Saturday, 8 August 2009

Quotas aren’t the answer to making politics more representative.

Almost one week on from the event and Labour Party Deputy Leader Harriet Harman’s claim that one of the two top jobs in the party should always be held by a woman still seems like an instance of a politician committing the cardinal sin of her trade, speaking without thinking first.

The logic behind the claim, as she explained to the Sunday Times that men ‘cannot be trusted to run things on their own’, seems, by turns patronising, poorly thought through and rather anachronistic. As for her assertion on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Britain needs a ‘team of women and men ministers’ on hand to help us through the current economic crisis takes stating the obvious to absurd lengths.

That isn’t, of course to say that Ms Harman doesn’t have a valid point, even if she did choose to express it in the terms of a 1970’s student activist rather than a seasoned professional politician. Parliament is indeed overloaded with mediocre middle aged white men, having more women MP’s, along with having more members from ethnic minorities and a generally wider mix of social backgrounds represented in the commons chamber would do much to revitalise a moribund institution.

The all important question is just how such a change should be brought about.

Not, I would suggest, by going down the route of imposing quotas for selecting prospective candidates from under represented groups for which many senior Labour figures seem to have such a misplaced enthusiasm for two very good reasons. First of all the suggestion they might have achieved their position by a process of positive discrimination saddles capable candidates with baggage they have no need to carry and second it can create a situation where fulfilling the quota starts to take precedence over selecting the right candidate for a particular seat or position, providing mediocre but ambitious time servers to access positions of power for which they are not at all suited.

If Harriet Harman or anyone else is truly keen to make politics more representative they must look beyond taking such a simplistic approach and address the way politics operates in this country.

The current system under which back bench MP’s are little more than crowd players in an ongoing drama of ministerial egotism and local government, traditionally a training ground for prospective parliamentarians, is treated as an irritating irrelevance does little to inspire talented people, whatever their gender, race or social background, to enter the political fray. To create a truly representative parliament MP’s must again feel empowered to hold the government of the day to account and local politicians must be able to bring real change and improvement to their communities.

Until that happens it might be a good idea to impose just one quota on senior politicians of all parties, one that would require them to think first and speak second.

Ban airbrushed pictures from magazines, say the Lib Dems.

The Liberal Democrats have also spent much of this week debating women’s issues and earlier this week, in a policy document overseen by Jo Swinson MP they called for air brushed pictures to be banned from magazines and advertisements, particularly where they might have a detrimental influence on young women.

Speaking to politics’ earlier this week Ms Swinson said ‘today’s unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure than they were even ten years ago’, she went on to say ‘airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable images that no one can live up to in real life.’

It would be hard to argue against either point, the advertising industry does portray unattainable images, and not just to women either, because they create insecurity and insecurity is the most powerful sales tool of them all.

Sadly, as is so often the case with the Liberal Democrats, all the high minded effort put into addressing an important social issue has been overshadowed by the antics of one man; the eternally ludicrous Lembit Opik.

This week Mr Opik was pictured in the press with his latest paramour, Kate Green, a former underwear model who now ‘fronts’ the ‘say no to size zero’ campaign aimed. If you thought his antics didn’t overshadow the worthy statement made on the same issue by his party then you’re really going to be shocked when you hear what bears get up to in the woods.

Biggs has done his time- let him die in peace.

Ronnie Biggs, the most notorious of the great train robbers has been released from prison on compassionate grounds so that he can spend his last days with his family.

It’s an outrage, was the reaction of much of the tabloid press, after thirty years spent thumbing his nose at Britain from various exotic locations he deserved to die in prison; if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime, they chorused.

As ever the knee jerk reaction is both wrong and counter productive. Biggs was no hero and, so long as he had his health, deserved to be incarcerated for his part in a brutal crime. However, given that he has been turned into a broken husk by a series of strokes and may not live more than a few more weeks, keeping him in prison would be a denial of the one thing that truly separates honest people from criminals, the ability to show compassion to someone our basest instincts tell us is undeserving of it.

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