Just before I left the Green Party at the start of this week, yet another internal debate was beginning about how to redress the gender imbalance at the top of the party. This is an issue for all political parties. Outside matriarchal societies, it is an issue for everyone. Here in the UK, The Left has now spent many decades grappling with the problem. Various solutions have been proposed, usually including variations on the theme of so-called positive discrimination. All of them have failed.
I was proud to promote the Green Party for a decade because of its impressive record on getting women into politics. Its first party leader was a woman. She also became its first MP. Many of its brightest stars who went on to become councillors were women too. However, the fact remains that in Brighton & Hove Green Party, the flagship of the national party, with 8% of the total membership on its books, the gender imbalance remains chronically predisposed towards men in its controlling spheres. Of their 22 councillors, only 8 are women. The Green Party has a system for job sharing on its internal posts. Consequently, only one third of a person on its local executive committee is a women (she shares her post with two men, although since she has now moved away from Brighton she is likely to give that post up now anyway).
Shortly after I joined the Green Party, I became its local treasurer. At that time, the local party was an independent organisation affiliated to the national party, which was itself nothing more than a federation of local parties. During the 2005 general election I found myself wondering why a piss head with figures, such as myself, could become a treasurer in such a significant political force when there were so many better candidates. Of course, it was good that a rising party could encourage new members but it seemed to me that there were plenty of better potential candidates for the post and that many of them were women. The problem seemed to be that they did not step forward.
After I stepped down from the treasury post, I was repeatedly asked to consider standing for various posts inside the Green Party and to put myself forward as a candidate. When pressed I would just say that I didn’t think we needed any more, “white, male, middle class ex-barristers entering politics.” Although this remark often raised a knowing smile, more often than not I would be told that ‘us Greens’ needed people like me to combat people like me in other parties. Prominent women in the party said that I was suggesting that I was somehow better than them, even though I had said nothing of the sort. Other notable women activists said they were opposed to anyone discriminating against themselves on the basis of their gender. The debates about whether I should stand went on and on, around pub tables, over the phone, in person, in private, in public, until I made it completely explicit that I would not, under any circumstances, stand for office until the gender imbalance was fundamentally redressed.
In the last minute preparations to fight the 2007 local elections, the Brighton & Hove Green Party nearly tore itself in half in an argument about how best to maximise its election success. Essentially, the row was about whether the candidates in particular wards should be promoted according to a pre-ordained prioritisation, set by the party. The bust up, which is now considered by all to be water under the bridge, was particularly intense in the Preston Park ward, where the three candidates, who had been campaigning hard, all resigned as candidates at the last minute because of the decisions taken to prioritise them (and because of the way in which that decision was taken and communicated by the usual suspects for causing bad feeling). However, this argument was fought in other wards too. In Queens Park ward, the powers that be in the Green Party decided that prioritisation was required too. Consequently, Ben Duncan was placed last in the party’s wish list of councillors to be. He was aggrieved by this decision and asked why he had been placed bottom of the priority list. He was informed by Sue Paskins, then a councillor for St Peter’s and North Laine ward and a member of the local party’s executive committee that it had been decided to downgrade his importance because he was a single father and thus would be unlikely to spare the amount of time appropriate to being a good councillor. Ever since then, Ben has complained loudly to anyone who will listen, that he never got an answer to his question, “Would you have dared say that to a single mum?“
The answer to that question was and is, of course, a very loud ‘no’. No-one could accuse Sue Paskins of being sexist. She is as Green as it is possible to be. No doubt she was just conveying the cards played by the executive committee, albeit clumsily on that occasion.
This problem is not restricted to the Green Party. The other parties are worse. Despite being much longer living than the Greens, the other parties with substantial electoral success have much worse records at promoting women, notwithstanding the example of Margaret Thatcher.
Doubtless this is heavily influenced by pictures of tits and fanny shots whenever you step into your local newsagent, by the endless commentary on how a woman dresses or whether her skin looks young or not et cetera and by everything else our culture teaches young girls from the earliest age. Wear pink! Be pretty! Be a good Mother! Be this impossible shape! Be five people at once! The arguments are so well rehearsed, that they are trite. We decry this constantly, yet we also accept this world, as if there is nothing we can do about it. Men step forward for powerful positions and women stay in their chairs.
There is one method to redress the imbalance which has not been tried. It has the advantage of being very simple and straightforward to put into practice. No party need change its constitutional or policy arrangements to make it happen. No-one need feel discriminated against. It rests on the certain knowledge that no matter what we do to introduce structures to overcome the problem, we are unable to overcome the perceptions women inevitably form about their place in society.
The solution is for men to refuse to step forward. If, say at the next Green Party candidate selection contest, not a single man stepped forward to ask to be councillors, the women would. Few join a political party for purely social reasons (although, with all those fit, fun, super healthy vegans, the Greens are stuffed with beautiful people and it is hardly surprising if some do). They join because they wanted to change the world, to change their town, to change our lives. The time has come for the men in the party to accept that it is no longer acceptable for them to sit on working groups to improve women’s chances, that without gender equality the Green movement is largely meaningless and that the only way of forcing this change is to force it. With no male candidates at all, through personal choice, women will step up to the mark, to fill the void created by the new political discipline.
This methodology can be adopted by members of all parties, if they wish to take the issue of discrimination seriously. When we get to the point where the proportions of political representation across all spheres has been equalised for a decent length of time, say 25 years, then perhaps we could abandon this new rule of engagement. If you are being asked to vote in a political contest, do not vote for male candidates until the battle for gender equality has been won. If you are considering standing for office (of any kind), look into your pants and if you see testicles, keep looking at them and not to your own ambition.
To those of us men who find my proposal too radical, I’d ask them to listen to a story from a Sri Lankan friend of mine. Sri Lanka is a matriarchal society. The first female head of state in the modern world was Sri Lankan. My pal says, “I don’t get why men have to deal with so much hassle over here. In Sri Lanka, it is easy. The men sit around drinking tea whilst the women argue and argue about what to do and when they make their decisions, they just tell the men to get on with it. It is a simple system, which leaves the men with much more time to do manly stuff and less time to fall out with one another.” Obviously, that was a romanticised version of the truth but come on, men, what’s the big deal here? We’ve had power for centuries. How about we just walk away from it for a quarter of one? We’ll end up with a more civilised society, a better lifestyle and the respect of our sisters.