Dual-member constituencies, and fewer of them, would ensure a fair balance in parliament
“Why all-women shortlists?” asks Catherine Bennett (Comment), and answers herself: “Simple: nothing else works”. An answer that is wrong on two counts. The first is that it wouldn’t work, except in a very piecemeal way. And the second is that there is a straightforward alternative that would definitely work. There is only one way to ensure equal numbers of men and women MPs. It would be for every constituency to return two MPs, one male and one female, both elected by the same mixed electorate.
This would mean a lot of adjustment of constituencies, since no one would want a Commons with twice the number of MPs. It would threaten the careers of a lot of existing MPs. That might be a matter of no significance to most of us but it could make it difficult to get legislation through parliament. However, if need be, the whole thing could be phased in; as MPs retired their constituency could be combined with a neighbouring constituency and within a generation we’d be there.
But the fact that this way of achieving the claimed objective is never even discussed – the only mainstream politician who has ever advocated it was Tony Benn – is a pretty clear indication that there is no genuine ambition to achieve gender equality in the Commons, not even by those who write columns in newspapers passionately claiming to wish to see it.
Catherine Bennett makes an unanswerable case for the use of all-women shortlists in selecting parliamentary candidates. But I think the shortlists used could be improved by a bit of joined-up thinking, taking into account other disparities in the make-up of parliament.
First, as a report last week repeated yet again, people who were sent to fee-paying schools occupy a proportion of the top positions in British society many times greater than their share of the population. Therefore, as they already benefit from vast positive discrimination, no one who attended a fee-paying school in the UK should be on an all-women shortlist.
Second, to ensure that all-women shortlists do not reinforce another form of discrimination, every such shortlist should include at least one credible black woman candidate.
I agreed with Catherine Bennett: if it works, it works. So how about some “all state-educated, non-Oxbridge/LSE, non-political researcher/adviser” shortlists from all parties. That would do even more to give us a more representative parliament.
Catherine Bennett endorses all-women shortlists (AWSLs) “in the absence”, so she says, “of any other plan”, when she must know that other plans have been proposed to deal with the imbalance in the representation of the sexes in parliament, for example two-member constituencies, which eliminate the effect of unfairness that the AWSL seems to have in a one-member constituency.
This plan has three possible variants, but the basis of it is that you halve the number of constituencies but let each be represented by two MPs, and then: (option 1) you can specify that one MP will be a woman and the other a man (ie one all-women and one all-men shortlist) and give every voter two votes; or (option 2) you can compile two separate electoral rolls and let women vote for the woman and men for the man. Or (option 3) you don’t specify the sexes of the MPs but have separate electoral rolls and let women vote for one MP and men for the other.
If you already favour the AWSL, surely you would have to see at least one of these options as an improvement on it.