Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

Sticking Plaster Solutions?

Harriett Harman – former elected deputy leader of the Labour Party – has been speaking again about gender balance (as opposed to gender equality) in “Corbyn’s Labour Party”

Ms Harman acknowledged “very important” posts like shadow health secretary and shadow education secretary were currently filled by women.

But the elected positions of leader, deputy leader, general secretary and London mayoral candidate were occupied by men, she said, “before you even get to the appointed jobs” chosen by Mr Corbyn.

“So Jeremy needs to think about how it has been perceived”, she said, proposing the “very easy” solution of an additional, female, deputy leader.
BBC News Website, 17 November 2015 : Harriet Harman says Labour is too male-dominated

Now it is possible that she has been misreported, but from the report cited above her remarks seem oddly targeted.

The membership elected both the deputy leader and the leader from a selection of candidates both male and female – there was gender equality of opportunity even if there was not gender balance of result. But they are the membership’s choice. To argue that if the membership elect men to both the leadership and the deputy leadership, there should be “an additional, female deputy” seems ill-judged. Almost inevitably the “additional female deputy” will be one of the candidates who failed in the leadership and the deputy leadership elections – a sort of consolation prize that almost creates an impression of “inferiority”.

It is possible to make such a proposal look more balanced by also saying that if the membership elect women to both the leadership and the deputy leadership, there should be “an additional, male deputy”, but somehow that just unhelpfully highlights the (current) unlikelihood of such a situation arising.

It would also be possible to re-write the rules to say that the leadership election should be non-gender specific, but that there should be two deputy leaders; one male and one female. However,  that looks like “political correctness …” (you know how Labour’s critics will paint such an idea). It also perpetuates the idea that male and female are politically different; if that were the case you could end up arguing for a male parliament and a female parliament! (That would however at least give an additional option for reform of our current bicameral system!).

Suppose that I appear to conform to the stereotype of “male pale and stale”; does that mean that Nigel Farage would inevitably be better able to represent me than say Diane Abbott? Of course not. The dimensions of political representation and diversity of representation are not merely gender specific.

Putting it bluntly, what is between our ears is more important that what is between our legs when deciding on representatives – and to believe otherwise should disqualify you from representative posts. We may well believe that there are psychological attributes – which are more beneficial to good representation and government – more often found in women. But surely we should be seeking out people (of any gender) who display those attributes rather than select on the basis of gender (and risk getting women who do not display those attributes – we can all name pseudo-boudiccas in our recent parliamentary history).

The “old pre-2105 Labour Parliamentary Party” seems to be determined to snipe at the new regime even though it was overwhelmingly elected by the membership, and Ms Harman’s remarks may be just another instance of this.

Speaking at a conference looking at the issues faced by women in the world of work, Ms Harman said: “It is very difficult to be a party arguing for women’s advance when your top swathe is men.

I find it offensive to say that because the “elected” top of a party happens to be men it is not possible to argue for “women’s advance”. Imagine trying to argue that a party dominated by women (Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru?) cannot argue for men’s concerns. I am not sure who should be more offended; the “top swathe” or the membership that chose the most senior members of that top swathe.


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