This is Ann Black’s response to the questions put to NEC 2012 Candidates by LWN and Lead4Women.
As a candidate to the NEC we hope you’ll find time to answer the following questions so we can share your answers with our members and supporters:
Happy to do so. I’d stress that this is my current thinking, and I know I don’t have all the answers. I’d welcome ideas, comments, discussion, so please feel free to mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07956-637958.
Will you ensure that more Labour women are elected to parliament, including requiring that a minimum of 50% of Labour’s parliamentary by-election candidates should be women?
I will continue to work towards this goal. However I’ve become convinced that this requires more effort at the grassroots. Membership is still 60% male, and the majority of activists and councillors are still men. Around 75% of parliamentary candidates in non-target seats are also men, worrying because these can often be the first step towards a parliamentary career.
The Lead for Women submission was concerned about abolishing the national parliamentary panel and about a likely shift towards local candidates. However I do not think that these changes should be devastating for women. I estimate that more than three-quarters of the NPP were men, and this was reflected in numbers of applications. The seats currently selecting are opposition-held and will need years of hard slog with no guarantee of reward, and non-local candidates would have to uproot their entire lives in ways which I would expect to disadvantage more women than men. Instead Labour should be identifying and encouraging talented and energetic women in every community, able to combine campaigning with family and work commitments, rather than looking to import them.
I agree with L4W that skills and life experience should carry equal or greater weight than time spent in party meetings, but that may not in itself result in more women candidates. I’d go further and look at whether politics itself is unattractive, particularly behaviour in parliament and the media. We also set increasingly demanding targets for door-knocking and campaigning which many people, men as well as women, find incompatible with normal life.
By-elections have for many years been treated as individual cases with no gender requirements, but it’s unacceptable that no women were elected in by-elections while Labour was in government (with a 17-year gap between Helen Liddell in 1994 and Debbie Abrahams in 2011), and that women were chosen in only 13% (6 out of 43) contests. With several Labour MPs likely to stand as police and crime commissioners and elected mayors, this would be an ideal opportunity to group seats for the resulting by-elections and require at least half to use all-women shortlists. In addition the NEC draws up shortlists for by-elections and should be expected to take gender into account.
Will you commit to supporting the continued use of all women shortlists and to their application in seats with a strong Labour majority as well as Labour’s target seats?
Yes, because no-one has devised a better system, and dropping AWS for the 2001 election saw women’s representation fall back again. In principle multi-member constituencies with a women’s quota would be preferable. (The six constituency seats on the NEC are elected in open competition and only one out of nine elections from 1998 had to go to the seventh place to meet the quota. In 2010 five of the top seven places were taken by women.) However that isn’t on the table.
But the NEC cannot just impose AWS from on high: we, collectively, must ensure that local parties have an adequate choice. Male applicants outnumber women by at least three to one in many open selections, and on average AWS selections have far fewer applicants. Where gender-balanced shortlists are required, with, say, 13 men and four women, this can lead to adding a second woman solely to be able to add a second man, instead of assessing all 17 candidates against the same standard. Some women have been shortlisted many times and spent time, money and emotional effort without success, and this must be profoundly demoralising. And when there are over 50 men and three women – as for some late-selecting seats in 2010 – a gender-balanced shortlist is really not possible.
Local parties also become disgruntled when they feel that their choice is restricted. The best way to counter this will be when open and AWS selections generate equal numbers of applicants, and the responsibility has to start at the top. Some have noted that so far only one of six executive directors in the new party management structure is a woman, and though the NEC was assured that appointments were made strictly on merit, this does not help to win the argument with local parties who say that they also would like to select strictly on merit. Hopefully the future candidates programme, which explicitly targeted under-represented groups, will help to improve the numbers of women applying, in both open and AWS seats.
On the second part of the question, I’d have more AWS selections in seats with a strong Labour majority, as these are the ones most likely to survive. In particular I’d apply this to the seats which become vacant at the last minute. These are the ones which attract most complaints about stitch-ups and parachuting, particularly as the NEC also gains responsibility for shortlisting.
Before the 2005 election the NEC agreed that where MPs did not give notice of retirement well in advance, all those who subsequently stood down would be replaced from AWS, except in the case of death or sudden illness. Regrettably we never implemented our own decision – despite my objections – and there were actually more open selections, proportionally, in later-selecting seats.
What will you do to ensure equal and transparent application of AWS policy across the regions, including in Scotland and Wales?
I’m not sure that application can be absolutely equal. There are two Labour MPs in the East of England, 32 in Yorkshire & the Humber, and the regions cannot be treated in the same way. Wales is losing ten of its 40 seats under boundary changes, and Scotland was badly hit in the previous reorganisation. But the expected quotas for all regions and nations should be transparent, published, and open to party discussion, including regional input.
