(…Or how I stopped worrying and learnt to acknowledge my privilege)
As a Lib Dem, I was vociferously against AWS and tokenism in general, so much so that I joined with others to oppose it at Conference at every opportunity. Suffice to say that I no longer agree with a word I said back then and I’ll try to explain why.
First and foremost, this debate brings out the worst in people – me included. However you push it, it relates to the exclusion or preference of individuals based on what, from the outset, you would consider irrelevant attributes and that gets people’s backs up. From my fluffy liberal and idealist mindset, I was opposed to discrimination in all its forms back then – why should you fix discrimination in one direction with discrimination in another direction? Surely if discrimination is wrong, it’s always wrong?
The simplicity of that argument works because it wins people over – you can take the moral highground about being anti-discrimination and indirectly accuse those who support all-women shortlists and the like of being as bad as those who oppose women in politics. I cringe internally when I remind myself of how often I used that argument and, with the benefit of hindsight, I am doing my utmost to describe to the sort of person who was like me 5 years ago why I now consider myself to have been wrong.
The truth is that you enjoy natural preference or obstacles depending on whether you identify as a man or a woman. It was first communicated to me with the term “male privilege”. I heavily objected to that term, publicly on the basis that basic rights shouldn’t be considered “privilege”, but also that as a gay man, I felt a vast amount of said privilege would be cancelled out by being in another minority group that finds it difficult being elected. The truth there of course is that it’s very easy to hide that attribute in an election and it’s rare that you need to disclose it amongst the pothole photos. Internally, I honestly was just hurt by the suggestion that my testicles were helping me through life.
As a white male, despite being gay, I will be immensely more likely to be employed, to get a good salary, to be appointed to executive boards, to be elected to Parliament and to become Prime Minister. In the very unlikely case I am raped, nobody will ask me what I was wearing at the time. In exploring sexual freedom, I’ll never be called a whore, a slut, a hussy, or a ho (and if I am, it’ll be because there aren’t as many words in the English language that denigrate a man for fucking lots of people). Whatever word you want to give it, by the merit of being born a male you will have societal boosts throughout life in almost every area. I call it privilege and, despite the anger I felt when first being told to “check it”, I now accept it.
It’s all well and good to say that the solution to this is not to prevent men from getting somewhere and instead to try and help women, but nobody seems to have come up with a solution that works (and, I’ll be entirely honest, those of us who used to spout that argument spent a lot more time opposing positive discrimination than we did discrimination against women). From the perspective of the Lib Dems, they struggle holding seats in general because their MPs win on the personal vote. AWS won’t be a magic bullet, but reserving the 8 seats currently held by MPs for women when said MPs stand down seems like a very sensible starting point.
You can be pro-equality as much as you like, but insisting that the world should instead elect by merit (which it never has and never will – that’s why it’s called democracy and not meritocracy), that local parties select by merit (they don’t) and saying that we should, as I worded it in that speech, “concentrate on the cause and not the symptoms” means you are content in the meantime for gender inequality to be OK. By all means, work on the cause, but ignoring the symptoms leaves women behind. I would also like to tackle a more repugnant point I used to make (and others still do) – that AWS necessarily means that women who are incapable of being MPs will suddenly be hoisted into Parliament. Considering how difficult it is to get selected in the first place in a target seat, be assured that women who got there will be damn good MPs; and if you want to play the card about rubbish MPs getting elected, I have a whole deck of white male MPs in the Commons now who sure as hell didn’t get there by merit.
AWS corrects an injustice, it doesn’t create one. I hope the Lib Dems don’t make the mistake I did five years ago and I’d urge any member unsure on the matter to vote for all-women shortlists at the upcoming Conference.