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March 1, 2002
Affirmative Action
Britain passes measures to elect more women.
Anne Widdecombe Waving
British MP Anne Widdecombe, an opponent of quotas for women.

London—Confronted by the first drop in the number of women elected to the House of Commons in 20 years, British lawmakers passed a bill in January to reinstate a previously banned election procedure that favors female candidates for seats in Parliament.

The bill would allow Britain’s political parties to mandate women-only so-called shortlists—the lists of candidates for the House of Commons put forth to party members in the British equivalent of primary elections. A brief experiment with all-women shortlists helped elect a record 120 women to the Commons in 1997, up from 60 five years earlier. But by then the practice had already been ruled illegal.

The bill, which received the support of all political parties and moved rapidly through Parliament, revises British sex-discrimination laws to allow parties to impose forms of “positive discrimination” that are illegal if practiced by private companies. It passed its final vote in Parliament on January 28 and now awaits only the assent of the queen. Under a sunset clause in the bill, its provisions would lapse in 2015, probably after three elections.

A law professor and disappointed office-seeker, Peter Jepson, successfully challenged the women-only policy in an employment tribunal in Leeds in the mid-’90s. “When asked, ‘Why not do more to reduce inequality in representation of women and men in Parliament?’ we have been able to hide behind the Jepson case, which has cast a legal shadow over positive measures,” says MP Stephen Byers. “But with this measure on the statute book, there would be no hiding place for political parties.”

MP Candy Atherton is the first person ever selected off an all-woman shortlist and one of the most vocal advocates of reinstating the practice. “I wouldn’t even have been called in for an interview if men had been in the race,” she says. “A couple of local men just assumed they were going to get the nomination.”

But Jepson is prepared to take his party to court again, this time under E.U. law. “I’m not at odds with the Labor Party over the inadequate representation of women in Parliament,” he says. “But there is nothing positive about discrimination.”

His preferred solution is “twinning,” in which two constituencies combine to select a pair of candidates, one male, one female. In 1999, twinning led to women winning 37 percent of the seats in the Scottish Parliament and 41 percent of those in the Welsh Assembly.

While offering no real opposition to the bill permitting women-only shortlists, leaders of the opposition Conservative Party indicated they would not implement the policy. Instead, they plan to create training programs for women considering public office and to use polling data to try to persuade local officials to back promising women candidates.

MP Anne Widdecombe, a defeated candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party who remains influential, says that a policy of women-only shortlists would deny men’s human rights and would be patronizing and demeaning to women. “It would create two groups of women MPs,” she says, “one who could look everyone from the prime minister down in the eye, and the other that got there because of special favors. I wouldn’t find that helpful. I’d find it humiliating.”

Widdecombe is confident the gender balance in Parliament will shift when the generation of women who grew up in the ’80s—when 10 Downing Street seemed the exclusive property of Margaret Thatcher—enter their forties and fifties and start to move into politics.

But Byers says the Labor Party supports a more interventionist approach to correct the longstanding imbalance of power. “Relying on improvements to be made without direct intervention has been tried before and has failed,” he says. “It was that view that meant that in 1945 there were 24 women members of the House of Commons, and almost 40 years later in 1983, four years after the first female prime minister was elected, there were 23—hardly an encouraging statistic that supports the argument for ‘biding one’s time.’ ”

Britain ranks 40th among world parliaments for the percentage of women sitting in its lower house. Eighteen percent of its members are women. (The U.S. House of Representatives ranks 52nd with 14 percent, the global average.) At the top of the list of 179 countries are Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland and Germany. In several Latin American countries, notably Argentina, parties are required by law to meet a quota of women candidates. The 74th amendment to India’s Constitution in 1993 reserved a third of the seats in village councils for women. In France, a law requiring that women’s names fill half the slots on slates for municipal office resulted in women winning nearly 48 percent of the seats in city governments last summer.

Full equality may be on hold in Britain. Labor’s national executive committee announced on January 30 that it would drop its goal of having 50-50 representation after the next election, aiming for 35 percent instead. “We still have an aspiration of 50 percent of women MPs, but you have to be realistic about these things,” a party spokesman says. “We would have to have something like 140 MPs retire or die to get 50 percent at the next election.”

Paul Rodgers has written for The Economist, New Scientist and The Independent. A version of this article originally appeared on

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