Tessa Jowell will address the Women of the World festival later today.
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"You can't be a little bit equal" - Tessa Jowell calls for boardroom quotas

Germany will require women to make up 30 per cent of members of large boards by 2020. We must do the same here.

The WOW Festival is running at London’s Southbank this week. It is a fantastic and inspiring celebration of women and girls. So in that spirit let’s start with some good news. More women are making more big decisions than ever. And it’s going to get better and better.

And the change will be better for men, as well as women. But there is much to do. The battles of the next decade will be about equal pay, flexible hours, public services that suit modern life, and breaking open the boys clubs that still dominate the higher echelons of our society.

Those are the battles that we will fight and we will win. And win we must, because as my daughter always says to me, “you can’t be a little bit equal.” And she’s dead right.

You can’t be a little bit equal - you are either equal or you’re not. And frankly we’re not. Women don’t have the same opportunities in the same numbers as men, not by a long shot. A cursory glance around the boardrooms of FTSE 100 will tell you that - even after some recent improvements, women only occupy 22 per cent of board-level positions, and there are just five female bosses.

So something has to change – and we have to make change happen.

Of course the UK Parliament is hardly an example of equal representation. Just 22 per cent of the House of Commons are women. That’s a level of female representation worse than Nepal, worse than Kyrgyzstan, and worse than South Sudan. In fact it’s worse than almost 60 other countries. 

Within the Labour Party just over a third of our MPs are women. Still far short of parity, but light-years ahead of the other major parties. Just one in six Conservatives in Parliament are women and for the Lib Dems its even less - they’ve got just seven women MPs, not one of which has Nick Clegg see fit to put in Cabinet. Not a single one.

In fact you could fit every woman Lib Dem MP there has ever been in a medium sized people carrier – a pink minibus for example.

So why are Labour so far ahead? It’s partly a result of our values of course, but it’s partly because of all-women shortlists.

Any idea that promotes women faces the same old reactionary voices seeking to hold it back. All-women shortlists were no different. Laughed at, dismissed, mocked but now accepted as a giant step forward for women’s representation.

The truth about securing real progress is that if you want change you have to take steps that guarantee change will happen. Big steps may be unpopular in the short term but if the choice is long-term improvement or fleeting popularity, I chose to fight those battles every time.  

And after the next election all-women shortlists will help Labour progress even further. A Labour majority would see women make up around 43 per cent of our parliamentary party. And whatever happens at the General Election the other parties will remain miles behind. 

It’s almost 100 years since women won the right to enter parliament, yet a century on, equal representation still feels decades away. The single biggest factor in taking things forward has been Labour’s all-women short lists - and I think they have something to say about how we get more women on boards.

Just like in Parliament women are outrageously underrepresented at the highest levels of our businesses – in top firms fewer than one in four on the board are women. Of course there are exceptions but real lasting change isn’t just about the odd woman in the odd boardroom, it’s about proper representation across the commanding heights of the economy and all the way down.

We should aim for complete change. Expectations should always run ahead of delivery – that’s the best way to guarantee progress will happen.

The problem of male domination in boardrooms drains the belief in young women that change is possible and change will happen. This is about turning that round, creating a world where a woman has just as much chance as men - but today the pace of change is too slow. So it’s time to hit fast forward.

So why don’t we look at quotas in the boardroom as well. It is inexcusable that today in 2015 women are less than half as likely to get into the boardroom as men. Inexcusable. Setting firm quotas would force open the boys club of far too many boardrooms and bring female talent flooding in.

This matters, because it will mean boardrooms will be better. Women lead in a different way, reach agreement in a different way, and exercise oversight in a different way.

In Germany it will become mandatory for 30 per cent of members of large boards to be women by 2020. I’d like to see the same thing here.

A society at ease with itself is one where women take their equal place at the head of the table. It’s a society where there are no no-go areas for women. That change won’t just be good for society – it would be good for business too.

