Affirmative Action for Special Advisers
I am interested in Harriet Harman's suggestion that 50% of the places in Labour's Shadow Cabinet should be reserved for women, but I'm not convinced.
On the reasonable assumption that the Shadow Cabinet will (for the next year, at least) be made up of people who have had ministerial experience, that would mean choosing nine Shadow Cabinet ministers from amongst the eighteen or so women who currently have ministerial experience.
Some of these women, of course, would make very good Shadow Cabinet ministers, but I'm not sure that paving the way for Hazel Blears *and* Caroline Flint *and* Tessa Jowell to return to senior positions in the Labour Party is the most urgent priority for gender equality.
Top priority in securing equal representation for women within the top ranks of the Labour Party, instead, should be how to ensure that by the time of the next election, 50% of Labour's Shadow Cabinet are women. And I think the best way to do this is to build on one of Labour's existing positive action programmes.
Since 2001, Labour has run an informal yet very influential scheme called Affirmative Action for Special Advisers. Under this scheme, Oxbridge-educated men who have been special advisers to Labour ministers have been helped to secure safe parliamentary seats and then fast tracked to help them gain ministerial experience soon after being elected.
This programme has been so successful that there are more ex-Special Advisers standing for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2010 than the total number of women who have ever stood for the leadership of the Labour Party over the past hundred and ten years.
There are 81 female Labour MPs, including many exceptionally talented people from a range of backgrounds. By expanding the Affirmative Action for Special Advisers programme to these MPs, especially the newly elected ones, we will ensure that by 2015 or whenever the next election takes place, there will be a much greater number of women who have the experience needed to be effective members of the Shadow Cabinet, and that by the time it comes to choose the next but one leader of the Labour Party and the Cabinet ministers for when Labour is next in power, we will be able to choose from a much wider range of excellent candidates.
Making sure that the parliamentary Labour Party has roughly equal numbers of men and women, amongst MPs and amongst ministers, is an important part of the wider struggle for equal rights. It is by focusing on the medium term, rather than the next few months, that we're most likely to achieve real and meaningful change.