The Sunday Times

June 13th, 2010

Oh Diane, you’re no more than Labour’s Sarah Palin

If I were Diane Abbott, I would be smouldering with mortification and rage. Just because she is a woman and black, she has been forced by her own party into a position that is humiliating and untenable. Although she herself was able to get only a handful of supporters for the Labour leadership contest and so could not on her own merits make it to the ballot list, she has been pushed and shoved into the race at the 11th hour by powerful Labour MPs who wouldn’t otherwise support her and all, supposedly, in the name of diversity. It is monstrous, or so she ought to think.

As late as a few hours before the ballot list deadline last week, Abbott had the backing of just 10 MPs out of a required 33. So, because it looked as if the leadership contestants would be embarrassingly all-male, all-Oxbridge and all-white, the parliamentary Labour party machine cranked into action: Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, encouraged enough other MPs to nominate Abbott, reluctantly, after they had been persuaded that a privileged all-white male line-up would not go down at all well with the public or the unions.

Even with all this finagling, Abbott’s final supporter gave her his nomination only a few minutes before the deadline. The name for this is not diversity. Its name is tokenism, aggravated by PR manipulation and the deepest of undemocratic cynicism. It is positive discrimination at its most depressing.

Yet Abbott seems quite oblivious of her humiliation. She blithely denies that she has been a beneficiary — I would say a victim — of positive discrimination, yet she herself made much in speeches last week of her colour and gender. She says that if, after 23 years as an MP, “I haven’t earned the right to stand for the leadership then nothing counts for anything”. But don’t the party electoral rules count for anything? Or the freely offered support of one’s peers? Abbott seems to feel thoroughly entitled to run, even though several people who in the end nominated her have no intention of voting for her and even though Harman has made it entirely clear that her reason for nominating her was to ensure that a woman was on the ballot paper.

Three of the other contestants, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have said publicly how important it is to have a “range” of candidates and a “choice”. And the favourite, David Miliband, nominated Abbott himself in the same spirit, although unkind gossip suggests that he hopes the left-wing Diane might also snatch away support from his left-wing brother Ed. Surely all this must have occurred to Abbott, along with the unpleasant idea that David Miliband would not for an instant have nominated her if he had thought she had the ghost of a chance of winning.

It would be extremely funny if she did win. I am not an admirer, but she seems to be just as intelligent as Burnham, if not more so, and nicer than the Miliband brothers. And she could not possibly be more disastrous for the country than Gordon Brown or his protégé Balls. All the same, the truth is that Diane Abbott is the Sarah Palin of British politics, a woman cynically propelled to the fore to serve male interests and party interests; perhaps, as with Palin, there will be a lot of unexpected blow-back, which might be entertaining. Given the disarray in the Labour party, however, perhaps it hardly matters.

What does matter is why there are so few women in British politics — and so few outstanding women. Given the difficulties of enticing women into politics, which all parties have tried, an equally important question, perhaps, is whether the absence of women matters very much. Perhaps the assumption that there ought to be as many female MPs as male is not often enough questioned.

Harman said last week that party rules ought to be changed to ensure that half the shadow cabinet members are women. While many people would not go that far, most people believe there ought to be more equal numbers of women as representatives of the people. But why? Who benefits? Is it the women, the institution of parliament or the voters and their representation? It is far from clear. If there are women who want to become MPs but who are clearly held back by sexism, then it is obviously a matter of justice and equality to help them. Quite a lot has been done about this and there is no doubt more to do.

There are some obstacles that can’t be removed, however. As Abbott herself said in 2003: “I worked out some time ago it is not possible to be a good mother and a good MP.” Having children, a job in parliament and perhaps in cabinet, a demanding constituency, two homes, constant meetings and a lot of travel is a combination many women with families prefer not to take on. Yvette Cooper, a mother of three young children, chose not to stand for the leadership. Besides, the most able women can earn more elsewhere without all these extra burdens. It follows, obviously, that the absence of women politicians is not of itself evidence of discrimination against them.

As for whether parliament would benefit from a greater proportion of women, it would be unwise to assume so. Again there is a general assumption that women bring a civilising, gentling influence into organisations and generally improve things. But the evidence seems to be mixed and inconclusive. Nor is the proportion of women in parliament necessarily a reliable indicator of a good, democratically developed society. Rwanda, Cuba, Costa Rica, Guyana, Belarus, Burundi, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Iraq all have a higher proportion of women in the lower or single house of parliament than in Britain which, with 22%, ranks only 50th equal with four other nations in an Inter-Parliamentary Union world table. The United States stands at 69th equal with Turkmenistan, on 16.8%.

As for whether voters would benefit from having more women MPs that, too, is debatable. Women are underrepresented in the Commons, certainly, as are ethnic minorities. So, too, are poor people, those educated at state schools, those without degrees, young people and pensioners. Should all those groups be represented pro rata as well? Failing that, must one conclude that the Commons does not represent the people and that the executive is not democratically entitled to run the country? That is a crude and unworkable idea of representation. Whatever the answer may be, it is not positive discrimination.