50:50 gender split for shadow cabinet rejected

// 11 September 2010


I’m a wee bit late to this, but the Labour party has voted to ensure that 31.5% of the shadow cabinet will be made up of women, rejecting a 50% quota:

[Harriet] Harman had called for a 50:50 split in the early days of her tenure as acting leader but with time softened her position.

Instead, she proposed the initial proportion should reflect that of the parliamentary party at large — 31.5% — but rise to 50% over the course of this parliament.

In the event, MPs opted only for a quota of 31.5% with no possibility of the compulsory ratio increasing with time. MPs had disliked the proposal, saying men would be forced to contemplate vacating their shadow cabinet portfolios to make way for women over a period of time. An alternative vote system was used, and while equal numbers supported the 50:50 option and the 31.5% option, in the second round more MPs opted for the lower quota.

Nice to know that the dudes are more concerned about retaining their own potential seats of power than ensuring women are fairly represented – both female MPs and the rest of us women in this country, who are more likely to see our concerns addressed if we have more women in the top positions in parliament.

Sarah Child’s paper Hitting the Target: Are Labour Women MPs ‘acting for’ women? has some interesting insights on the positive – but complex – relationship between the presence of female representatives in parliament and parliament addressing issues that particularly affect women. She finds that female Labour MPs in the 1997 Labour parliament successfully acted on behalf of women both in parliament and their constituencies, but that female MPs require “safe space” in order to do this most effectively, and “if a woman MP desires promotion she cannot afford to be

regarded as acting for women too often or too forcefully”.

Comments From You

Josie // Posted 11 September 2010 at 6:13 pm

Harriet Harman is one of the main reasons i have recently joined the Labour Party (the other main reason is being disgusted at the LibDems but that’s another day’s discussion). IMO, she’s one of the very few politicians who is not all mouth and no trousers. I’m really gutted that she’s not standing in the party leadership election.

eleanargh // Posted 11 September 2010 at 9:12 pm

I’m not supporting him for leader, but for information here is David Miliband’s plan for working towards equality in the party: http_www.davidmiliband.net_2010_09_08_my-five-point-plan-for-greater-gender-equality_.htm

hannah // Posted 11 September 2010 at 9:52 pm

Whilst I’m all for encouraging women into male-dominated roles, I don’t necessarily agree with positive discrimination. I’d rather have honest politicians that I feel I can relate to than politicians simply because they vaginas.

sianushka // Posted 12 September 2010 at 10:15 am

It’s not about positive discrimination though hannah.

although positive discrimination happens all the time in politics, for white, upper middle class men.

it’s about recognising that age old prejudicices are preventing able female politicians making it, because parties put men forward as they are seen as a ‘safe bet’ for a vote, when women are seen as ‘risky’

quotas are working all over the world and it means that women’s issues (which are human rights issues after all) get taken notice of.

the people who talk about merit quite conveniently forget about how george osbourne, or cameron etc didn’t get there because of merit. they go on and on about merit and ‘doing the right thing’ but doing the right thing isn’t being born into wealth and privilege.

i really don’t see how we are ever going to get equality until we introduce quotas.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 12 September 2010 at 10:47 am

‘MPs had disliked the proposal, saying men would be forced to contemplate vacating their shadow cabinet portfolios to make way for women over a period of time.’ Of course these MPs’ disliked the mere suggestion their male power and entitlement was about to be reduced.

Sure I’m all for ‘honest politicians’ but given women comprise the majority of citizens living in the UK not the minority, then yes it is vital women’s interests are represented and not constantly relegated to ‘a special interest area.’

One can be totally honest but because we live in a male supremacist society, those male MPs who are honest will be solely concerned with men’s interests, men’s needs etc. because they have not lives in a vacuum wherein the impact of a male-centric society has passed them by. I

nstead they, like many men and women too internalise and accept the myth that man = human and particularly white male = the default human status.

