Women’s quotas in #LeftUnity: Nearly a catastrophe for this promising new party!?


I set the cat among the pigeons with a last minute email (and Facebook post) – well, at about midnight the night before the policy-making conference of Left Unity (LU) in Manchester on 29 March – by suggesting that the women’s quota rule (of at least 50% women) within LU’s constitution had to be scrapped!

I do think that if a decision made at the final Transitional National Council (leadiership body between adopting the constitution on 30 November and electing a new National Council) before the conference had been adhered to – of implementing the quota within the national council as a whole, rather than for the directly elected section and each region independently, it could have led to the ludicrous and highly undemocratic situation where every candidate for the vacant seats in the regions (e.g. 4 in the North West) had to be a woman!

This could have been catastrophic for LU and possibly even led to a split. Rather than simply arguing that quotas are a bad thing, I actually see merits in them, as I point out in the second and third emails included in this post, and the actual outcome is actually good!

The first email I sent out was as follows:

The most likely outcome of Left Unity’s internal elections that will be announced tomorrow are 19 women and 30 men, with 16 vacant seats left to be filled – see the end of this message [omitted for clarity] for my analysis gathered from the LU website (I searched for “internal elections” because there is no link any more from the pull-down menus since voting is over).

The women’s quota rule, currently in the constitution, would mean that there would need to be 33 out of 65 women on the national council overall. It would rationally be interpreted to mean that 14 women and only 2 men could be elected in total across all regions to fill the vacant seats, when nominations reopen after the conference. I cannot see how on earth this is supposed to be compatible with the single transferable vote electoral system and splitting votes into regions!

[At the March TNC, it was briefly discussed whether the quota system applies to individual categories of seat (with regions with 5 members for example needing at least 3 women that of course would lead to much more than parity) and decided that the quota rule would apply to the national council as a whole, which leads to the problem I have identified.]

I am unable to come to the conference, but think it vital to resolve this issue tomorrow – although this conference is not intended to discuss the constitution, and very late to propose emergency motions (sorry that I only thought of putting one forward today), I think that an emergency motion to scrap the women’s quota rule is the only democratic way to go forward.

Personally, I do think that we should trust our members not to be sexist and to vote according to merit (just because certain other parties have many sexist members that doesn’t mean we have) – and also that trying to link those who opposed quotas to the far right (which may have swayed the vote) in the founding conference was outrageous.

The second email I sent out (after the results including voting breakdown using the single transferable vote system of proportional representation) was as follows:

Whether I persuaded those in charge of conducting the elections at the last minute from having the women’s quotas (of at least 50%) for the national council as a whole – to having it for each region and the 15 directly elected section separately – is something I do not know. Maybe someone can clarify?

However, I’m much more relaxed about what has happened now that the results and voting breakdown have been published on the LU website. See http://leftunity.org/internal-elections-results/ for the results and http://leftunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/results-breakdown.html for the breakdown.

What I am particularly pleased about is the fact that the results for the directly elected section are 9 women and 6 men – despite the likely result according to proportions of men and women standing being 6 women and 9 men. This suggests that women are often nicer people who socialists want to vote for – so having women in prominent positions is a good thing (so on one hand the quotas help make LU a party that is likely to make good decisions and on the other hand quotas aren’t actually necessary since more women were elected anyway). To back up my argument, virtually every dictator or serial killer in history has been a man.

However, it is unfortunate that there are odd numbers in four regions and for the directly elected section. Thus there is a built-in guarantee of more women than men on the national council. It’s far from catastrophic (the alternative may have been to only allow women to stand for all vacant seats!) and it may actually be a good thing, but it’s not in the spirit of gender equality.

Guy Harper replied to the same set of emails:

I’m not sure that this is the best forum for discussion of this issue. It was agreed overwhelmingly at the founding conference that all elected positions in LU would be 50% women. We’ve ensured gender representation in the elections using positive discrimination where necessary (in fact it only had to applied to 2 of the regional elections). But if you want to dig up the debate I think you ought to do so through the usual channels, i.e. submit a motion to conference to change the constitution (although I suspect it would be overwhelmingly defeated again considering feminism is one of the central pillars of LU).

