Fueling the Flames
Labor and greens must join forces to stop Bushs assault on the planet.
More African-Americans are running for governor than ever before.
Rigged elections are widespread throughout Africa, and not just in Zimbabwe.
A New Detente?
The Bush administration cozies up to China.
No evidence, but a Missouri inmate is facing execution.
Britain passes measures to elect more women.
Seeds of Destruction
Genetic contamination raises stakes on GMOs.
Pennsylvania debates are calculated to exclude Greens.
HMOs aim to stop even modest reform in its tracks.
BOOKS: Israel, the occupation and "apartheid."
Disasters in Waiting
BOOKS: Ahmed Rashid on more impending Jihad.
Play It Again, Sam
MUSIC: How multiple reissues keep record labels flush.
FILM: The moral dilemmas of Storytelling.
An interview with ®mark's Frank Guerrero.
March 1, 2002
Britain passes measures to elect more women.
LondonConfronted 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 Britains political parties to mandate women-only
so-called shortliststhe 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 wouldnt
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
But Jepson is prepared to take his party to court again, this time under E.U.
law. Im not at odds with the Labor Party over the inadequate representation
of women in Parliament, he says. But there is nothing positive about
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 mens 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 wouldnt find that helpful. Id
find it humiliating.
Widdecombe is confident the gender balance in Parliament will shift when the
generation of women who grew up in the 80swhen 10 Downing Street
seemed the exclusive property of Margaret Thatcherenter 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 23hardly
an encouraging statistic that supports the argument for biding ones
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 Indias Constitution in 1993 reserved a third of the seats in village
councils for women. In France, a law requiring that womens 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. Labors 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 www.womensenews.org.