Liz Hoggard: Diversity matters more than fairness

Yes, we do need a mandatory legal quota of candidates for parliament

One of the surprises of my life was liking Ann Widdecombe. When I was a student, loathing the former Tory minister was a spectator sport. By the time I met her two years ago, instead of a cartoon monster, I found her funny and astute. Quite without self-pity she brushed aside attacks on her appearance and her personal life. And despite her maddening stance on Clause 28, she told me she had many gay friends. I celebrate the fact that she never played the "female" card.

Ann is an example of the great British eccentric. Gender means nothing to her. Oxbridge-educated, she'd have ascended to the top as a blue Martian. But I simply cannot agree with her stance on all-women shortlists. If we are to be properly representative, we need a level playing field. And that means a mandatory legal quota of female parliamentary candidates.

So what if the dead white men accuse us of positive discrimination? Better than negative discrimination – which means any women who don't fit the white, male, middle-class norm never thinking of a political career.

Although half the UK population is female, just 20 per cent of MPs are women, compared to 56 per cent in Rwanda, 47 per cent in Sweden and 38 per cent in Denmark. And that's what campaigning organisation The Fawcett Group rightly call a "democratic deficit".

No woman likes to think she got a job for "patronising" reasons. But in an age where just 12 per cent of FTSE 100 directorships are held by women we need equality guarantees. We need equal space to dream and plan. Because, yes, it is still mostly a boys' club in the arts and sciences (just ask Susan Greenfield). And young women need visible role models. Otherwise as Natasha Walter prophesies in her new book, Living Doll: The Return of Sexism, they're going to think pole dancing is the only way to make a mark.

We're talking equality of opportunity. When she launched the Orange Prize, author Kate Mosse said she wanted to put more writing by women in front of women – and men. A level playing field doesn't mean the vulnerable candidate automatically gets the job. It means that we all line up in front of the starter's gun with an equal chance.

If you grew up on a bit of a slope, then I'm quite happy for the gradient of the playing field to be adjusted, too. For different skills to be taken into account. Of course fairness matters, but frankly diversity matters more. The best person for the job will have the widest possible understanding of the widest possible issues. If we're facing a Tory government later this year of old Etonians, I want as many other voices in there as possible. Female, gay, black, Muslim, Sikh, Jedi knight – bring it on. Which is why we still need women's pages in the newspaper and women's hour slots on the radio.

Ann insisted yesterday: "I don't care whether an MP is male or female, black or white, rich or poor, young or old." Well, I disagree. There are still lots of places I don't see myself represented – at the bar, in church, at Westminster. And examples matter. If a female bishop was appointed in my area of London, I'd go to church for the first time in 20 years. What a novelty. How fascinating. One day when the case for equality of representation has finally been won, we'll be able to look back and laugh. I won't even care about the gender or social background or sexuality of my MP. But until then, merit is a luxury I can't afford.