So much for Labour’s claims they are the party of the people! Which people? White men of course never women (and this means women of whatever ethnicity/class/race etc.).

cim // Posted 12 September 2010 at 10:55 am

“saying men would be forced to contemplate vacating their shadow cabinet portfolios to make way for women”

Well, yes, that’s the whole point. 31.5% would be a 6:12 ratio after rounding, so the implicit claim is that the 12th-best male shadow cabinet minister is better than the 7th-best female shadow cabinet minister (assuming, to strengthen the men’s argument, that they always pick the best and have a good definition of “best”, of course)

Hannah: But you’re assuming there that on the quality of “honest politicians that you can relate to”, in the current Parliamentary Labour Party, there are more than twice as many men than women in that category and that the current PLP (which is male-dominated) is capable of accurately judging this without being affected by internalised sexism.

In the long-term, Labour will not be in opposition forever, and when it gets back into power the people the new PM chooses for ministerial roles are likely to be largely drawn from the pool of people with shadow ministerial experience. Forcing a balance now means that it’s less likely to be necessary to do so in future.

Sheila // Posted 12 September 2010 at 12:08 pm

There are plenty of women out there who wouldn’t represent my views. I would hate it if someone thought they could represent me just because they were the same sex as me. There are lots of women who I have less in common with than I do with certain groups of men. I’m glad we got 31.5% agreement. It should be 31.5% women, 31.5% men and 37% pure merit.

Kezmoo // Posted 12 September 2010 at 5:27 pm

I have to say, I don’t like the figure in the quota. I think it would be more sensible if it were just proportional, then if the party is 20% women, then the cabinet is 20%, if the party is 31.5%, the cabinet is 31.5%.

That way, as female membership of the party increases towards 50%, so too would the cabinet, and no problems with positive discrimination.

If this were the case, all that would be needed would be to encourage more women to join the party in the first place.

Nick Nakorn // Posted 13 September 2010 at 2:02 am

Re: Hannah’s comment above – I know very little about feminist activism but have been involved in race equality activism over the years. Many used to criticise quotas (including me) for the same reasons but about 20 years ago I changed my mind in favour of quotas because if one is a woman and/or not white there needs to be an acknowledgement from the power elite that the pool of intelligence is not limited to white men. In other words, being a member of an oppressed group and being intellectually able does not put one into two mutually exclusive categories.

Whether in politics or employment or any other sphere, I think that barriers to enfranchisement must be removed.

Not having quotas is a barrier in itself because the message is that within the pool of women (about half the population) there are not enough candidates ‘good’ enough for office/the job/club membership or whatever.

Best wishes


A J // Posted 13 September 2010 at 10:59 am

A 50:50 quota is deeply offensive to any idea of equality. It’s saying that women can NEVER form more than 50% of a cabinet or shadow cabinet. Why the hell not???

I’d quite happily see a cabinet 70% full of women. And for that matter, I’d quite happily see a cabinet 70% full of men. PROVIDED, in either case that they are there because the PM views them as the best possible people to form the government.

What I certainly never want to see is a person appointed to run the country purely because they need to fill a quota. That does nothing but harm for women, or anybody else for that matter. Restricting the PM so that the cabinet must always exactly reflect the percentages of various groups within the population is just stupid, and ultimately damaging to Government. If I’m PM, I want to be able to pick the best people for the job, not the people who happen to have the right quota-fulfilling potential.

Incidentally, @ sianushka, it’s pretty ripe to criticise the Tories for the fact that David Cameron and George Osbourne come from privileged backgrounds when the Labour Party is currently led by the extremely expensively-educated Harriet Harman (daughter of a leading Harley Street physician and a solicitor), and will shortly be led by one of the two Miliband brothers, who could hardly be more privileged if they tried.

cim // Posted 14 September 2010 at 9:12 am

A J: As I understand it, this would only apply to the Shadow cabinet (which is elected by the Labour MPs) and not to a future government cabinet (which would remain appointed by the PM at their sole discretion)

It’s also not a “now and forever more” measure. While women have a harder time both getting into Parliament, and especially reaching the senior levels within their party, it is extremely unlikely that a non-quota election would give even the 6:12 ratio matching the Labour MPs. If that systematic bias was ended, to the extent that the quota was actually preventing the election of women, then the quota would no longer be necessary and so could be removed – but the Labour party is nowhere near that stage at the moment.

