Affirmative action, negative effect

Combating discrimination by quota now seems crude, old-fashioned, even counterproductive
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's decision to scrap all-women shortlists will probably be greeted with annoyance by many women, further proof that if they (or indeed any oppressed minority) don't keep up the shouting, every meagre gain will be taken away. Many will see it as predictable backsliding, a sign that New Labour is really old Labour in a new wrapping with the men firmly in charge.

However, this is profoundly misreading the broader mood. What's happening in smoky (or now more likely smoke-free) selection conferences around the country within the Labour Party is only part of a worldwide rethink about the tools of equality.

As so often in these things, it was America that exported both the original idea and the backlash. Back in the Sixties the US civil rights movement and feminists came to believe they could change the world through legally enforceable quotas that would steadily shift the composition of everything from police forces to Congress, bus companies to boardrooms. A vast body of professionals, rules and regulations followed, affecting most public bodies, from municipal authorities to universities, with their own jargon, culture and heroes.

The idea that every public body should reflect the public who pay for it and in whose name it operates is of course laudable, as is the idea that a political party should represent - literally - the people whose votes it seeks. But along the way the idea of creating a counter against discrimination has turned into something else: to many casual observers affirmative action American-style has become a reverse form of discrimination.

Affirmative action and positive discrimination programmes were controversial from the outset in the US. Many of the beneficiaries feared that they would be stigmatised as inadequate. And a resentful backlash rapidly gathered steam among those cut out by the policies. In many institutions it became extremely hard to sack people, however incompetent, which helped to bring government as a whole into disrepute.

Part of the weakness of these policies is that discrimination has become much more complex. In the Nineties quotas seem blunt instruments for driving change through. What does it mean, for example, to provide positive discrimination for ethnic minorities when Indians are now the highest per-capita income group in the US, when Koreans and Chinese are leaving whites at the starting gate in schools and universities, and when in Britainit's often white working-class young men who are as confused and alienated as unemployed young black men? How can any quota system realistically distinguish between an upper-middle-class woman (or an aristocratic Asian) with every possible opportunity to get on in life, and a woman from the sticks?

Perhaps such contradictions are inevitable in any policy designed to change the relative status of whole groups without taking into account the inequalities within them as well. But the core problem is that affirmative action clashes with what may be the most central value of our society: the idea that everybody should be treated on merit, that you should be judged for what you are, not what sex you are, nor what colour you are.

The commitment to this kind of meritocracy is now deep-rooted and it's striking how, for all the attacks on political correctness, even the most conservative political leaders in America and Britain have to stand opposed to discrimination against women or ethnic minorities. But this historic success for egalitarians also means, ironically, that they are now seen to violate their own principled opposition to discrimination.

As a result they have made themselves vulnerable to assault from the outside. Pete Wilson, governor of California, is leading the backlash against affirmative action as the first building block for his campaign for the Presidency - a way of mobilising all those dismayed white males who are listening in to talk radio and bemoaning their loss of power.

But support for affirmative action is also crumbling from within. Poll evidence shows that the public are uneasy about quotas, and even the beneficiaries often feel uncomfortable with them, not simply because they are worried about what other people will say but also because many experience it as a demeaning policy.

President Clinton has announced that his commitment to affirmative action will remain intact. This is probably a wise move, given the patterns of US electoral support and his own dependence on the black vote. But it's hard not to conclude that its days may be numbered, not least because affirmative action hasn't really delivered what it promised. True, there are many more women in managerial posts and in the small-business sector, and a much larger black middle class in America than in Britain. But this has far more to do with changes in the economy and a belief in the principles of meritocracy than with quotas.

Of course, no one can dispute the success of quotas in putting equal opportunities on to the agenda of politicians and employers. But whereas in the past those who were ardent critics were simply uncomfortable with the idea of a genuinely more plural society, many now agree with the goals but disagree with the methods. At best quotas are coming to be seen as blunt instruments, necessary tools to change the culture of entrenched institutions, but which ultimately need a time limit.

In Britain these seem distant debates. The affirmative action lobby has yet to achieve critical mass in any party. Labour has travelled the farthest down this road, but only in terms of improving its female representation. And now it, too, seems to be learning the lessons of the American experience and nipping resentment in the bud. Prominent feminists such as Barbara Follett, herself a prospective parliamentary candidate and director of Emily's List UK (a movement to get more Labour women into Parliament) and Clare Short, Labour's spokeswoman on women's issues, have publicly backed Blair's decision. Labour women, they argue, can be secure in the knowledge that come the next general election, they will have achieved a critical mass of women both within their parliamentary party (between 80 and 90 MPs), and in Parliament as a whole.

Of course not everyone in New Labour is convinced. There are other people, like Liz Davies, the disputed candidate for Leeds North East, who still assert that Labour needs quotas until 50 per cent of Labour MPs are women. But the winds of change from across the Atlantic make such commissars of equality (who are oddly male in the way they fetishise numerical targets to prove their power) look increasingly out of step. The lesson is surely that policies of social engineering need to be handled with great care, because they can easily blow up in your face. Like all arguments, this one has evolved, and the old slogans and percentage quotas are being left behind.