Leading Article: Equality by coercion

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The Independent Online
THE QUOTA system, agreed yesterday by the Labour Party conference with the aim of boosting its tally of female MPs, is an admission of failure. A party that preaches equal opportunities clearly cannot trust its own members to observe that principle when selecting candidates for parliamentary elections. The electoral outcome speaks for itself. Three generations after women acquired the vote, there are only 39 women on the Labour benches, albeit 20 more than on the Tory side, with women MPs a particularly rare breed in the Labour heartlands of Scotland and the north of England.

Male domination of the party's upper reaches shows how Labour, in common with the other political parties, is out of touch with life in modern Britain, where half the workforce is now female. It has remained as much a bastion of male power as, for example, the judiciary and academia (only 5 per cent of judges and professors are women). Quotas will certainly effect a face- lift but by themselves will not eliminate the underlying prejudices that make them necessary in the first place.

Under the rules reaffirmed yesterday, regional Labour parties are obliged to put up only women candidates in half their vacant safe seats and a similar proportion for other constituencies. The regulation will not be rigidly enforced. Quotas are far from ideal. Such positive discrimination leaves women open to the criticism that they are second best, may also discourage talented male politicians, and undermines the principle that candidates should be chosen on merit.

However, drastic problems sometimes demand drastic solutions. Across Europe, it is increasingly recognised that the pace needs to be forced if real progress is to be made in bringing women into national politics. In Norway, Denmark and Germany the parties of the left have introduced quotas. Here, they seem to be the only serious and efficient way of making sure there will be large numbers of women serving in Parliament within a decade.

A critical mass of 30 or 40 per cent female membership of Parliament might change the shape of politics. Studies in Scandinavia suggest that when more women join a legislature, social issues move up the agenda. The feminisation of Westminster might improve a system whose confrontational, macho style often obscures rather than fosters potential for agreement and practical solutions. The less cantankerous style of debate at this week's Labour Party conference may be partly attributable to women delegates being in the majority.

There is a strong feeling that the party can no longer afford to allow change to take place in the usual agonisingly slow way. Quotas are an example of this mood. Given their limitations, their intro-

duction should probably be seen as a temporary expedient. But if they provide the only quick way to achieve justice for women, a

blind eye should be turned to their inadequacies.