In a collection of interviews with the Labour Women's Network, every Labour leadership candidate shared their support for all-women shortlists in the selection process for the shadow cabinet. They touted the need for equal representation in the House of Commons, whilst waving the flag of progressive politics. They spoke of level playing fields, equality issues and positive action, but failed to recognise that the prejudice behind all-women shortlists contributes to the inequality they claim to be fighting.
The central premise behind Labour's all-women shortlists - the provision of a ministerial job partly based on what someone has between their legs - is a backwards mentality dressed up as forward thinking. Denying a man a job because he is a man, is no fairer than denying a woman a job because she is a woman. The belief that all-women shortlists counter sexism in politics falls flat at the first logical hurdle. Yet the four Labour leadership contenders would sooner appear in-step by supporting an inherently sexist policy, rather than challenging its flaws and offering up an alternative.
It doesn't take a genius to see that favouring shortlists is an oversimplified method of achieving equality by force. Instead of blindly nodding in support of a blunt tool, it would have been encouraging to hear a leadership candidate suggest a shift away from the focus on quotas, and onto forming a meaningful strategy aimed at tackling the deeper issues behind the under-representation of women in politics. By altering the societal expectations of younger women through education reforms; dispelling the fear of fitting child-care around a politicians working hours; and engaging women through targeted advertising, Labour could increase female representation in parliament without making men feel victimized. But it appears the candidates can't be bothered with the extra work.
The biggest knock-on effect of their stubbornness will be damage to the shadow cabinet's potential. Given that all-women shortlists do away with the idea of a meritocracy - because god forbid a minister is selected for a position based on their qualifications - it is inevitable that in at least one instance the best person for the job will be shafted. The Labour Party will be left with a weaker shadow cabinet and another tough election campaign to fight. It is hard to see how this will benefit anyone but the Conservatives.
And it's harder still for the Labour leadership candidates to acknowledge that 'positive action' can set back progression by undermining women, and fuelling resentment of the feminist movement.
When a man loses out on a promotion to a woman, he can currently suggest that she was awarded the position based on her gender rather than the strength of her ability. Regardless of whether he is right or wrong, he leaves with the impression that women and feminists are concerned about gaining an advantage rather than equality. This is not the sentiment we want floating around our society, but Labour still insist on engendering it by allowing all-women shortlists to bring the quality of their female MPs into question.
The Labour leadership candidates have spoken volumes of themselves in their unified support of all-women shortlist. They have told the electorate that they are either ignorant of their policy's downsides, or lazy politicians using a flawed but populist idea to rally support behind their campaigns. It's high time for Labour to trash their prejudiced shortlists, and favour a meritocracy where women are allowed to achieve without the nature of their success being questioned. They can move equality in politics forward, or they can carry on setting it back indefinitely. I'm sure the leadership will settle for the latter.