Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Defining merit

Interesting report published this week by the IWA on the effect that women have had on the development of the National Assembly, and the likely changes in the representation of women in the next Assembly. Both Labour and Plaid took particular measures to try and ensure fair representation for women, and those measures are what led to such a good gender balance in the Assembly.

The Tories did nothing to achieve such balance -- and it shows in the overwhelming number of males in their group. The Lib Dems say that they took no special measures but didn't need to, because a process of selection purely on merit gave them an equal balance anyway. It seems to me that they are deluding themselves rather; their 'balance' may well be largely the result of electoral failure. They weren't really close enough to winning any other seats to assess how the balance might have changed had they done so, but I suspect that the apparent balance may be more sensitive to electoral fortune than they realise.

And ultimately that's the sort of analysis which led me to a change of view on the system which Plaid has used to date. In simplistic terms, a system of using the top place on the regional lists to try and achieve balance -- instead of dealing with the question of constituency selections -- works only at a particular level of electoral success. Winning more seats leads to a greater male preponderance. As just one obvious (and very close to home) example demonstrates: had I won 251 extra votes, the Plaid team would have been 9:6 instead of 8:7. And had we won, say Clwyd West, it would have been 10:5. From near equality to gross inequality for less than 2,000 extra votes; and all without changing the total number of seats won.

Recognising the need to address constituency selections is, of course, not the same thing as actually doing so. The biggest advantage of the approach adopted by Labour (twinning) was precisely that it did address that issue. But it was an approach imposed from the top; a democratic party like Plaid was simply unable to do that.

The main argument against having a mechanism for achieving something like a numerical balance is the idea that selection should be based entirely on 'merit'. If women have the same level of merit as men, then they will get selected; if they don't then there's nothing wrong with having an unbalanced slate. It merely reflects the spread of merit within the party.

At its simplest, it is an argument which is difficult to refute; who can seriously argue that we should deliberately field a team which is other than the strongest available? But it is a seriously flawed argument, since it is based on the fundamental, and usually unstated, assumptions:

a). that 'merit' is a defined and clear criterion;
b). that 'merit' has been defined in a gender neutral way;
c). that the selection processes employed by parties do actually assess 'merit'; and
d). that they make that assessment in a gender neutral fashion.

If all four of these assumptions were provably valid, then I for one would be entirely happy to support a selection process based solely on merit. But, actually, I think all four are probably invalid, and parties actually operate selection processes which indirectly favour men, and use assessment criteria under which men are more likely to succeed than women.

It's not easy to correct this. In fact it is so difficult that we have largely avoided dealing with it to date. I'd go so far as to argue that, by going for some sort of artificial process to try and achieve numerical balance, what we have done (and Labour too, in my view) is to address the symptom rather than the disease.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind -- most over-the-counter flu treatments do exactly the same thing, and as long as the objective (i.e. the alleviation of the symptoms) is achieved, we accept that approach.

However, short-term alleviation of symptoms, even when it works, doesn't mean that we should stop working towards identifying a cure. The same should be true of the historical under-representation of women as well. Plaid are working on that -- using external support to try and define what 'merit' is, and how we can more accurately assess it through gender neutral processes. I honestly don't know at this stage whether the approach will work; but I think we're entirely right to try it.


Peter Black said...

So Plaid are adopting the same approach as the Welsh Lib Dems. Interesting that you criticise our approach then when you do not even have a female MP. All structures are subject to electoral fortune.

John Dixon said...


I didn't think I was that critical of your approach; it was more a question of suggesting that the result (admittedly very good in terms of gender balance) of the approach may owe more to luck than judgement, and that that may have engendered an unjustified degree of complacency.

Of course all structures are subject to electoral fortune; but equally all parties know which seats they are most likely to win, and if they have a process which works in a truly objective fashion, then the outcome ought to be more immune to electoral fortune than it appears to be in practice. Electoral fortune is a particular issue for the Assembly, where there is an element of 'swings and roundabouts' between constituency and regional seats - the outcome of any mechanism targeted at only one type of seat (which is what Plaid had) is particularly subject to a small change in the total number of votes.

If you believe that the Lib Dems genuinely have a process which overcomes all the four assumptions which I listed as undermining a true merit-based selection, then I'd be quite interested in having a better understanding of it. I don't believe that we have a monopoly of wisdom (well, not on this subject, anyway!), and I'm prepared to consider alternatives, (even those used by another party!).