A woman's place is in the House: Equality will only come to the Commons through positive action, argues Marjorie Mowlam

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MOST of the women I talk to have a gut reaction against positive action or discrimination. I shared that feeling for many years. My views changed when I saw the quality of women in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Many, including myself, reached the Commons because of a rule change Labour adopted a few years ago which required constituency parties to include at least one woman on their shortlists of prospective parliamentary candidates.

At Labour's Brighton conference two weeks ago there were, for the first time, more female constituency delegates than male. The irritation which I share with other women at having to queue for the lavatory whenever we are out in public was mollified in Brighton by the realisation that we were at last seeing a conference more representative of this country's women.

Among its many other decisions, the conference agreed to wide-ranging changes to enable more women to represent Labour in Parliament. (We had already introduced positive action in the form of targets at all levels of Labour's internal organisation - constituency parties, the Shadow Cabinet and our new National Policy Forum.) John Smith gave his unequivocal support to the radical reforms, telling his audience: 'For far too long the Parliamentary Labour Party has been dominated by men, and women have been grossly under-represented.'

The mechanism agreed is disarmingly simple. In half of all winnable seats, and half of all seats where a Labour MP is retiring, the parliamentary candidate will be chosen from all-women shortlists. The likely effect of the conference decision will be to double the number of female Labour MPs in the next Parliament.

The initiative is based on the experience of political parties in Europe and North America. Many of them, having introduced targets for women, have made great progress, so that Britain now has one of the worst records in Europe for the number of women in Parliament. In Norway, for example, targets for women have been so successful that men have now demanded a 40 per cent target for themselves.

Although the Labour Party has been more radical in its approach than other British political parties, they too operate positive action. The Liberal Democrats insist on at least one woman on the shortlist for constituency selection. But the other major parties are committed to increasing the number of women in public office without having mechanisms in place actually to achieve that aim.

Baroness Castle, the former Labour cabinet minister, tells a story which explains why she still thinks targets are a necessary short-term evil. Her name was included on the shortlist for the Blackburn seat back in 1944 only because the women's section of the local Labour Party refused to make the tea for the all-male constituency management committee unless they put a woman on the list. But almost 50 years later she is still hearing the argument that women can pass successfully through the MPs' selection procedure on merit alone.

Most people agree that talented women will 'make it' on their own ability. By introducing positive action or discrimination, some argue, we are leaving women open to the accusation that they obtained their jobs simply because they were female, rather than on their own ability.

But just take a glance at the present situation. The vast majority of UK organisations are top-heavy with men. Unless you are prepared to argue that women are intrinsically inferior, there must be some other explanation as to why men make it to the top in such overwhelming numbers while women do not.

My own experience, in whatever job I've done, has been that the system is designed to suit men's needs. The mobility necessary to follow a career; the working hours; the kind of person wanted; the commitment to the job above everything else; the desirability of 'team spirit' - all these militate against women.

The odds are further stacked against us when the time demands of job, children and home are taken into account. Adequate child care would help, but there is also the need for women to be more confident and take risks as men do. This shift in women's attitudes and culture is important, just as it is crucial for men to be given the chance to realise a function and purpose outside that of family breadwinner. Work should not be the defining factor in anybody's life.

Some employers are now realising that by looking at the selection criteria for jobs, and how an organisation is structured and communicates, changes can be made to benefit all employees, male and female. Enjoying the many skills that women bring to an organisation (such as consensus-building, networking, good communications), as well as avoiding some of the negative ones men perpetuate, brings great benefits.

Take, for example, the long hours worked by many men - what I call the 'jacket on the back of the chair' syndrome. Of course long hours are sometimes necessary, but subscribing to the culture of staying late should not be the ultimate test of your commitment to a job. If fathers were to do their jobs, but spend far more time at home, that would do more for children and stable relationships than no end of political rhetoric.

I don't believe that the House of Commons, or any other organisation, should mirror exactly the characteristics of the population: that would be impossible as well as unnecessary. But the Commons is so out of kilter with the population as a whole that some balance would help to re-establish people's faith in our political institutions. It would then no longer represent the limited interest groups of male barristers, company directors, teachers, lecturers and trade union officials.

Targets are far from ideal: they are a means, not an end in themselves. Steps must be taken to open up the selection procedures for Parliament so that neither money, education, class background nor ethnicity act as obstructions to progress for candidates coming from other under-represented groups in our society.

At present we are denied the talents of 52 per cent of the population. More equal representation for women is an idea whose time has come.

The writer is shadow Minister for Women's Issues.

(Photograph omitted)