Conservative leader David Cameron has announced new measures to bolster his existing plans to get more female MPs into the party. He has already been pushing pro-female measures for some time, but the new rules go even further than before. The main change is that a minimum of two out of the final four candidates shortlisted for selection (from whom the local party executive will choose the constituency’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) must be women.

Whilst I generally support the principle of encouraging people from underrepresented groups to get involved in politics, I think Cameron is using the wrong methods to achieve this. First of all, his policy is basically one of positive discrimination, and is the same as that used by my local students’ union to ensure that at least half the delegates to the NUS(National Union of Students) conference are women. Note that this restriction does not work both ways, as under these rules you could have a selection of candidates who were all female, but not a selection consisting entirely of male candidates. I’m not a fan of quotas in general, but if you’re going to insist on imposing them then at least make the figures fair to both sides. A better way to ensure a more even gender distribution would be to have a rule stating that one of the candidates must be female, another must be male, and the gender of the remainding two candidates is not an issue. This would ensure that both sexes would be represented by at least one candidate, whilst at the same time eliminating the possibility of the list comprising of candidates from one gender only.

One consequence that I fear may come about as a result of the application of this rule is the selection of candidates based purely on their gender. This could be manifested in two ways. Firstly, there is the possibility of women being put up as so-called “paper candidates”, where they are not expected to win but are on the ballot paper just to make up the numbers and keep Mr Cameron happy. The other possibility is where there is a choice between a male and a female candidate, and the woman is chosen because of her gender rather than her ability to do the job (I’m not implying that the female candidate wouldn’t be a better choice for other reasons, but the decision should be made on the basis of ability, not gender).

The other problem with this method of selection is that, in my opinion at least, it comes across as being somewhat patronising and degrading to female candidates. I don’t think any woman would like to be told or made to feel that she had been selected just because she was female, any more than a male candidate would want to find out that he had been turned down because there weren’t enough women on the shortlist.

In fact this whole debate, as is often the case in British politics, sounds suspiciously like an episode of the popular sitcom, Yes (Prime) Minister. The episode in question, ‘Equal Opportunities’, begins with Jim Hacker’s (the Minister for Administrative Affairs) plan to introduce more women into the top jobs in the civil service. As is usually the case, his plan is defeated by Sir Humphrey Appleby, and the final moments of the episode show him being admonished by one of the women he tries to promote, who accuses him of being patronising and treating her merely as part of a quota. Perhaps something similar could happen to David Cameron in the coming months?

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