Just to redress the balance in terms of the criticisms of positive gender discrimination we’ve seen via email in the past couple of days, I personally think the 50% rule we’ve adopted is an absolute necessity if we are to address the societal oppression of women that will replicate itself within the party unless such steps are taken. I am astonished every time I hear a self-proclaimed socialist protest positive discrimination – it is a position that ignores the concept of privilege and to my mind it is a shortsighted contradiction of the socialist principle of equality for all.

If anyone wants to talk about this more please leave Tower Hamlets off the list, I’m not interested in rehashing an argument that was put to bed decades ago.

More importantly – can I say well done to everyone for another very successful conference – special mention has to go to the long-suffering SOC who did a great job in inevitably challenging circumstances. The most striking thing for me was going to a conference at which everything was up for grabs, and a membership that appears to have genuine ownership over its organisation – as a result we now have some really fantastic policies that will be the foundation for our growth and success. Speaking as a branch organiser I know how much effort has gone into this particular aspect of creating a living, breathing and really politically developed organisation (not to mention the room hire costs) and this is a layer of people that is often gone unmentioned. So everybody please take a few days to feel self satisfied/smug and make sure you set up your branch bank accounts so that your jobs can be made a little bit easier.

Really looking forward to the next few months

I sent off my third email to the same email addresses as with my first two emails (as a reply to Guy):

I was reluctant to post again on this issue so widely, especially since the issue has been resolved quite well, but I should have the right to reply.

Guy Harper also emailed me personally, shortly after his criticism that he previously made [in email directly above]:

“Having re-read your email I think I reacted too stridently against what I now realise wasn’t in fact an argument against the positive discrimination question. It’s something I feel strongly about and regularly end up revisiting without really wanting to, so please consider the accusatory bits of my email retracted – sorry that the tone of my email was unnecessarily harsh. It’s been a long weekend!”

I don’t agree with Guy that you cannot be a socialist, or by others that you must be sexist, if you don’t agree with women’s quotas. Most parties/organisations to the left of Labour don’t have quotas and (whereas many of us have valid criticisms of the SWP), it’d be ridiculous to argue that all such organisations are led by people who aren’t genuine socialists or are sexist.

I also cannot understand Guy’s point about the issue of women’s quotas being “put to bed decades ago”. It is true that Labour has had all-women shortlists for many years, but this has been widely criticised as a way of parachuting loyalists (in the sense of loyal to the leadership rather than anything to do with Ireland) into safe Labour seats, jeopardising the chances of more radical candidates. A higher proportion of “Blair’s babes” than other Labour MPs voted for the war on Iraq. If this policy was so positive for the left, how come only 13 Labour MPs voted against the welfare cap last week?

[NB: Labour Party members are obviously much more likely to be sexist than members of LU, so I’m criticising the implementation of positive discrimination rather than the concept, as well as Guy’s suggestion that the issue is not particularly controversial.]

I resorted to the step of emailing branch and national organisers, that I have previously done for other issues, because I thought we were in serious danger of becoming a laughing stock, with a big exodus of members, due to a farcical situation arising out of electoral arithmetic with the reopening of nominations in several regions. It is all very well for Guy to suggest putting forward a motion to a conference – I didn’t think of doing so until far too late. To recap (for those who didn’t fully get my point, probably including Guy), having a policy of at least 50% women for the national council but not having such a rule for each region or the directly elected section (which was my recollection of what was decided at the last TNC), could have meant stipulating that every single vacant seat has to be filled by a woman (or all but two according to my arithmetic and then the question arises as to how to pick which regions men can stand in).

I should express a personal interest in the process (maybe I should have done earlier but I’m far more concerned with ensuring LU proceeds in a healthy direction) – I have been considering for a while standing for the national council, but missed the deadlines both for the directly elected section and for the North West. I noticed there were only 2 candidates (1 male, 1 female) for the North West’s 5 seats and was fully prepared to stand on the basis that I had to be the only man elected (although as it happens, Stephen Hall from Wigan was directly elected so I only need to be in the top 2). I would actually prefer to be elected on the basis of my politics and history of struggle than by default (only beating Reopen Nominations). However, I would have got rather irate, to say the least, if all 4 North West vacancies had to be filled by women and I was therefore barred from standing – wouldn’t you?

