I winced slightly when I saw this reaction from Mike Small to the anger in some quarters over the SNP's plans to introduce all-women shortlists, and 'zipping' on the regional lists -
"I for one am getting bored by mid-spectrum male monotone bloggers who can only speak in the language of anger. The lack of self-reflection, the complete absence of solidarity or connectivity with a wider movement and the inability to see beyond the narrowest political gauge is a depressing spectacle...
People seem angry because they don’t perceive this as a problem. But it is...
And, of course, shortlists on their own are only really a partial remedial measure, they do nothing to challenge the wider cultures of sexism and misogyny. They do nothing to challenge the fundamentals of male power. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be tried."
I didn't wince because I was in any sense one of the bloggers that Mike was talking about. As it happens, I feel quite ambivalent on the subject of all-women shortlists, and I've certainly never felt angry about the idea. I do look around me and see a society that is riven by gender-based discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion, and I do see that as a serious problem that must be addressed. But, on the other hand, I'm not wedded to a dogma that insists I can only acknowledge the marginalisation of women, and never the marginalisation of men when it occurs. It seems utterly fatuous to talk in unqualified terms about "male power" when you consider, for example, the way that male victims of domestic violence see their experiences trivialised or completely denied.
Nor do I think that male domination of political office is some sort of "racket" that automatically works in favour of all men, in all circumstances. There's a peculiar brand of macho pseudo-feminism among some male politicians that can lead to "manning up" being demanded of men where "understanding" would be the watchword in identical circumstances involving women. (The American Vice-President Joe Biden is sometimes cited as an example of this phenomenon.)
I've mentioned before on this blog my incredulity at reading a bizarre quote in a Scotsman article a few years back that referred to the growing imbalance in favour of women in the field of medicine. It was suggested that, instead of seeing this as a problem to be solved, we should simply embrace the feminisation of the medical profession and the advantages it brings to patients. Can you imagine the reaction if anyone suggested that we should stop trying to get more women into parliament, and instead embrace the wonderful masculinity of politics?
In spite of all these flagrant double-standards, I do think parliamentary representation is a special case, and is the one and only sphere where positive discrimination by gender may deserve a fair hearing. Members of parliament aren't simply professionals providing a service in return for a salary - they presume to take the place of the whole populace, and legislate on behalf of every single person. If we don't see ourselves reflected back in them, there's an obvious deficiency, and talent/competence (even where it exists) does not make up for that.
So my views on all-women shortlists have oscillated over the years. I remember being quite sympathetic to Labour's initial experiment, before gradually changing my mind and feeling that any form of discrimination was so repugnant that it couldn't be justified, no matter how noble the objective. I've now gone back a little bit in the opposite direction, and genuinely don't have a clear opinion anymore.
But I don't feel angry about it, and for anyone who does, just consider this - whatever the rights and wrongs of the SNP's plans, there may be a hard-headed tactical advantage to be gained from having more female candidates, no matter how that comes about. And it's not simply that the cause of independence faces a particular problem among women voters. I've also seen academic studies suggesting that female politicians gain a small but significant number of bonus votes simply by virtue of their gender, after all other factors are controlled for. That may be somewhat irrational, but is any political party going to turn up its nose at the prospect of extra votes?