A few years back there was a set of public elections coming up. The Liberal Democrats had to put up a large number of candidates for all the vacancies, but everyone knew only a small handful of the posts up for election were winnable. Mindful of the party’s past record on gender (mis)representation, the party decided to take half of the most winnable seats and say our candidates for those specific seats must be women. Members still got to vote for the candidates, but for those nominated seats they had to pick their preferred candidates from lists containing only women. Men were excluded from those ballot papers.
Those were shortlists. Made up just of women. For identified winnable seats. Which is why I’d call those all-women shortlists.
But the reason longer-standing members reading this may be wondering what on earth I’m on about is that we didn’t call them all-women shortlists. We called it zipping.
It was for the 1999 European Parliament elections. Each region had, as now, a list of candidates and we knew that only a handful of the slots on the regional lists were winnable. What the party decided was to take half of the top slots and require them to be filled by women. (With a wrinkle to, ahem, favour the two male incumbents in the South West.)
I mention this for two reasons. First, those were all-women shortlists in everything but name, and they worked. Yes, they had some surrounding theatre to obscure that essential nature of them and they weren’t called all-women shortlists, but that’s not really the point given I’ve yet to see anyone say that their objection to all-women shortlists is their name.
What’s more, they worked as a temporary measure which did not require repetition in future years to maintain a good gender balance amongst our MEPs. That record of success is very pertinent to whether or not we should use all-women shortlists for selections in the future, especially when put against all the other measures we’ve tried for Westminster Parliamentary selections which haven’t worked.
The question about all-women shortlists for future Westminster selections really comes down to this: should we continue trying what we’ve tried for Westminster in various forms for the last 26 years and which has always failed, or should we switch to what we’ve tried for Europe and worked?
Second, that past record of success also rather undermines some of the more self-confident assertions made about how all-women shortlists would have dreadful side-effects. I’m sure people are being sincere when they make comments like ‘oh but the people selected through all-women shortlists will be looked on with derision because of how they got there’.But who really thought the less of, say, Sarah Ludford for having been elected through an all-women shortlist for the top London list slot? Or who thought of Liz Lynne as just someone not up the job who was promoted unfairly over better men? I could go on, but you get the point: look back at how people who were selected in 1999 were viewed both within the party and outside it.
Here then is the unmentioned reality behind all-women shortlists. The Lib Dems have used all-women shortlists, they worked, and the sky didn’t fall in.
By contrast, for all of the party’s 29 years in existence we’ve tried the mentoring, training and exhorting approach to improving gender balance at Westminster and it has never succeed in producing a Parliamentary Party anywhere close to the female majority there is in the electorate.
Which makes the debate coming up at Liberal Democrat conference in York in some ways very simple: should we carry on trying the thing which has always failed, or should we try instead to do the thing that has worked?
An important footnote to the success of 1999: all-women shortlists used to be called that because they literally were just for women. As society has moved on, it would be better for any proposal the Liberal Democrats adopt to be non-male shortlists, so moving away from a purely binary view of gender. This is the approach being used in the all-women shortlist proposals for Scotland, set to be debated at the Scottish Liberal Democrats conference.