Friday 15 May 2009

Liberals for feminist goals ... but can liberal means deliver?

Demos director Richard Reeves responds to Jenni Russell's column noting that the think-tank launched a new liberal vision with a launch event from which any women speakers were strikingly absent. According to those listed on the Demos website, there appear to be four women out of twenty-five members of its advisory council and one women among seven trustees. At first glance, all 32 Demos advisors and trustees are white.

"The wrong message was sent about Demos's aspirations for political power by a lineup of men talking about men", says Reeves. "We'll do better", he writes, stressing that "Issues of gender and power figure strongly in Demos's work, and always will".

So Demos is committed to the liberal goal of gender equality. But the essence of Russell's challenge was less about the make-up of Demos panels and more about whether liberalism has anything more than good intentions to bring about the cultural changes it desires, and her scepticism about whether there was sufficient understanding of the barriers to meritocracy. She wrote that:

Men fit the existing role models for power and authority in society, so they're consistently assumed to be right for those roles in a way that women never are.

So perhaps Reeves' response also reiterates and exemplifies Russell's point.

It is true that liberals are instinctively uncomfortable with centrally imposed quotas, such as the ones for women in boardrooms that Russell suggests we import from Norway. Law has an important part to play in generating the conditions for equality – not least the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts. But the work and life choices made by individuals are too complex and subtle to be subject to quotas determined in Westminster.

At the same time, Reeves worries that the 1990s progress on feminising politics risks being lost. Again, the barriers will doubtless be complex and subtle. The question must surely be what Reeves thinks might bring about the greater equalities of power and voice which he hopes to see.

At the event in question, I discussed with her my own concern that after a brief period in the late 1990s, where it looked as though Westminster might undergo some much-needed feminisation, there is now an apparent retreat to boys' own politics. The number of senior women in all parties is risibly low.

Here, Reeves must surely concede a major point to Russell. How did the "much-needed feminisation" which he celebrates come about? There is only one way to explain this graph, although the scale of Labour's landslide slightly over-dramatises it. (Even Fabian gradualists would think the pre-1997 progress glacial).

Labour female MPs
1979: 11/269 (4.1%); 1983: 10/209 (4.8%); 1987: 21/229 (9.2%); 1992: 37/271 (13.7%)
1997: 101/419 (25%)

1979: 8/339 (2.4%); 1983: 13/397 (3.3%); 1987: 17/376 (4.5%); 1992: 20/336 (6.0%); 1997: 13/198 (6.6%)

So liberal ends were achieved by more radical means. If they were "much needed", there is no reason to think they could have happened otherwise.

The retreat of 2001 supports this too, with all women shortlists not used for legal reasons. Most people noticed only a small drop from 120 to 118 women in the House. What lay behind this was much worse. Just 12 of the 98 newly elected MPs were women (and even this depended on the quirk of 3 out of 6 Northern Ireland MPs being women: 9 out of 92 outside Northern Ireland was an astonishingly lacklustre outcome).

The Tory intake of 2001 was 38 men and 1 women, all white too.

[I will add the precise Labour 2001 figure here - about five or six- when I get to the office].

In contrast, Labour's class of 2005 contained 26 women out of 40, 23 having been selected under AWS.

(The 1997 picture is more complex than is sometimes understood: the Nuffield election study reported that only 35 of the 65 new women elected had been selected on all women shortlists. Fifteen of the nineteen women selected in target seats in open selection won selections after,the AWS mechanism was surprisingly withdrawn, and where the issue had salience and the party was commited to change. That a further 11 women elected from open selections simply reflected 'unwinnable' seats falling in the landslide. Labour did not have many more women candidates in 1997 than in 1992 - 155 (24%) silghtly up on 138 in 1992. What was different was the strategic placing in safe and target seats, as much as the landslide).

Score another point to Russell.

But if the weight of historic evidence on political power suggests liberals need to be more radical, there are one or two interesting twists which offer dilemmas for radicals and liberals alike. (I imagine the issues around boardrooms are no doubt different and complex; I have no new information or expertise there).

So what are the twists in the tail? The evidence on political power supports two liberal challenges to the traditional radical agenda.

Firstly, there are now diminishing returns to the quota mechanism which brought about the breakthrough.

Labour now finds that its quotas only allow it to tread water. There is an over-reliance on the AWS mechanism, which risks having a ceiling effect.

