The loaded gun of legislation

Equality is not like enlightenment: it does not come from within. For the Labour activist, perhaps the most prominent example is the success of all-women shortlists to select our parliamentary candidates. Between 1923, when the first Labour woman member of parliament was elected, and 1996, 94 Labour women were elected. Since the introduction of AWS in 1997, the equivalent figure is 127.

Despite this, it remains popular to argue (within our own party, not just without) that natural progress will bridge the gender gap. No feminist would wish it weren’t so; second to ours already being a gender-equal society, I would rather we were able to recognise and, without compulsion, collectively change our behaviour to address the imbalance. Yet in the 2001 general election, when use of AWS stopped, just three new Labour women were elected to parliament.

So my ears pricked up at Progress annual conference when Chuka Umunna was asked for his position on women’s representation on company boards. ‘I would rather not legislate or regulate to bring about the change that we want to see,’ Umunna stated. ‘But I think that we’ve got to be clear with the business community that unless we see requisite progress we won’t take that off the table.’

This is a good start: the effect of the Davies review, published in 2011, shows that the prospect alone of legislating for a quota is a significant driver of change. Up from 12.5 per cent in 2011, 20.7 per cent of FTSE 100 board members are now women. However, history has revealed that progress towards parity of representation stalls (or even falls back) in the absence of constant drivers for equality.

To little great surprise, the Tories are opposed to introducing a quota for women on boards. The Labour party has a proud record of being at the forefront of the fight for gender equality, and all our policies should live up to this. At the very least, our manifesto ought to include a date by which women’s representation on company boards must achieve 40 per cent, at which point, if it was not achieved, we would legislate for a quota. At best, we should pledge to introduce quotas outright.

If the threat of legislation were a loaded gun, it would be helpful for Labour to set out the circumstances in which it might fire it.

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Felicity Slater is membership and stakeholders officer at Progress. She tweets @FelicitySlater

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Photo: Eric Dan

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