Even the best of us can fall victim to a piece of boneheaded conventional wisdom from time to time, and the suggestion that political parties must run 30% women candidates in a general election is one of those ideas that once you start to pick it apart in detail tends to fall asunder in your hands.
The notion of quotas as the solution to various problems of under-representation in various bodies or environments is a quite long established one and it is one with considerable merit at the very outset of trying to get a minority or under-represented, or previous excluded groups into an existing system. Yet the way in which certain advocacy groups cleave to quotas long after the actual barriers have come down especially in respect of the under representation of a majority grouping puts me more in mind of the adage about a solution in search of a problem. And God knows there are plenty who are wedded to this solution.
The long standing problem of the under representation of women in the Oireachtas is not the stand alone issue that many would like to paint it as being. Indeed, as women by many counts constitute a majority of the voting population and as voting rights have been equal since the foundation of the state one might be given to wonder why no one has looked for causes other than gender as being the reason for their absence. Just as the wider societal significance of the OJ Simpson trial was that money not race was the bigger determining factor in whether or not you would be convicted of a crime. So too the absence of women from the Oireachtas is no longer primarily about gender.
The lack of women in the Oireachtas is part of a wider problem, and a global problem too, that stems from the uniformity of choices and personality types in elected politics. However, many people fall victim to addressing themselves solely to the absence of women and miss the absence of all sorts of people whether they be from a broader range of political opinion, social or educational background, income levels, and many other characteristics from elected politics. This misplaced focus leads us to address the wrong and isolated symptoms instead of addressing the universal causes.
An unfortunate problem in the discussion of this situation is that when someone asks specific questions about the form or implementation of the quotas being advocated they are accused of supporting the status quo and then simply ignored. It’s a handy debating tactic but one I would have thought was beneath the various academics that are loudest in advocating quotas. I have previous on these pages advocated alternative, more practical measures that while not guaranteeing more women on the ballot, would encourage parties to be less conservative in their candidate selection, which should given the numbers of capable women out there eager to stand for election should very naturally lead to more women candidates. Measures that are also grounded in the everyday reality of political campaigning that would encourage parties to run more diverse slates for the simple reason of doing so winning them more seats. I’m not going to go through all the other problems with quotas but I will look at a few basic ones that tend to be ignored.
Funding and campaign resources -
There is a certain irony in the notion that funding given by the state to political parties which can’t be used for election campaigning would be targeted for reduction unless the political parties undertake their election campaigns in a prescribed manner. A more honestly upfront and probably far more effective solution would be to base the level of public expenditure in each constituency on the basis of what % of elected representatives are of either gender. What is that you say, you can’t brow beat the public into voting for certain people? So if the political parties are forced into running individuals and it leads to them losing votes and those other people who are not restricted in the same way (remember independents won’t be restricted in this way at all) get elected by the public then that’s simply one of those unintended consequences that will be ignored by the academics.
There appears to be a view amongst the academics discussing this that is at complete variance with how people in Irish political parties either think or behave. This is displayed in the fact that there is a complete lack of understanding of how political parties, their candidates and the membership allocate their resources in respect of candidates at election time. The first point is that the central party apparatus spends very, very little money on specific candidates, the second is that political organisations are very fearful in Ireland of the existing representative losing their seat so they will tend to favour funding and resource allocation decisions that support the incumbent rather than the new entrant. Given the nature of multi seat PR-STV this fear is not by any means irrational even if the reactions are often over the top. And thirdly, who do you think is going to go out and campaign for this additional candidate? The same people who have spent the last decade or more campaign for one of the other two incumbent candidates? Or some magic grouping that might fall out of sky? Let’s remember if this added candidate has sufficient support in the local organisation they would be on the ticket already!
Let’s look at an example of how this addition of a candidate would play out. There is a Dublin constituency with which I’m reasonably familiar and in 2002 a certain party ran 3 candidates for this 4 seater. This was very much stretch goal for them as 2 out of 4 would have represented a good result on most days. The slate consisted of two incumbent males, and one female who was a local cllr.
Now given the dynamics of the party’s organisation at the time the fact is that if this young female had not had her own support infrastructure both within (it was very much a minority but still it was there in some force) and without of the party she would have had next to no practical support to rely on for canvassing, leaflet dropping etc. There is no force on earth that could have gotten the supporters of the existing two candidates to go out and campaign for her instead of their own choices. Nor would they give funds in the buying of tickets for draws that might be divided amongst the candidates, what they as individuals wanted was their person, the person to whom they were personally loyal, to win a seat. Imposing a candidate doesn’t change that dynamic.
When it comes to who people will go out and campaign for at election time, there are, in rough terms, three groupings in local political organisation (a) there are those people who are there because they support a particular candidate and for whom this person was the reason they joined the organisation/ parallel with them are those who are not members of the party at all but who will support the candidate, the candidate not the party , (b) there are those who were members before X became the candidate but are now aligned to that particular candidate, doing most of their activity in support of that candidate and then (c) there are those who are simply members of the party without any particular alignment to any particular personalities. The academics think that most members fall into the last category, when it is most frequently the first category and compounding this situation is that the latter category is frequently the least active in terms of doing the hard graft of canvassing, leaflet drops, letter writing, etc. This latter grouping is the only floating group that might potentially give the new person a hand now and then, meanwhile the dedicated followers are out day and night with their candidate. Quotas won’t change any of that.
The likely outcome
The fact is that the women who would be selected under these proposals (as distinct from those women who have gotten selected and elected already under their own steam) would be either tokens or the sort of middle-class, middle aged women for whom the 5 C’s that are touted as the main barriers to more women being members of the Oireachtas are not a factor in them not already being election candidates. In other words this move would assist exactly almost entirely the sort of women who are not currently blocked by the 5 C’s. And given that we’re addressing none of the innate conservative nature of candidate selection, the women selected will also be those with family connections to existing reps, or an inside track to the party insiders.
Existing presence of a critical mass
Lastly, it is often said that for a group to break through there has to be a critical mass. Yet women already elected to the Dail constitute at least a third of their ultimate goal of 50%. The problem is not the absence of a critical mass to get things going, it is that the number stalled some time ago long after role models and other factors had played their part. What caused that stall should be the focus of study. This progression that gathered such momentum in the 70s/80s was not aided by the walking off the scene in the late 80/early 90s that many of those given a leg up in the late 70s engaged in. This happened before those young women or schools age girls had the chance to move into positions to succeed them. Those women, some of whom are lauded for their advocacy of quotas, broke the chain and have to bear some responsibility for walk away once the drudgery set in.
The problems facing women now are the same practical ones that face many men and we should address those root causes instead of window dressing. We need to broaden the pool of candidates beyond the very limited range at present and we need to change the minds of voters about what is important when picking someone to vote for. Quotas do neither of those things.