of blatant sex discrimination, they simply shifted the goal posts.  Not for everyone obviously, just far enough to make their own discriminatory practices exempt from having to listen to the type of complaints that any other employer would immediately receive if they suddenly started behaving like some our democratically elected representatives.

So given that a quick stroke of the pen has provided political parties privileged protection from prosecution until 2030 at the very least, the answer to my initial question becomes moot and we turn to the question of… how can this be justified?

Now clearly the answer to this question will depend on your own personal opinion but will likely exist on spectrum ranging from: ‘it can’t’, to ‘it’s addressing historical and contemporary inequalities and barriers’ to a dark place where left wing think tanks staffed by people like Ellie Mae O’Hagan plot political parties where men are excluded altogether (whilst possibly whispering that it might be a good thing all round if they weren’t allowed to vote either).

Personally, I don’t think it would make a blind bit of difference if there were more women in Parliament unless the quality of our people’s champions improves dramatically, not to mention the system for democratically selecting and deselecting them.

Until we can achieve this EYE is of the opinion that voting only helps to support the extremely undemocratic system that we are currently all locked into.

That said, this year I happen to find myself living in a marginal constituency where an extremely brave, principled and hardworking local candidate has a very real chance of topping the poll over some very unseemly competition.  Which is why I have, ironically enough, found my self pounding the streets and knocking doors on their behalf.

During my brief and admittedly limited peak behind the curtain of a party political machine in action I witnessed plenty of evidence of women prepared to fight the good fight but in fairness to everyone involved I have to say that the significant majority of people I spent time knocking doors with were men.

Like most, the Party I’m promoting doesn’t support discriminatory short-lists, which is one important reason near the bottom of a very long list of very important reasons why I’ve taken some time out of my busy day to do the relatively thankless task of doing my bit to promote the merits of their very brilliant candidate.  A woman who is on the ballot paper for one reason only… because she has proved herself to be the best person for the job.

The one party that has fully embraced the option is the party that introduced.  In 1995 Tony Blair introduced it as ‘once only’ initiative for the 1997.  Despite getting burnt at the employment tribunal in 96, once in Government he inevitably broke his promise and introduced a time-bound ‘get out of jail free’ exception which was to end in 2015.


Blair was a fan but by far the biggest champion for the concept was Harriet Harman.  While she was a Minister she may have failed to push through another parliamentary exception that would have meant we would never have heard what MP’s were scamming in their expenses but she did manage to extend the parliamentary selection exception for a further twenty years.

She has argued that her party should use the loophole to realise that utopian dream of (at least) 50% female representation and has lobbied to ensure that as many safe Labour seats as possible are ring-fenced for female candidates.


Front and centre – Miss Harriet Harman (the bloke on the left is the Leader)

In fact Harman has been reported to have been obsessed with securing safe seats for the sisterhood with one very notable exception….

In the same year she delivered the Equality Bill, she was too busy to lend her support at a key meeting to decide whether to impose an all-women shortlist to fill a vacancy in Birmingham Erdington.

Her absence created a rare window of opportunity for a male candidate to get selected for a very safe Labour seat. There is a lot I could say about ‘Miss Harman’s’ record when it comes to the phenomenon of blindspotism but the fact that the male candidate who won the seat just happened to be her husband says enough.

Next | The Hilary Question


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