Laura // Posted 14 September 2010 at 10:34 am

@ AJ,

The point of a quota is not that you pick a bunch of random women from the street to take on certain roles, but that you enable women who are equally intelligent and skillfull to their male counterparts but disadvantaged due to institutionalised sexism to have the same opportunities as these men.

Saying that a woman would only be picked because she is a woman is to buy into the idea that women just aren’t capable of these kind of jobs, because it implies that there couldn’t possibly be any suitable women to choose from.

Troon // Posted 14 September 2010 at 11:46 am


Given the huge selection process that has already taken place (every adult-Labour supporter-member-activist-candidate-MP-one of 19 MPs) and the fact that mastering a brief properly is a task Labour Shadow Ministers can afford to do slowly without affecting the rest of us at all, it should be the case that any willing member of the PLP should be capable of being a shadow minister. If not it’s not the quota system that’s the problem, but the entire country. These are not people getting jobs because they are women.

What annoys me, though, is the assumption that power or profile is being divided here, in a proposal which pays no attention to actual portfolia. If part of the rationale is that women represent women better then why not (at very least) reserve those portfolia which affect women by more than population proportion (e.g. DWP, Education, Health) for women. If the point is that ‘power’ more generally needs dividing then again individual portfolia or pairings (Shadow Chancellor/Chief Secretary) need dividing on gender lines. The coalition, in actual power, had to think like this-in effect it reserved certain jobs for LibDems. If the PLP really gives a crap about promoting equality it would look at this in those terms rather than in terms of broad numbers and ensuring it gets to choose who serves-especially since in essence a shadow minister’s job is about public profile.

sianushka // Posted 14 September 2010 at 12:09 pm

AJ – i wasn’t saying that the tory party are the only party with members from a privileged background. i didn’t imagine i would have to explain it.

it was an example of people who haven’t got in to power purely on merit or because they were the best person for the job. which is the argument always given against quotas. we live in a world where we have all white male shortlists and when anyone suggests we have a different system, there’s uproar and we say ‘what about merit’!

george osbourne would not be chancellor today if he came from a less privileged background. he isn’t there because of his vast experience of economics and great political know how. he’s there because of who he is.

also, harman comes from a privileged background, but at least she knows her subject when it comes to being minister for women and equality.

A J // Posted 14 September 2010 at 12:55 pm

@ Laura Woodhouse

But where is the evidence of this large number of highly talented female MPs who are being denied a place in the cabinet (or shadow cabinet, at least, if what Cim is saying is right) just because of institutionalised sexism? I really am struggling to think of any exceptional candidates who aren’t there already. I wish there were lots of fantastic potential cabinet members there (of either sex), but there don’t appear to be – Labour is really struggling for quality shadow ministers and putting in place a quota system isn’t going to create them. All it does is insult and patronise women (especially those who have fought hard to get there) by telling them that really they aren’t good enough to get there on merit, but they’ll be given a place to make up the numbers and because the male leadership is nice.

Far more good would have been done for equality in the Labour party if quality women MPs like Yvette Cooper had had the guts to stand for the leadership, rather than meekly stepping aside for her (entirely unelectable) husband, Ed Balls. As it was we had this debacle of David Miliband having to lend to Diane Abbot some MP votes just to ensure that the whole thing wasn’t a total and utter embarrassment.

Dave Cole // Posted 24 September 2010 at 10:42 pm

I’m very much supportive of the quota and, indeed, all-women shortlists, but in this case it seems the quota might well be superfluous – there are some excellent female candidates (not least Yvette Cooper) who I think will do very well.

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