Leading Article: Labour's quota of chauvinism

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MALE chauvinism is clearly still alive among Labour MPs. The party's new rules on elections to the Shadow Cabinet have had the opposite effect to that intended. Last year, Labour MPs were required to give at least three of their votes for the 18 places to women. This week the quota was increased to four. Members appear to have reacted perversely by spreading their votes among unlikely female candidates. Their spoiling tactics actually reduced the number of women elected.

This defensive reaction may strengthen the case for the new system because it seems to confirm that there are indeed areas of prejudice among Labour parliamentarians. Yet the MPs concerned can argue that they were objecting not to women but to a quota system that undermines the principle of choosing candidates on merit. Some had already been upset by the new rule adopted at the Brighton conference obliging regional Labour parties to put up only women candidates in half their vacant safe parliamentary seats.

In an ideal world, women would rise in politics and employment on merit only. Sex should not come into it. Quotas are a confession of failure. Yet it may sometimes be better to admit failure than to ignore it. Women are poorly represented in politics for many reasons, including the appalling conditions at Westminster. Progress in other areas has not been matched: the culture of British politics remains predominantly male. Although women now make up about half the workforce, there are only 60 of them in the House of Commons,

of whom 37 are Labour and 19


American experience with quotas for the disadvantaged and under-represented is mixed. Whites have sued when overtaken by less able blacks; men have fought back when overtaken by women with inferior qualifications. Sub-standard students have been brought into universities. Even beneficiaries have been uncomfortable at receiving unearned promotion. Yet, by increasing the number of blacks and women in senior positions, quotas have changed the social landscape, altered perceptions and placed new issues on the political agenda. The results are not all bad.

Labour could go through similar ructions and eventually emerge with some benefits. But only if a firm time-limit is placed on the quota system. There must be no pretence that quotas are anything but unfair and discriminatory, replacing one form of injustice with another, and tending to promote less able people.

There is also no evidence that getting more women into parliament or on to the front bench will necessarily make a party more electable. Academic studies have not established a clear gender factor in elections apart from a preference for one party or another. Women do not necessarily tend to vote for women, nor men for men. If the Labour Party is elected it will be because of its policies and the abilities of its leading figures, not the sex of its candidates.