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Without all-women shortlists, can Labour maintain gender balance among its MPs?

Female Labour MPs celebrate 100 years of women's suffrage in February 2018 (Credit: Matt Crossick / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Without formal positive action, can Labour maintain an equal gender balance among its MPs? Morgan Jones reports

All-women shortlists (AWS) have been Labour’s magic bullet for gender equality since 1997, when their introduction led to the party selecting women as candidates in half of all seats it considered winnable. It made a huge difference – Labour’s cohort of women in the House of Commons rose from 37 in 1992 to 101 in 1997 – and AWS had been widely used by the party until recently.

Both legally and politically, AWS have not been without controversy. When the policy was found to be in breach of sex discrimination law, Labour had to legislate to ensure the legality of AWS, which it did via the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act and the Equalities Act. 

Both legally and politically, AWS have not been without controversy

The deployment of these women-only shortlists was also sometimes criticised as a factional device designed to exclude certain candidates – most notably in Blaenau Gwent in 2005, when Labour imposed an AWS and lost the seat to Peter Law, who had stood as an independent candidate in protest at the national party’s decision to use the affirmative action tool.

Now, as Labour gets ready to fight another general election, there’s a problem: AWS are no longer available to the party. Labour has received legal advice suggesting continued use of AWS may not be in line with the law because its 2019 class of MPs was, for the first time and by a slim margin, more female than male.

Alice Perry, who served as chair of Labour’s national executive committee from 2021 to 2022, confirms to The House that the ruling body had been “concerned about what would happen to women’s representation in Parliament once we could no longer use all-women shortlists”. She explains: “A lot of work went on behind the scenes to help address this and remove the barriers to women standing for election at all levels.” 

We are now starting to see the somewhat mixed results of this for Labour. Most of the party’s candidates for winnable seats have been selected, and the party is currently in the process of mass-selecting for what it calls “non-battleground seats”. According to LabourList data from December 2023, in contested selections Labour has picked 85 women and 105 men, and the Labour Women’s Network (LWN) similarly cites the figure of 44 per cent women in winnable seats. 

It appears fairly equal, and LWN director Claire Reynolds believes reaching these numbers without the use of AWS is indicative of “real cultural change”. She is also keen to highlight the diversity within the group of potential MPs: “We can see women of all different professional backgrounds coming through, as well as women of colour, disabled women, lesbian and bi women, and women from their 20s through to a grandmother of two.” Perry also hails the “stable” gender balance, although she notes there is “always more to do”. The 44:56 ratio may suggest an unpromising direction of travel.

Before the next general election takes place, we can only assess candidates, not MPs. In one part of the United Kingdom, a replacement structure for AWS has been put in place: Scottish Labour has been picking its candidates via a constituency pairing system, with members choosing a man and a woman for the two seats. But because of how the system is set up, concerns have been raised that, despite yielding a parity of candidates, it may not deliver a parity of elected MPs. The worry is that Scotland may return a large number of female MPs, or it may result in a skewed number of male MPs in proportion to its candidate lists.

Labour expects to elect many more MPs at the next general election than in 2019, so in net terms it is almost certain there will be more women in the Parliamentary Labour Party than there are now. Reynolds anticipates it will be the most diverse parliament ever. But with early signs that male candidates are prevailing over female, and AWS off the table, the number of women as a proportion of all Labour MPs is likely to drop. 

If that’s the case, we may see women’s groups within the party campaign for the kind of amendments to equalities law that the last Labour government brought in – perhaps starting with an extension to the 2030 limit on the legality of all-women shortlists.

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