Would you support the formulation and publication of clear criteria for the application of AWS policy and what would your favoured criteria be?
Yes. Having been through three parliamentary cycles it is obvious that there are unstated criteria in allocating AWS / open status, sometimes related to specific individuals or interests. The only way to remove suspicion of undue influence is to give neutral and external people or bodies a key role in these decisions. However I am not sure that the party is ready for this.
- the views of local members. Currently these range from support (very few) through grudging acceptance to unhappiness to “over our dead body”. For 20 years the party has not put sufficient effort into re-stating the argument for AWS as the only proven method of increasing women’s representation. While we catch up on this front, pragmatically it is sensible to favour AWS for constituencies where there is some support, and avoid further Blaenau Gwents. We need more women MPs but we also need more Labour MPs;
- winnability. AWS should be used for at least half, preferably more, Labour-held seats and the best marginal prospects;
- decisions in neighbouring seats. In this context I am disappointed that the NEC has been considering seats from the same city separately. For instance Norwich North and Norwich South should have been taken together, as should Reading East and Reading West. It would be much easier to sell AWS if an AWS and an open seat were “twinned”;
- the regional picture (London was almost up to 50% at one point, Wales way behind, south-east currently 25%). No region should be allowed to slide back, but those furthest adrift should be expected to show defined improvement at each election.
The interaction between race and gender also gets raised here. Some seats have argued for an open selection so that ethnic minority candidates can apply (some of which have ended up selecting white men.) This should not be necessary, as obviously around 50% of ethnic minorities are women, but the NEC has to avoid one under-represented group being played off against another.
What will you do to ensure we have a 50:50 PLP and 50:50 Labour administration in Scotland, Wales, London and local government?
Scotland and Wales: need to look at how far the same procedures could operate at this level. Wales started out as 50/50 because of twinning, and we should not have allowed it to slide. London is more compact and it should be possible to require equal numbers in the first-past-the-post seats. Also there may be ways of using the top-up lists more effectively to raise the overall proportion of women.
Being a councillor should be more compatible with family and community life than parliament as it does not require commuting and split homes, and so there should be fewer barriers. In the last two years our women’s group in Oxford has identified, persuaded and supported new female council candidates, and we expect the gender balance of the Labour group to improve significantly. Part of it has been raising confidence: more women than men say that they can’t do things when they can.
Improving the proportion of women both on the council and in executive positions is an essential part of the strategy for improving it at higher levels, and more effort should be put into sharing good practice and encouraging those councils with furthest to go. As with parliamentary seats, imposing AWS from regional or local government level, without ensuring an adequate choice of candidates, is not the best way to win hearts and minds or to maximise support for the women who are selected.
There are also concerns around the new police and crime commissioners and additional directly-elected mayors. Signs are that most Labour candidates will be men, in part because very few women have applied. Each is a single position, and candidates must live in the relevant area, so talented women from elsewhere cannot apply, and designating half the positions as women-only might result in no Labour candidates. So far the NEC has no solution.
What will you do to ensure that the proportion of women in the PLP does not decrease as a result of boundary changes?
Very difficult. We have never removed sitting MPs unless their local party expresses loss of confidence in a trigger ballot, and the NEC has endorsed the PLP position that there should be no job losses simply through boundary changes. Wales is particularly hard hit, with low representation anyway and the remaining women not well-placed. It may mean more determined efforts to restore gender balance at the following election.
Will you support our Refounding Labour proposals for changing the party, including implementing a proper complaints process and building a fully funded and organised Women’s organisation in the Labour Party?
I supported most of the L4W proposals, and argued that groups looking at equalities aspects of Refounding Labour should include constituency representation. This was agreed. I’m a member of Harriet Harman’s group on ensuring that there is at least one woman in the leadership team: the current favoured option is a leadership team of three, with one male and one female deputy, but we will be consulting after the May elections with a view to making decisions at this year’s conference.
On complaints, I agree that current procedures are not seen as satisfactory by all members. Disentangling gender aspects from other forms of discrimination, or from individual personal antagonisms, is always difficult, as I find in my trade union role as well as in the Labour party. However, this area is being reviewed, and again proposals will be circulated in the months ahead. I am happy to share them for discussion as they emerge.
The funding and organisation of women within the party has to be considered alongside all the other needs in a financial situation which is still tight. I am pleased that we have re-established an annual women’s conference. Beyond that, I will continue to advocate a strong voice for women within the party, but am open as to how this is best taken forward: separate structures for women can lead other parts of the organisation to think that they needn’t bother, while “mainstreaming” can mean that women’s priorities slip down every agenda. Locally I would emphasise increasing women’s influence and engagement, whether this is through formal delegate entitlement or through other means, in line with Refounding Labour’s general support for flexibility. The new annual constituency development plan should include a requirement to explain how this is being promoted.