So, in this round of selections, the Tories and LibDems are achieving broadly similar (and sometimes better) results without quotas, seeking to catch up through a somewhat more liberal (though top-down) exhortation. Indeed, take seats which the parties already hold where a new candidate was being selected and (with a caveat about small samples), in this Parliament for new selections, up to last November, the LibDems had selected women in 5 out of 9 selections (55%), the Conservatives in 13 out of 32 (40.6%) but a lower proportion in the target seats they hope to win, and Labour in 10 out of 26 (38.5%) of its own seats (as well, as it happens, in the one seat - Bethnal Green - it ought to gain from another party).

Score one point back to Richard Reeves. The success rate of women in Labour open selections is now as low as ever before, and probably lower. Jenni Russell must also worry that the Labour party - having adopted a radical mechanism - seems to have forgotten that its point was to build the culture change which would allow it to be ditched as a transitional measure.

Yet it is true too that the other parties would have faced no pressure to do so without Labour breaking the pattern through Russell's radical measures. And all of this only leaves all parties are selecting women candidates around 25% of the time overall.

Unless one wishes to argue that women are either less able, or less interested, this is a long way short of what a liberal equality goal (less 'equal representation' but rather 'fair chances and no unfair barriers') ought to deliver.

Much prejudice remains. Those who criticise Jacqui Smith or Caroline Spelman often go on to warn us that "too many" of the women in politics are mediocre. Critics of Gordon Brown or William Hague rarely infer anything about the shortcomings of all male politicians. If we are still getting 25% of the female ability range and 75% of the male one, then the structural advantages offered to invisible male mediocrity might deserve more attention. More evidence for Russell.

So here liberals and radicals might agree that, whichever methods are used, the danger is that diversity and equality become a one-off event - Thatcher's individual triumph; Labour's 1997 breakthrough; Cameron's brand decontamination - rather than a sustained cultural change.

The second twist: it is becoming increasingly clear that different barriers to fair chances need different approaches. On gender, we are too complacent and liberal means may fall short. On fair chances around race, we are too pessimistic, and I think the evidence is very strong that liberal means can do the job in this sphere.

"If it was done for women, how can you oppose it for black candidates?" as Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote always says to me on the radio. But the evidence is very different and I am too Fabian to ignore that. (I also think that the dilemmas of radical measures on race are different and considerably more problematic than for gender, which is another reason why I have been a critic of all minority shortlists as regressive. But those liberal objections and the broader issues about the pros and cons of different routes is surely moot if extending current methods can themselves defeat the ethnic penalty to fair chances).

Because this evidence is only just emerging from the last decade, there has been too little sustained engagement in the explaining why gender penalties seem to have proved so much more stubborn than ethnic penalties to fair chances. This might reveal quite a lot about where the key barriers lie - and where liberals and radicals might need to form alliances for change.

This may simply be a question of scale. It is possible for an elite to give up 8-10% of selections without changing the overall culture. But not 50%.

It is also true that black and Asian candidates benefitted from the change in perceptions brought about by the strong female intake of 1997, perhaps ironically as differential treatment mainly drove a sense of competitive grievance.

But I think the evidence suggests the need for a shift of focus away from the issue of stereotypes about who we expect to be an MP. That may well still play some role, in the ways that Russell suggests. But it would be reasonable to expect that this would have as much impact on non-white as on women candidates.

That is why I think we need to return to a greater focus on another traditional feminist concern: economics and the broader structure of society. Seeking selection makes enormous demands in time and money. It is the distribution of caring responsibilities mean that these demands disadvantage women overall - on aggregate - in a way that they no longer seem to disadvantage BME candidates as a group (though they clearly affect the class distribution of chances among BME candidates and among women, and explain the absence of working-class MPs too).

Gay candidates are also less likely (on aggregate) to be relatively disadvantaged by time and money issues, so if barriers remain to fair chances there, those are likely to be rooted in prejudice and perceptions. (I am not aware of any data-set on outcomes for gay candidates, where some different methodological challenges apply).

The consensus of the academic comparative data, championed by Fawcett Society and others, is that progress on equal representation for women has almost always and everywhere depended on strong measures to level the playing field. This is why the charge that more than good intentions are needed has been powerful.

Of course, a perfectly good liberal case can be made for well-designed measures of this kind to ensure fair chances: why should liberals object in principle to a party rule, for example in a list system such as in the European elections, which stipulated that at least one-third of candidates should be men and one-third women?)

Progress towards gender equality in British politics strongly supports that, while it is interesting that progress on ethnic representation increasingly does not.

But a credible liberal agenda needs to do more to discuss not just the complexities of the challenge - but to also now promote an agenda capable of bringing about the changes which liberal values would demand. Identify those issues, and liberals and radicals might yet find common cause towards shared goals.

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