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What’s Harriet done for future leadership contests?

September 30th, 2011

How will the 1+ woman rule work in practice?

One of the more significant events to have taken place at Labour’s recent conference was its adoption of the Refounding Labour proposals. Amongst these were the scrapping of Shadow Cabinet elections and the introduction of a rule that at least one of Labour’s leader and deputy must be a woman, championed by its current deputy, Harriet Harman.

I’ve not been able to find the precise wording of how this would actually work but it’s certain to affect how future leadership elections would play out. The simplest solution would be for joint tickets whenever there was a leadership vacancy. Anything else could become messy quite quickly.

Take the 1994 election as an example. Tony Blair, Margaret Beckett and John Prescott all contested the leadership, with Beckett and Prescott simultaneously standing for Deputy Leader. With Blair winning the leadership, that would have meant Beckett would have automatically become deputy, even though she quite clearly lost, and even though it was apparent that Prescott was much keener on the deputy’s job as a role in its own right. Her position would have been undermined from the start.

Even more bizarre consequences could follow if only one position were to be up for election. Suppose the heart condition Blair suffered in 2004 had been worse than it was and forced him to step down but that Prescott wished to stay on as deputy.

One can only imagine the tranquil equanimity with which Gordon Brown would have received news that Diane Abbott and Hazel Blears were to contest the leadership but that he was barred.

Labour is not the only party that has tried to amend its selection processes in order to achieve or prevent certain results but it has been the most enthusiastic. Whenever any party has tried it, the results have often been suboptimal. How the public would respond to an All Women Shortlist imposed at such a high political level is another question well worth asking.

As others have pointed out, there’s also a danger of this sort of identity-quota policy spreading. It’s presumably coincidental that white, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual Harriet Harman has chosen to propose a rule that applies to the one significant demographic of which she’s a member which is underrepresented in the Commons for the rule change, but it could be equally well applied to other groups in, for example, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet.

The problem is that each restriction makes it harder to promote on merit, potentially keeps some more talented individuals away from the game, may put some off altogether, and forces others into the limelight before they’re ready.

Again, let’s look into the crystal ball. Suppose Harman were to stand down this year, would it be an Yvette Cooper coronation? What if she didn’t want to stand? Which other of the Labour women is ready for that level of responsibility? It all becomes very restricting, especially for a party whose front bench is struggling to make an impact. In fact, I don’t believe the rule will survive being applied once or at most twice and will ultimately be withdrawn or heavily watered down. Even so, it will leave its legacy.

David Herdson