The Seats of the Stoa, Two

Some generally sensible people seem pleased that Peter Law won in Blaenau Gwent, an “independent socialist” beating a candidate who’d been “parachuted in”, etc., all of which makes him sound a much more attractive figure than he seems to me to be. Law’s candidacy stems not from any particular objection to the particular candidate (Maggie Jones) but to the fact that the Labour Party insisted that Blaenau Gwent select from an all-woman shortlist. If you’re against such shortlists, then cheer for Law, by all means. But bear in mind the background.

Between 1918, when some women were given the vote, and 1997, only four women sat for Welsh seats in Parliament. Megan Lloyd George, Eirene White, Dorothy Rees and, much later, Ann Clwyd.

Three more were elected in the Labour landslide in 1997, the first election in which all-women shortlists were in operation: Julie Morgan, Betty Williams and Jackie Lawrence. With Ann Clwyd being re-elected, that raised the total of women among the Welsh parliamentary delegation to four, or 10% of the total. And these four MPs were all re-elected in 2001.

Another round of all-women shortlists were imposed for 2005, and the beneficiaries included Sian James (elected in Swansea East, replacing Donald Anderson), Jessica Morden (Newport East, Alan Howarth) and Nia Griffith (Llanelli, Denzil Davies). There was an open selection in Bridgend (replacing Win Griffiths), won by Madeleine Moon, and with Jackie Lawrence being defeated in Preseli Pembrokeshire, and the Lib Dem Jenny Willott winning in Cardiff Central, the number of women MPs in Wales is now eight out of forty, an all-time high, but still a scandalously low 20% (comparable, however, to the also scandalously low UK average, with 136 women MPs, or 21% of the total).

The all-woman shortlist, in short, has been a crucial weapon in the fight to secure more women MPs representing Welsh seats.

The all-woman shortlist was imposed on Blaenau Gwent in line with democratically agreed party policy. No exception was made — properly — on the grounds that it’s a famous old Welsh seat represented by Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan; no exception was made — again, quite properly — for the fact that local men might have been hoping to inherit the seat from retiring MP Llew Smith.

The voters of Blaenau Gwent can, of course, vote for whomever they want. Labour has no claim to return an MP for BG automatically. But shame on the local party members and activists who supported Peter Law, breaking with sensible, effective, progressive party policy, in order to side with the reactionary elements in the Welsh Labour Party and in Welsh politics more generally, the kind of elements which made women-only shortlists a necessary tool in the first place.

It was a great achievement in 2003, when the National Assembly for Wales became the first national parliament to have gender parity among Members, with the election of 30 men and 30 women. It’d be a very great shame if Welsh politics settled down such that the women went to Cardiff and the men to Westminster.

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