In a report from the accounting firm Deloitte found that ‘In Europe, of 89 publicly traded companies with a market capitalisation of over £150 million, those with more women in senior management and on the board had, on average, more than 10 per cent higher return on equity than those companies with the least percentage of women in leadership.

Of course I accept that quotas are a crude way of doing things – and they don’t always work. In Norway a quota system has failed to make an impact. But that’s not a reason for not doing it, it’s a reason for getting it right.

The fact is bringing about this type of change is an important expression of the kind of society we want to be, and unless we are prepared to wait for decades for the normal course of events to takes their course we have to intervene.

Just as with all women shortlists the forces of conservatism will fight change with every fibre of their being, but they will be defeated. Like all progressive change, what one day feels impossible will soon seem inevitable.

Sitting back and waiting for change hasn’t worked and doesn’t work nearly quickly enough. From the green benches to the boardroom we have to force the pace. A fairer future is coming - let’s hurry it along.

 

Tessa Jowell is the MP for Dulwich and West Norwood and speaker at the Women of the World festival, which you can follow on #wowlondon

 

Photo: Getty
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Labour's purge: how it works, and what it means

The total number of people removed will be small - but the rancour will linger. 

Labour has just kicked off its first big wave of expulsions, purging many voters from the party’s leadership rolls. Twitter is ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There are, I'm told, more expulsions to come - what's going on?  Is Labour purging its rolls of Corbyn supporters?

The short answer is “No”.

If that opener feels familiar, it should: I wrote it last year, when the last set of purges kicked off, and may end up using it again next year. Labour has stringent rules about expressing support for other candidates and membership of other parties, which account for the bulk of the expulsions. It also has a code of conduct on abusive language which is also thinning the rolls, with supporters of both candidates being kicked off. 

Although the party is in significantly better financial shape than last year, it still is running a skeleton staff and is recovering from an expensive contest (in this case, to keep Britain in the European Union). The compliance unit itself remains small, so once again people from across the party staff have been dragooned in.

The process this year is pretty much the same: Labour party headquarters doesn’t have any bespoke software to match its voters against a long list of candidates in local elections, compiled last year and added to the list of candidates that stood against Labour in the 2016 local and devolved elections, plus a large backlog of complaints from activists.

It’s that backlog that is behind many of the highest-profile and most controversial examples. Last year, in one complaint that was not upheld, a local member was reported to the Compliance Unit for their failure to attend their local party’s annual barbecue. The mood in Labour, in the country and at Westminster, is significantly more bitter this summer than last and the complaints more personal. Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the Bfawu, the bakers’ union, one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters in the trade union movement, has been expelled, reported for tweets which included the use of the word “traitors” to refer to Labour opponents of Corbyn.  Jon Will Chambers, former bag carrier to Stella Creasy, and a vocal Corbyn critic on Twitter, has been kicked out for using a “Theresa May” twibbon to indicate his preference for May over Andrea Leadsom, in contravention of the party’s rules.

Both activities breach the letter of the party’s rules although you can (and people will) make good arguments against empowering other people to comb through the social media profiles of their opponents for reasons to dob them in.  (In both cases, I wouldn’t be shocked if both complaints were struck down on appeal)

I would be frankly astonished if Corbyn’s margin of victory – or defeat, as unlikely as that remains in my view – isn’t significantly bigger than the number of people who are barred from voting, which will include supporters of both candidates, as well as a number of duplicates (some people who paid £25 were in fact members before the freeze date, others are affliated trade unionists, and so on). 

What is unarguably more significant, as one party staffer reflected is, “the complaints are nastier now [than last year]”. More and more of the messages to compliance are firmly in what you might call “the barbecue category” – they are obviously groundless and based on personal animosity. That doesn’t feel like the basis of a party that is ready to unite at any level. Publicly and privately, most people are still talking down the chances of a split. It may prove impossible to avoid.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.