Men have to give a little

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WOMEN work longer hours than men, earn less and own less, a United Nations Development Programme report informed us last week. Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty, it revealed, 70 per cent are women, presumably living their deprived lives alongside their richer male counterparts. What should be done? It seems obvious: women must have more access to jobs; money, with the privileges of education, health and freedom that it buys, must be distributed more equally. In short, men must give something up.

This is global talk. It need not worry us too much in Britain, where misery and abundance are relatively evenly distributed between the sexes. Britain was ranked a comfortable 13th in the report's "Gender-related Development Index" (below, naturally, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark, and, more irritatingly perhaps, below Barbados, Japan and France). This is like getting a pass grade at A-level in a subject for which we've done no work. Surprised, we pat ourselves on the back. Who wants to be top of the class in such a dreary subject anyway? Leave that to the Nordic swots. There is one ranking, however, which ought to worry us. When it comes to the share of seats held by women in parliament we do not rank 13th. We come 56th, way below Bangladesh, Cameroon, Mozambique, just below Panama and just above Mexico. In Europe, only France and Greece have achieved less.

Despite being one of the first countries in which women won the right to vote, Britain has a pitifully small number of women in Parliament; only 7.4 per cent of the total. The average for industrialised countries is 12 per cent. Excluding the House of Lords, Britain, with 60 women MPs, is still below 10 per cent. Does it matter? To the Government, apparently not. It has no plans to intervene. The principle of merit is strongly entrenched in Britain and it is an easy argument, and maybe even a correct one, that quota systems are unfair. The argument that equality means equal numbers has never held sway in Britain, where we wait for some unspecified change in the social weather to correct the imbalances of race, class and gender found in every facet of government. Nor is fielding more women candidates seen as an election winner: women do not necessarily vote for women (nor men for men); men can be as committed to social equality as women, and women can be as uncommitted to it as Lady Thatcher. Time and social change will see the ratios balancing out, the complacent argument tells us. Perhaps, but there is no sign of it happening, and while we wait we will slip inexorably from 56th, to 66th, to 106th.

Labour, however, is yoked (if uncomfortably) to a policy of fielding women candidates in half of Labour's most winnable constituencies at the next election. So far this policy has provoked embarrassing publicity for Labour's image-conscious leadership and considerable anger in some constituency parties. And, it should be said, the policy has almost certainly kept deserving and hardworking male Labour activists out of the next parliament, just as any number of social and economic policies, not of Labour's making, contrive now to keep deserving women out of parliament. But the successful, and less reported, selections from all-women candidate lists - there have been 37 to date - have far outnumbered the problematic ones. Labour has only around 15 more all-women candidate selections to get through. There may be more flak to dodge, but when have selection procedures not generated unwelcome publicity? Tony Blair has no reason to be apologetic and every reason to boast of a policy that could have a dramatic impact on British political culture.

A 6 per cent swing to Labour at the next election could see a House of Commons with 100 or more women Labour MPs and perhaps 15 to 20 non-Labour women MPs - say around 20 per cent of the total. This does not approach the near equality achieved in Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden (those Nordics again), but it is a giant leap towards the 30 per cent that the UN sees as the "critical mass that enables women to exert influence on politics". When that 30 per cent is achieved it will be time for Labour to reconsider quotas. Meanwhile, men fill more than 90 per cent of the parliamentary seats in this country. The solution, again, seems tantalisingly easy. Women cannot have more unless men have less. Men must give something up.