This is not a disaster: quotas will still make us stronger

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The Independent Online
The writer is Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood

THE CHANGE from four to three in the number of women in Labour's Shadow Cabinet is neither a disaster nor a setback for Labour's commitment that men and women should share power equally in our party. It is, of course, hurtful for the women who lost their seats, but politics involves winning and losing. One new woman - Joan Lestor - was re-elected, having lost her seat previously. And everyone will have a chance to stand for election again next year.

Our system for electing the Shadow Cabinet is part of a major process of change taking place in the Labour Party at all levels. Our sister parties throughout the world are engaging in the same process of change. After years of exhortation for increased representation of women, but with very slow progress, we concluded that it was necessary to find a mechanism that would guarantee progress. The mechanism was pioneered by our sister parties in Scandinavia and Canada. It involves introducing quotas that require participants in all elections to vote for a fixed proportion of women. Political and individual choice remains, but the outcome of shared power is guaranteed.

Our quota in party elections is 40 per cent. Our sister party in Norway adopted the same quota some years ago. It was so successful that the proportion of women in powerful positions grew well beyond 40 per cent. The men then requested their own quota so that they would not be under-represented. This was granted - thus in Norway men and women are working as equals in the government.

In the case of Labour's shadow cabinet elections, we considered either reserving a fixed number of seats for women, or requiring that everyone who votes must vote for a minimum number of women. We decided that the quota should be on votes, not outcome. We always understood that this did not guarantee the number elected.

In this year's elections we moved from a quota of three, introduced in 1989, to four. There was a small - and noisy - rump of men in the Parliamentary Labour Party who opposed this change. They ensured that it was considered twice at PLP meetings. On both occasions the proposal was carried by a large majority - demonstrating that most male Labour MPs support the party's commitment to shared power.

The reason that only three women were elected this year was that a large number of women stood, the votes were widely spread, and therefore only three crossed the winning line. It is however, interesting that the four places just outside the Shadow Cabinet were all taken by women.

My own conclusion is that the system is working well. There is talk of plots by the men to get lots of women to stand and then dump votes on unelectable women to reduce the numbers that succeed. I have no doubt that the rump that resents the commitment of the party to shared power did engage in such plots. But each woman who stood must take responsibility for herself. There are always some who think politics is about plotting and fixing rather than voting for the best candidates. But democracy is the best system we've got.

It is hardly surprising that Labour's commitment to this significant change to shared power should cause some grumbling and groaning. There are still some very backward-looking men in the Labour Party, as elsewhere. But this process of change is not only about having a few token women at the top. It is about regenerating the party at all levels by ensuring that men and women get used to the idea of working side by side, as equals.

There are always conservatives who resist any deep change. What they do not understand is the way in which this change will strengthen the Labour Party internally and also its capacity to represent all the people of Britain.