Leading article: What is correct, politically?

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The Independent Online
What a hoot, you may think. All those radical feminists and politically correct do-gooders of the modern Labour Party put to rout over their "all- women shortlists" in a case brought before a Leeds industrial tribunal by two party members, part-funded by the Equal Opportunities Commission. Oh irony - thus the anti-sexists, in their clumsy attempts at social engineering, have been found to be sexist themselves.

Mr Blair will be very embarrassed. Not himself a fan of of all-women shortlists, the Labour leader has declared them a "one-off" attempt to redress the huge imbalance towards men in the Parliamentary Labour Party. In the 30 constituencies that have already chosen from a restricted list the results will stand, but the remaining seven slated for the same treatment will now become open contests in which men can take part.

Newspapers will talk about "sanity being restored", angry women will speculate about the male backlash and the Conservative Party will crow about how it is Labour that is the truly sexist party and they, the Tories, the real force for equal opportunities. In short, there will be a lot of fun.

But before these folk get carried away, they should pause for a moment and reflect. For years political parties have been regarded as exempt from sex discrimination legislation in their nomination of candidates. The Leeds tribunal now says that this position is wrong. Ironically, had this judgment been made 20 years ago there might have been no huge gender imbalance for Labour to redress.

Just as significant as the problems in the Labour Party, however, is the potential impact of this judgment on the Conservatives. Consider the selection conference at the safe Tory seat of Sendingem West. Five men and one woman are on the shortlist, but only the woman (a mother of three) is on the receiving end of Elsie Gusset's rather hostile question about balancing childcare responsibilities with politics. The woman loses and resorts immediately to a tribunal arguing sex discrimination. Under the Leeds rules she would have a very good case. So are the Tories now considering standardising their questions and introducing proper job criteria against which all candidates are equally judged? Are they heck as like.

Phew, breathe all those who are discountenanced by the Leeds decision, that means that the struggle for equal representation in Parliament has gained, not lost, as a result of this judgment (just, in fact, as the two Labour members who brought it had always argued). That's all right then.

Unfortunately, it isn't quite all right. The tribunal ruled as it did because it accepted the argument that membership of Parliament is a trade or profession to which (like it or not) the major parties control entry, through nomination. It would be "burying one's head in the sand", it argued, to believe that it was the voters themselves who made the choice. The result is to impose upon voluntary associations, all of whose members are under no constraint or economic necessity to join or affiliate, the same rules as upon private companies and government bodies.

But voters can choose not to support particular parties and to embrace others. And if (as seems quite possible) some measure of electoral reform is eventually enacted, this may prove easier. Why then should we not be able to choose (as can the Russians and the Icelanders) from women-only parties, or black parties, or gay parties? A greater diversity might enrich the body politic, whereas the placing upon such organisations of the stamp of legal homogeneity would not. The law now needs to be changed, allowing parties to discriminate should they want to, and voters to choose accordingly.

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