Trying to end the 80-20 society, Scotland's big vote and a barney about security

I have never been keen on quotas. I was opposed to Labour's all-women shortlists in 1993. But I realise now I was wrong

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On a chilly pavement in Manchester last week, as a huddle of journalists waited for the Labour candidate in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election to arrive at the home of a constituent affected by the bedroom tax, I noticed something unusual. Of the five political reporters in the group, four were women. It was so rare it is worth remarking on, because back in Westminster the reversal of this by-election pack is true – women are one in five. Political journalism, like politics, the law, and business, form part of what Stella Creasy calls the "80-20 society".

When Ed Miliband accused David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions last week of "failing" women by not ensuring enough female candidates are selected, elected, and promoted, he was right. Cameron promised, before he became Prime Minister, that a third of his ministers would be women by the end of the Parliament. Judging by his response at PMQs on Wednesday, the Prime Minister's approach is to blame the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition for not having enough women MPs to put into ministerial posts. Pointedly, he said 24 per cent of Cabinet ministers "from our party" are women, and 20 per cent of ministers "from our party" are women (there's the 80-20 society again) – meaning it is the Lib Dems, not the Conservatives, who are letting the side down.

But, as he admitted, even among Tories in government he has not achieved his target, and given that five Conservative women MPs elected in 2010 are stepping down, have already left or have been deselected, and given that there aren't enough women who are staying that could be promoted to government before next year's general election, we can say that Cameron will not achieve his one-in-three objective.

But at least the Prime Minister has an aspiration to end the 80-20 society. His blaming of the Lib Dems last week suggests that, if the Conservatives were to win a majority next year, he would make sure that by 2020 a third of the government would be women. It does feel, however, an awfully long way in the future, and is dependent on enough women being selected for safe Tory seats. As for the Lib Dems, who may find themselves in a coalition with the Tories once again, are they going to offer ranks of women MPs to form a government in 2015? It doesn't look like it.

I have never been keen on quotas. When Labour introduced all-women shortlists in 1993, enabling 101 female MPs to be elected in 1997, I found myself, like others, doubting whether some of those who had been selected from women-only lists were good enough. The women who had got to Parliament by beating a man to the candidacy to me had more legitimacy because they had got there on equal terms. So I was opposed to all-women shortlists.

But I realise now I was wrong. Yes, there were some women MPs who remained on the backbenches during the Labour government because they weren't very good. Yet weren't there also some pretty ineffectual men in Parliament too? Jacqui Smith was selected from an all-women shortlist and went on to become Britain's first female home secretary. She became caught up in the expenses scandal, yes, but then so did nearly everyone else. What Labour did in 1993 (under John Smith) was to cause an electric shock to the system, to flood the green benches with women.

Over the years, their constituents have decided whether they are any good or not. And while the bad ones have fallen away, Labour's women tally remains fairly strong at 34 per cent, compared to 16 per cent of Conservatives and 12 per cent of Lib Dems.

Cameron, when he became leader, tried to make the Tory party more like the country as a whole with the "A list" of candidates, promoting more women and ethnic minorities, but he knows, particularly now that constituency parties are flexing their traditionalist muscles with the deselections of Anne McIntosh and the gay marriage supporting Tim Yeo, he would face a revolt if he imposed all-women shortlists. It is not good enough for Cameron, as he did last week, to say that the Tories have produced Britain's only female prime minister. Margaret Thatcher stood down in 1990. It is now 2014. As we report today, six Cabinet committees, including the Coalition committee, have no woman present and 13 out of 85 policy "tsars" appointed since 2010 were female.

Nick Clegg is understood to be keen on introducing all-women shortlists for the 2020 election if not enough female Lib Dems are elected to Parliament in 2015. But what's wrong with now? Now is good, Nick. Because yes, all-women shortlists are controversial. They sometimes push bad candidates forward. But men do not make better MPs than women. So they are the only solution to the appalling representation of women in Parliament.

If Cameron and Clegg truly want to end the 80-20 society, they should be brave and introduce all-women shortlists tomorrow.

Floods, and other disasters

The Prime Minister has spent a lot of time in the past week chairing Cobra, the racy name for the racy committee where ministers meet to discuss emergencies. It is arguable that Cobra should have been convened by Cameron earlier in January, when the flooding disaster – and it's not hyperbole to describe it as a disaster – hit Somerset.

But Britain faces another threat just as dangerous and prolonged as flooding, and that's the break-up of the United Kingdom. Cameron made a speech on Friday appealing for all Britons to fight for a No vote to Scottish independence, but I hope that, despite the lead the Better Together campaign has in the polls, he realises that it is lacklustre compared to the Yes side.

There is a real possibility that Scotland will become independent, creating a constitutional emergency. Doesn't he need to convene Cobra to discuss Scottish independence?

Comfort food

Speaking of emergencies, we can be heartened at the reassuring words from the Prime Minister at Parliament's Joint Committee on National Security last week. When he was asked by committee member (and new Lib Dem deputy leader) Malcolm Bruce about our food supplies being three days from starvation on the streets because of just-in-time deliveries to supermarkets, he said Oliver Letwin had concluded, in a review of emergency planning last year, there was "relatively good resilience in the UK food supply chain". It is reassuring to know that Letwin is keeping us all from panic and riots. And how does the PM describe the very serious discussions in the National Security Council? "We have a good barney about it and we reach a decision."