Monday, 5 July 2010

democratic reform and all that

So the first anniversary of the UK’s first coalition government in a lifetime looks set to be celebrated/commiserated (delete as applicable) with a referendum on the way we elect our MPs at future General Elections. Put more simply we are going to get asked if we want to keep the antiquated First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system or if we want Additional Vote (AV) and that’s about it. Great, fantastic, our Parliament, it would seem, can’t even trust the people that put them there (sort of if you take into account the lack of representation FPTP can often lead to) to choose from a selection of viable alternatives, some of which would actually mean a proportionally representative legislature. That however is only the tip of the iceberg as far as my own gripes with this referendum and reform it may bring are concerned.

Surely this would be the perfect opportunity to have a referendum week looking at both democratic and constitutional reform. For example what options do we have for the future of the second chamber? As a footnote to that particular question bear in mind that of the 1357 UK parliamentarians less than half (47.9% to be precise) are actually elected while 707 sit in the Lords subject to absolutely no public scrutiny at the ballot box. Additionally perhaps the time has come to ask what the function of the UK Parliament is in a day and age when Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, quite rightly, have their own self determination on many issues. Is it time for a Federal Parliament with an English Assembly? This would seem the logical conclusion to the smaller House of Commons which is also being proposed by the coalition, indeed it could be argued that the proposed 50 member cut in MPs (a cut in representation?) could be countered by the creation of such an assembly leaving the UK Parliament to deal with nationwide issues such as defence, human rights and international relations.

Would it be so outrageous to have three sections on a ballot paper; one for voting reform, one for second chamber reform and one regarding the UK question (formerly the West Lothian Question, now possibly the English Question?) Or are the electorate simply not trusted/deemed too unsophisticated (delete as applicable) to be asked such questions about the institutions that our taxes pay for? This is much more about the future of democracy in this country than it is about the 1357 people who presently sit in Westminster and perhaps it’s about time we the people were actually asked rather than given a single yes or no vote on one aspect of it.

Monday, 7 June 2010

quotas aren't the answer

In the London Borough of Haringey as well as the General Election we had local elections which resulted in a Labour majority council of 11, 34 seats to the Liberal Democrats 23. Of the 57 councillors 35 are men and 22 women, roughly a gender split of 61% men to 39% women. Of the eight available cabinet posts 6 are held by women, a gender split of 25% men to 75% women. What’s the problem I hear you ask…well, erm, there isn’t one. This came about not because of a quota system or a change of law, this simply happened because the meritocracy involved in the nature of local politics where position usually comes with proven success. This must surely be the case in Haringey; after all in what must be one of the most scrutinised of all English Councils due to previous events you don’t want amateurs botching things.

But what if a quota system had been in place? Would the cabinet be obliged to represent the gender balance of 61% male to 39% female? Or perhaps it would be obliged to split the cabinet positions fairly between four men and four women – imagine that, at least two members of the current council cabinet being told ‘sorry, you can’t have the job because you’re a woman.’ Imagine the quite correct outrage which would follow.

As you can see a gender quota has its pitfalls as well as its merits. But why is it an issue? Well last week the temporary Labour leader Harriet Harman suggested the shadow cabinet of the Parliamentary Labour Party (and presumably any future Labour government cabinets) should conform to such a gender quota. I’m not adverse to the idea in principle but nor am I enthusiastically for it in terms of implementation, more of which later. Initially two questions sprung to mind:

Q1, Which women, if any, does Harriet believe to have missed out on cabinet positions in the last 13 years due to their gender?

Q2, Which women, if any, does Harriet believe need such a quota in place to obtain the job recognition she doesn’t feel is forthcoming?

The second question is particularly important as it implies that the stand-in Labour leader doesn’t actually trust her male successor to pick women purely because they are, well, women (sorry Diane, unfortunately I don’t think you’ll make the 30 nominations). If this is the implication which of the candidates does she least trust on the issue?

The argument that a quota is required to give women a fighting chance simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny given the situation in Haringey I have outlined at the start of this piece. That said now it’s time for what might be regarded as real pedantry on my part but bare with me. Let us create a scenario where Harriet’s quota has become reality, we have our 16 team shadow cabinet, eight men, eight women. So as not to give a kiss of death to any future shadow cabinet member let us also create a fictitious department, the Department for, I don’t know, let’s go with Bananas. Right, got it, OK, good, let’s get on with this:

Six months have passed since the appointment of our new party leader and their cabinet and the male, yes, lets make it a man, shadow Secretary of State for Bananas has been exposed for undeniable personal financial irregularities for which it would be untenable for him to continue in his position. It’s a real shame as the leader is more than happy with his remaining 15 shadow cabinet members and they in turn are settling in well to their roles. That can only mean one thing, appointment from outside the cabinet which is where we encounter a problem, the best candidate is a female rising star who made Bananas and their fate the cornerstone of her own election campaign. As well as this she is seen to be a tireless fighter who is tough on Bananas and tough on the causes of Bananas…she is the only viable candidate for the job of shadow Secretary of State for Bananas. The party leader is now in a bit of an awkward situation, does he break the quota or does he appoint his new female shadow Secretary of State for Bananas and let another woman go to maintain the 50/50 balance? Or does he appoint a man as Secretary of State for Bananas so as not to let go of any of the remaining talented women in his shadow cabinet? That in itself raises another issue; does a department become the preserve of one gender until a full cabinet reshuffle?

All this said I do appreciate that it takes an exceptional woman to reach the top of British politics as apposed to the slightly easier journey a less exceptional male candidate may receive along the way. Additionally the media, in particular the printed press also have chips to flick from their shoulders with regards to women in politics, as whenever a male member of cabinet is sacked and the given reason is a simple ‘he wasn’t up to the job,’ such a comment is accepted for what it is. However if a female member of cabinet is sacked and the given reason is a simple ‘she wasn’t up to the job,’ the usual press response is a cynical article patronisingly titled something like: ‘Is ANY woman up to THIS job.’ The answer is of course yes but an ill-conceived quota doesn’t seem to be as much the answer as only a temporary fix, it’s the attitudes we have to change not the people who already do a good job, irregardless of their gender.

To round off I think its imperative that I point out that I don’t care if we have a cabinet of 12 women and four men or of 10 men and six women so long as they’re the best people at the disposal of the next leader. Right now we need the best people available to scrutinise the cuts that are coming our way and ensure that as a responsible party of opposition we can offer alternative solutions to the problems which are inevitably going to arise, a quota in my opinion doesn’t help this and therefore should be put to one side while we look at and fight against the real inequalities which the cuts will inevitably bring.