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All-Women Shortlists Have Starved Labour of Female Talent

27/07/2016 13:15 | Updated 27 July 2016

Owen Smith, the blandidate-in-chief of the PLP in its war against Corbyn, has announced that he will support the continued use of all-women shortlists in the selection of parliamentary candidates, and fill half of his shadow cabinet with women, should he take over as leader of the party.

It's no wonder that Smith is a shortlist supporter. They have created the only environment in which he could possibly be seen as leadership material: an environment of mediocrity.

The Labour Party began its error of selecting constituency candidates from all-women shortlists at the 1997 general election, after the policy was officially adopted at the 1993 party conference. Tony Blair -- the first party leader to take charge of shortlisted candidates -- described all-women shortlists as "not ideal at all", and side lined them at the 2001 general election. But, to quell internal pressure at a time of electoral uncertainty, they were reinstated at the 2005 election.

Since then the Labour Party has selected 170 candidates from all-women shortlists. Yet just 48% of them have managed to reach the Commons. The poor electoral record of shortlisted candidates is not the result of them being tucked into Tory safe seats. Quite the contrary; shortlisted candidates are often assigned to winnable marginal seats like Nuneaton and Thurrock. The theory is that this will increase the number of female Labour MPs, and thus would-be political role models for women interested in engaging with politics.

In reality, the number of female Labour MPs has fallen from 101 in 1997, to 99 following Miliband's defeat in 2015. Worse still, shortlisted candidates aren't proving to be role models. They are either failing to win their winnable seat - depriving the party of fresh talent - or taking their seat only to prove absent from the public eye, void of innovative policy proposals, or, in the worst cases, altogether poor as a politician.

Jess Phillips -- selected via all-women shortlist at the last election -- is a prominent beneficiary of the scheme. She hasn't attracted attention to herself with a memorable maiden speech, or exceptional debate performances. Phillips is better known for laughing at the suggestion men's issues (such as high suicide rates) should be discussed on International Men's Day, asserting that Cologne-style sex attacks are a weekly event in Birmingham and telling Diane Abbott to "f**k off".

Pat Glass -- a shortlistee from the 2010 intake -- is no more a role model than her parliamentary junior. Almost absent for her first five years in Parliament, Glass has clearly decided to roll her sleeves up in 2016. So far she has taken on the responsibilities of the shadow education secretary for two days before resigning, and appealed to voters with concerns about immigration by calling one a "horrible racist". A true statesman if ever there was one.

And finally we have Emily Thornberry. The serial sneerer was elected to her Islington constituency in 2005, having been selected from a shortlist, and has done her utmost to cremate the Labour Party's reputation with its patriotic working class core. The poll numbers of Jeremy Corbyn -- who first appointed her as shadow defence secretary before anointing her shadow foreign secretary -- would suggest she's doing a good job of it.

Giving these examples isn't to say that there aren't mediocre male MPs on the Labour benches - the memoirs of Andy Burnham are unlikely to attract much interest. But the existence of average male MPs does not change the fact that all-women shortlists, in their affront to meritocracy, have clearly damaged the reputation of women in politics by installing sub-par representatives into the Commons, solely because of their gender.

And that isn't where the damage ends: shortlists are also stifling the prospects of female Labour MPs selected for their ability, rather than their gender.

Research
into the effect co-workers have on their colleagues, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that co-workers are "an important source of information" and advice to one another. The research also surmised that co-workers could "influence employee opinions and attitudes" which could have "profound positive and negative effects" on outcomes for an individual.

How then can female Labour MPs selected for candidacy on their merits be expected to thrive in a party where 78 out of 99 of their female co-workers - people they will be turning to for influence, advice and policy ideas - have not been selected on the promise of their talent? They simply can't.

Take Yvette Cooper for example. At the time of her election in 1997 -- when roughly a third of her female peers had been selected from shortlists -- she was an interesting newbie emerging from the ranks, involved with select committees and the Department of Health. Fast-forward to the present day -- a time where over 75% of her female colleagues have been on an all-women shortlist -- and she has dimmed to the backbenches after a dismal defeat at the 2015 leadership election.

What can be seen arising from the Labour Party policy of all-women shortlists is the smashing of one glass ceiling (the number of female representatives in parliament), and the creation of a new ceiling. A ceiling on the potential of Labour women, and the reputation of female politicians on the left.

Labour does not need all-women shortlists to get top talent on its side. Barbara Castle, one of the longest serving female MPs in history, and a women described by Harold Wilson as "good at whatever she touched", was not elevated to her position on an all-women shortlist, and nor were her peers.

If the Labour Party is to have a future as a party of government, it is going to need strong female talent like Barbara Castle to tackle the sort of electoral and leadership crises the party is currently facing. If it continues to obsess over numerical equality and proscribe all-women shortlists, Labour cannot hope to recover.

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