The future of the left since 1884

Positive action in Labour

In 1992, the number of Labour women MPs hit a new high of 37. Some people were very happy. But some were also disgusted. The huge effort put in after 1987 had only resulted in a negligible increase from 21....


In 1992, the number of Labour women MPs hit a new high of 37. Some people were very happy. But some were also disgusted. The huge effort put in after 1987 had only resulted in a negligible increase from 21. There seemed no prospect of rapid improvement, and no guarantee that recent progress could be maintained.
Women in the Labour party got together and began to campaign for positive action measures to be taken. They got resolutions through constituency meetings and lobbied for support. It was not easy. But they got the principle of positive action through Labour’s annual conference and the National Executive Committee (NEC), then implemented it in the form of all-women shortlists – the only viable option in a first-past-the-post electoral system.

There was controversy. There were bitter meetings and angry exchanges. But the party stuck to its task, and, as a consequence, the parliamentary labour party is now 43 per cent female. There are now 99 Labour women MPs – more than in all the other parties put together.

Positive action and quotas are not an end in themselves. They are, in fact, thoroughly objectionable. This is not because they’re unfair, undemocratic or discriminatory – they are none of those things – but because they are a clear signal of the failure of parties and societies to treat women fairly, on their merits and without prejudice.

Almost no democratic country in the world has been able to achieve high levels of women’s representation without quotas. From the Scandinavian role models to Rwanda, from Tunisia to Bolivia, quotas in one form or another have featured in success stories.

Labour is the only major UK-wide party to be within sight of 50:50 gender balance in parliament because, for two decades, we have looked our failure in the face and made the hard choices. The only exception was the 2001 election, for which positive action was not used, and in which only four new women MPs (and over 30 men) were elected. But we’ve been doing it at every election since.

Of course positive action is difficult. Nobody likes it. It’s a blunt instrument. However carefully it is applied – and it hasn’t always been applied carefully at all – it causes disruption and arguments and heartache. And then, when women come to positions through positive action they are subject to insulting assumptions about their ability and staying power. It’s hard work and needs to be backed up with lots of developmental measures, with cultural changes, and with endless explanations of why the action is necessary. It would be much easier to do if we had a proportional electoral system.

But on the other hand, it has resulted in a steady rise in Labour women MPs from that 14 per cent level in 1992 to its current high. In the meantime, the Conservatives (6 per cent in 1992 and 18 per cent now) and the Liberal Democrats (10 per cent in 1992 and 0 per cent now) have struggled. Labour has pulled ahead of them because we had the courage to do what worked.

We’ve done it at many other electoral levels, too, and had similar levels of success. The only areas in which our performance in terms of women’s representation is poor are those for which no positive action has been used – local government leadership, police and crime commissioners, and metro mayors.

Given this success, what do we do next?

There is plenty of evidence – especially from Scandinavia – that if you stop positive action too soon things go backwards. So the first thing we need to do is stick to our guns, even after we have achieved 50 per cent.

But the second is to get other parties to pull their weight. In many countries, this is done by having legal or constitutional quotas. Since the UK has no written constitution, the latter might be tricky, but legally binding quotas for all parties would be eminently possible.

In Spain, Belgium and Ireland, legal quotas of equal levels (usually 40:40) of both male and female candidates have been successful in raising women’s representation. There have to be penalties for failure to meet them – severe financial ones, or banning parties which do not meet them from standing – but in principle they work.

According to research recently published by the Centre for Women & Democracy, there are currently 27 countries using constitutional quotas, 67 using electoral law quotas, and 106 political parties in 52 countries (including Labour in the UK) using voluntary party quotas. The vast majority of countries which are ahead of us in the global league table use compulsion of some kind.

So we need to continue to be brave. If we can get to 50:50 and sustain it, we will have done well. But in order to abandon quotas we will need to change the way society, the media and political parties regard and treat women. That’s an even harder task to take on, but unless we do we will remain dependent on positive action for fair gender representation indefinitely.

Image: sabin paul croce


Nan Sloane

Nan Sloane is a former Labour councillor and Regional Director of the Labour Party. She is currently the Director of the Centre for Women and Democracy, which researches and campaigns on women’s representation in decision-making.

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