Ed Miliband has used the coalition’s “all-male front bench” to attack David Cameron during PMQs.
Show Hide image

Forget quotas for women MPs – time to limit the number of men

We should introduce quotas to limit the number of men in power, ensuring that only the best and brightest of both sexes prevail.

When we talk about “gender quotas”, what we really mean is quotas for women. We see the under-representation of women as the problem that needs fixing. So we try to explain why there aren’t more women in politics, then look at measures to boost women’s representation.

The result is that women are subjected to intense scrutiny and suspicion. Is it appropriate to select candidates based on sex rather than merit – and do we risk replacing competent men with incompetent women?

Conventional arguments are misguided because they assume that the current system is a meritocracy, which in fact is not the case. We overlook the problems caused specifically by having too many men and do not subject men to the same scrutiny as women. Yet we know that women face many barriers to entering politics, including discriminatory attitudes and sexist media coverage. If the playing field isn’t really level then men enjoy an unfair advantage.

There is no evidence to support the notion that men are naturally superior in their ability to represent others. But if men are not naturally better at politics, then the political talent pool should be fairly evenly divided between the sexes. If men make up 50 per cent of the talent pool, but 80 per cent of those elected, clearly meritocracy is not working.

So instead of gender quotas giving an unfair “leg-up” to mediocre women, they might actually allow in the talent that is currently being blocked out by the mediocre men, who benefited from preferential treatment based on their sex. Hence, they might enable us for the first time to select candidates based on merit rather than sex – the exact opposite of what their detractors fear. Instead of restricting political opportunities to a small sub-section of society – mostly rich white men – we would be making more efficient use of the whole of the nation’s talent pool.

Jobs for the boys

It is time to reframe gender quotas as quotas for men. We should introduce quotas to limit the number of men in power, ensuring that only the best and brightest of both sexes prevail. This would mean placing much more scrutiny on the credentials of men, rather than taking their competence for granted. To achieve a true meritocracy we also need more effective and meaningful criteria for judging merit.

The current criteria are woefully inadequate and deeply subjective which means they are frequently manipulated to favour male insiders. How about starting with a proper job description and person specification for MPs so we can measure candidates against more transparent and objective criteria?

This would make it easier for outsiders – such as women and ethnic minorities – to demonstrate their worth. It would also ensure the reduction of men‘s share of seats down to proportionate levels would be done as fairly as possible.

One additional advantage of quotas for men is that they would prompt us to think more about how men are represented in politics. There is a lot of research on “women’s issues” and women’s interests, but it is taken for granted that men’s needs are met because there are so many men in politics. But as with merit, we may be too complacent in our belief that the current system is working.

The aggressive masculinity that dominates political environments is off-putting to a lot of men as well as women, and it can keep important issues off the agenda if they are seen as too sensitive or embarrassing. Having a better gender balance would benefit both sexes if it makes politics more inclusive for men too. And having a political class based on talent rather than privilege, representing all rather than just some, would raise the quality of representation for everybody.

This article is an edited extract of a paper published this month in the American Political Science Review. Rainbow Murray does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. The Conversation

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser