Political apprenticeships need to be open to all
During the debate on parliament’s woeful lack of diversity at this year’s Progress conference we were asked to consider a five-year selection bar for ‘professional politicos’. If the suggestion is that political jobs detach people from the struggles of ‘real life’, that is an excellent argument for term-limiting MPs, not one for selection rules that would advantage a City trader over a union organiser. Nor is there much evidence that having a national political job means nobody else stands a chance. Selection victors since 2010 include many such people who were unsuccessful in selections before 2010.
The real advantage that the nationally connected have is not the support they get in individual selections but the resilience to keep going across selections. Invaluable advice about where it went wrong is currently mostly open to people who have held a researcher, special adviser or union position, but access to those ‘political apprenticeships’ is far from equal. Of the 300 or so Labour advisers between 1997 and 2010, just over 100 were women and only a handful were BME.
That does not strike me as systematic discrimination, any more than the fact that, since 2010, only one woman has won a non-all women shortlist contest reveals deep misogyny at Labour’s grassroots. Instead, power norms replicate themselves: academic evidence suggests that people perceive as more authoritative those most like the people who already hold leadership positions, hence a bias towards white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class men. The way around that is to encourage those who hold power to redistribute it to those least like them in three ways.
First, by supporting the infrastructure like Labour Women’s Network that helps people without a political apprenticeship to catch up. Second, in the echo chamber that is social media, helping new people make their name by being conscious of the (lack of) diversity of the voices we tend to amplify. And third, by being sponsors, giving away invites to people from under-represented groups, introducing them to our networks and offering them space on platforms.
Passions about diversity rightly run high, but if we all put as much time into delivering these solutions as we do into complaining about the problem, it would be fixed by now.
Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy
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