Friday, 8 February 2008

Why we don’t need women-only or BME-only shortlists

The statement that “Parliament should reflect the society that it seeks to govern” is a commonplace one, but that does not make it correct. As with all jobs, parliament should be filled with those best suited to legislate.

This is not to say that parliament should be made up of lawyers (in fact, it would probably benefit from fewer lawyers, given the propensity of “learned members”) or other types of expert; we do not want a technocracy. But is should be made up of intelligent, talented individuals with an understanding both of what makes good law and what their constituents want.

Recent comments by Philip Davies MP that having BME-only shortlists or women-only shortlist would be the equivalent of having criminal-only shortlists are confused. As Linda Jack points out “YOU DIDN'T CHOOSE THE COLOUR OF YOUR SKIN, OR THE IMPACT IT HAD ON YOUR LIFE CHANCES...........IF YOU ARE A CRIMINAL, YOU MAY HAVE HAD A MODICUM OF CHOICE IN BECOMING ONE”. This is a liberal distinction that is often lost on Conservatives.

However, in criticising Davies, Linda appears to make a different but no less significant error: that factors that are not the result of choice should be discounted. The role of legislator is filled in the here-and-now, not in the past. If one person is less suited to job than another person, they should not be given the job, whether their inferior skill results from personal choices or factors beyond their control. After all, intellect is as much a function of biology as are race and gender, yet one would not suggest that parliament should reflect the full intellectual range of society, nor suggest shortlists confined to those with IQs less than 100.

(Insert jokes here).

The point about race and gender is not that parliament should reflect society as a whole – heaven forbid! It is that there is no link between race or gender and one’s ability as a candidate or parliamentarian. Thus any discrimination against BME or female candidates (as opposed to discrimination against stupid or antisocial candidates) is unwarranted.

If, however, a particular BME candidate is less suited to the job than a white alternative because of disadvantages inherent in their race (for example, the fact that black families tend to be poorer and therefore black boys tend to perform less well at school) they should not be given an unfair advantage in a particular selection so as to redress the balance. This can only result in a less talented group of MPs. The solution is to break the link between (in the example cited above) economic status and race, and academic performance and race, so that in future this problem does not arise.

Furthermore, even if women and those from ethnic minorities are as likely to make good candidates and MPs but are still not being chosen by parties, this does not automatically justify dedicated shortlists. Society is a self-regulating mechanism, after all, and the system will police itself. Parties that fail to promote BME or female candidates because of prejudice will have a smaller pool of good candidates to choose from, which will make it more difficult for them to win votes. Furthermore, if they discriminate against people with any regularity, they will be seen to be prejudiced, which will further hurt them at the polls.

The real reason that there is a lack of BME candidates for parliament is that there is a lack of BME members of political parties; there are some, just as there are some candidates and even elected officials, but the ranks of all three parties are not reflective of our society as a whole. The answer is not some form of positive discrimination, however, but more open and imaginative efforts to attract members. As a Lib Dem Council Group leader recently remarked to me, too many of our social events (for example) centre around alcohol, which may discourage (for example) Muslim members from joining. Ultimately, if we attract intelligent and talented people into our party, we will get intelligent and talented candidates – no matter what their race or gender.


Joe Otten said...

I think there is something to be said for diversity and division of labour in parliament, rather than having just the 650 most talented willing candidates who happen to be nearly all doctors, lawyers and career politicians.

I suggest parliament would benefit from more scientists, engineers, artists, soldiers, economists, perhaps philosophers. And people with experience of a greater diversity of lifestyles - all adding to rather than repeating the total of skills and experience that can be drawn upon.

All-philosopher shortlists....hmmmm....

Tom Papworth said...

I can't argue with that. The propensity of lawyers particularly is dangerous - they shape the law to suit practitioners of the law rather than those relying on it.

But no matter what their walk of life, they need to have the talent to campaign and legislate.