All-women shortlists were first used by the Labour party in the 1997 general election, with the aim of selecting female candidates to stand for half of their winnable seats. This resulted in 35 female Labour party candidates being elected to Parliament.
All-women shortlists were legalised under the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act, passed under the Labour party in 2002. This piece of legislation was supported by all parties in Parliament, except the Ulster Unionist party, and received little opposition in the House of Lords. Since then, all-women shortlists have only been adopted by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrat party.
Notable female MPs including Jacqui Smith, who served as the first female Home Secretary (2007-2009) and Jess Phillips, who has been a fierce advocate for women’s rights, were elected using all-women shortlists.
Since 1997, when all-women shortlists were first used, they have come under sharp criticism from members of the general public as well as some MPs. Rachel Maclean, the Conservative MP for Redditch said, “In my personal view there should be no all-women shortlists. I was selected on an open shortlist and in my personal view, I feel quite strongly that it’s important for me as a woman to be there on my own merits, not because I am a woman.”
The suggestion that a woman who is elected to parliament via an all-women shortlist is not elected on merit implies that only when a man is included in a pool of candidates is a woman’s election fully deserving. The use of an all-women shortlist does not remove the element of merit. The candidate in question is still required to run against, and beat, other candidates in order to be elected as an MP. The only difference is that the candidate is running against only women in the selection process.
Women currently make up 32% of the House of Commons. The Labour party lead in women’s representation, with 45% of their MPs being female. Despite being the largest party inside Parliament, the Conservatives rank 7th in terms of female representation, with only 21% of their MPs being female. The DUP clock in at just 10%. Our two governing parties lag deplorably behind their opposition, epitomizing a desperate need for all-women shortlists.
If we are living in a truly representative democracy, then shouldn’t Parliament reflect the demographic of the nation? And, if we take this conviction further, should it not be Parliament’s duty to introduce provisions in order to elect more BME female candidates? All-women shortlists have proved to be an effective way of recruiting more women into the House of Commons. Despite this, there is still plenty more work to be done. Parties must now aim not just to recruit more women to their ranks, but to recruit more BME women to their ranks. Diane Abbott has already made this suggestion.
All women shortlists have been criticised for not addressing the root cause of why women do not run for Parliament. The fact remains, however, that addressing the barriers which hold women back starts within the walls of Westminster.
The more women in the House of Commons, the easier it might be for Parliament to pass legislation which protects the rights of women, and allows them to flourish. This cannot, and will not, happen unless all of our political parties use the strategies that the Labour Party have been using for 21 years to recruit more women to Parliament.