First round to whingeing men

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The Independent Online
Almost every political party bellyaches about the shortage of women in Parliament: but until Labour started on its all-women shortlists it was mostly hypocritical blather. Now the first serious attempt to alter the sex-balance in the Commons has been stopped by law. Round one to whingeing men.

Tony Blair himself hadn't much liked the policy of excluding male candidates in some winnable seats. It was hardly ideal. By resorting to compulsion Labour had publicised the embarrassing lack of enthusiasm among its constituency associations for female candidates. It guaranteed bitter male resentment about the injustice of individual exclusion.

But which is the bigger injustice - that some able men are excluded from competing for a Labour candidacy, in some constituencies, for one election, or that so few able women have had the chance to become MPs throughout this century? Because a party candidacy is the essential first step towards a political career, the silent prejudices of male political activists have accumulated to produce a national scandal.

The golf club networks, if we are talking of the Tories, and the beery trade union networks of the Labour movement, have spread their private bias into a vast range of public policies and national debates. We can't tell how our tax system, or education reform or British attitudes to European union have been affected by the lack of women in the Commons. But we can be sure they have been; had there been rough equality of the sexes in politics, Britain in 1996 would have been a subtly different country. Or perhaps even a garishly different one.

In the short term, all Labour can do is to exhort its local activists to select women from mixed shortlists. An unspoken bias at such meetings could not be challenged in law.

In the longer term, voting reform is the next best answer. The agreement between the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats to achieve a rough balance of the sexes in the proposed Edinburgh Parliament was made more plausible by the proportional system being adopted there. It includes a list system for 56 of the 129 seats. A better system would involve multi-member constituencies, in which women tend to be more often selected and returned.

That is for tomorrow. Today we can reflect on the fact that two men have won justice; but natural justice has lost, and a national injustice has been strengthened.