There is nothing wrong with discrimination.

This item was published first on LaboutList at the following URL


Yesterday I read with interest Ian Silvera’s LabourList post “How to get more women and ethnic minorities into politics: the sober way”.

Ian started by saying “Positive discrimination is oxymoronic”. And for me this is the essence of where both Ian’s article, and argument, goes wrong. Let’s be clear about this – there is nothing necessarily wrong with discrimination. That might seem an odd thing for a Labour activist to say but it is true.

Our society discriminates all the time, with good reason, and with the acceptance of pretty much everybody. When my local hospital wants to hire a new surgeon in their Neurology department they discriminate in favour of applicants trained and experienced in Neurosurgery. No matter how many times I apply, my training and experience as a local union rep in a call centre doesn’t ever get me an interview. And quite rightly too.

Similarly, when primary schools and nurseries are recruiting people to work on site with or near children they routinely discriminate against convicted and registered sex offenders. Does anyone really have a problem with that? Of course not, it is discrimination but it is entirely relevant and proportionate.

It is sloppy thinking to just say “discrimination” is wrong. What is wrong is to discriminate on irrelevant or unreasonable grounds. So whilst it is fine for Derriford Hospital to tell me I am utterly unqualified for the role of Neurosurgeon due to my total lack of qualifications and experience, it would not be fair, reasonable or legal for them to say that a qualified Asian surgeon couldn’t apply because they had an “all white” recruitment policy. That discrimination would be on irrelevant grounds (as surgeon’s ethnicity has nothing to do with their ability to do the job) and therefore unreasonable.

This is important and relevant to the argument around how we get a more representative PLP. The level of BME and female representation in the PLP is much better than it was, and we are streets ahead of the other mainstream parties. But I don’t 20% of MPs being women is something we should celebrate – it is an absolute scandal and utterly shameful. Our party is still not doing anything like nearly enough to get proper representation from women and minorities.

Ian went on to make the point “If you give special privileges to one group in society, then you discriminate against another.” That appears to be superficially true and hard to argue against. But as I have already said there is nothing inherently wrong with discrimination per se. So the question is, in some seats is it relevant and reasonable to discriminate in favour of women and minorities in parliamentary seat selection?

At a time of declining voter engagement, and general disillusionment with politics it is more than ever important for us to take steps to ensure our legislature feels representative of the people they represent. Parliament is still drawn from an incredibly narrow pool. What we are doing at the moment isn’t enough, we need to do more. And if the Labour Party does not take a lead on this, no mainstream party will.

I am a straight, white, able bodied male. And the reality is that people like me as a group are not discriminated against in terms of political involvement. All women shortlists may mean that individual men, in individual seats are unable to stand. But this is not the same as some sort of institutional discrimination against men. The truth is most of the PLP are straight white men. As a group we remain over represented, massively in parliament.

All women shortlists are a proportionate and reasonable response to a big structural problem in political representation. Discrimination? For sure. Is it a flawed mechanism with big problems of its own? Absolutely. In politics we rarely have the luxury of choosing between the right path and the wrong path, good and evil. Sometimes we have to choose between difficult options both of which might seem in some ways unpalatable. All women shortlists and under-representation in parliament is one of those areas, but the benefit of having them more than outweighs the cost.

I’m not against the idea of the Future Candidates Program (in fact I think it is a great idea). But for me a lack of skill, preparation and training isn’t the reason why we don’t have a fully balanced and representative parliament. However uncomfortable it might be for some of us to admit, there are a large number of institutional, political and cultural biases in our party toward white men. It is these institutional barriers that must be overcome.

And the only thing we have so far come up with that works well is All Women Shortlists. They have been undeniably effective (though much work is still to be done). Until such a time as we can come up with a better alternative, and one which the evidence suggests is likely to be more effective then we have to stick with it. And if that means that as an individual I and people like who look like me wont be able to stand in my particular seat (Plymouth Sutton and Devonport – a key marginal) then so be it. Socialism is about the collective good. A representative balanced parliament is a collective good and one that I for one will fight for.



25. June 2011 by Ralph Ferrett
Categories: Activism | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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