I’m not saying I would have resigned. In fact, a split in LU would have been likely in my opinion and it would have been better to stay in LU to argue my case on a range of issues until the split actually occurred. I’m so pleased that has been averted!

PS Can I echo Guy’s comments in thanking those (apart from myself – I was on the Conference Arrangements Committee but couldn’t make conference) who clearly made it a success. The feedback I’ve seen is far more positive than after the founding conference…

I saw today that I got criticised on Twitter by Jade Hope for paraphrasing me as saying “Just because the odd feminist made a particular argument which swayed the vote at a particular conference” (or perhaps quoting someone else based on a point I made above). I was specifically referring to a speech described on the Another Angry Voice blog as “one of the most offensive political speeches I’ve ever heard in my life. A speech in which anyone that disagreed with discrimination against men was derided as ‘no different from the Tories’ and ‘far-right’, baselessly accused of ‘ignoring rape’ and explicitly accused of thought-crime: ‘how dare you think …’.” A speech by former Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) member Sarah McDonald, who argued that women’s quotas hadn’t worked in the SSP, was very good in my opinion (at the time, I’m sitting on the fence rather now for reasons expressed above) – and it’s obviously preferable for arguments against women’s quotas to be made by women but I can’t help having different anatomy – but she had already identified herself as being in the Communist Platform, which probably didn’t go in her favour!

Jade said that she would leave LU if the women’s quota rule was overturned; I certainly don’t want that to happen but me highlighting the women’s quota rule by sending out my email caused a man in Scotland to resign which I didn’t want to happen either (if he’d stayed in LU and checked the voting breakdown page, he’d have found out anyway). What’s more important to me than whether we have women’s quotas or not is whether we have the right to change the constitution, to remove or reinstall them. I was very pleased that the proposal to require two-thirds of the vote to change the constitution was defeated, in favour of 50%+1, at the founding conference.

Jade has written an article, that I read before writing my first email above, on the LU website called Why we need quotas. I’m submitting a link to this blog entry with a brief comment on that page.

One thought on “Women’s quotas in #LeftUnity: Nearly a catastrophe for this promising new party!?

  1. I said in the first email quoted above: “The most likely outcome of Left Unity’s internal elections that will be announced tomorrow are 19 women and 30 men, with 16 vacant seats left to be filled.” This was the basis of my argument that it would leave the situation whereby only 2 more men could be elected in total from the 16 vacant seats across all the regions, if a decision made at the March TNC (of having the women’s quotas for the national council as a whole) was adhered to. Although it leaves a situation whereby there are considerably more than 50% women, the decision to implement quotas for each region and the 15 directly elected section separately is a far better outcome.

    Having watched videos of the start of the conference on the LU website (leftunity.org), no reference was made to any controversy around women’s quotas, or who decided to ignore the consensual agreement at that TNC. I still don’t know whether I averted a potentially disastrous outcome with my first email, causing voting to be rerun, or whether that decision had already been made due to common sense.

    I omitted details of my calculations regarding likely composition of the national council, that I sent out at the end of my first email, above. Some may like to read them so I include the full details taken from that email below:

    [The following analysis assumes “Re-open nominations” isn’t successful for any of the seats.]

    There are 5 women and 5/6 men (depending on whether only one of the two trade union officers job sharing attends each national council meeting), none of whom are opposed

    There are 17 female candidates and 27 male candidates for 15 directly elected seats on the national council – if elected proportionally, that would yield 6 women and 9 men.

    Eastern – 1 man (1 vacant seat) for 2 seats
    East Midlands – 2 women, 3 men for 2 seats – if proportional 1 woman, 1 man
    London – 2 women, 6 men (2 vacant seats) for 10 seats
    North East – 2 vacant seats
    North West – 1 woman, 1 man (3 vacant seats) for 5 seats
    Scotland – 2 vacant seats
    South East – 1 women, 3 men (2 vacant seats) for 6 seats
    South West – 3 vacant seats
    Wales – 1 woman, 1 man for 2 seats
    West Midlands – 1 woman, 2 men for 3 seats
    Yorkshire & Humber – 1 woman, 1 man (1 vacant seat) for 3 seats

    If proportional, the regional seats yield 8 women, 16 men (and can only vary to 7 women & 17 men or 9 women & 15 men in only contested region – East Midlands)

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