The Labour Party undoubtedly transformed the look of the House of Commons after 1997 with the admission of a large number of women MPs, thanks almost entirely to the success of the all-women shortlists. This was a comsiderable move forward for female equality in a parliamentary world that had been clearly biased against it. Naturally, such an advance also came at a price, most notably the price of quality. Very few of the women who entered parliament then established themselves as effective, weighty politicians. Labour continues to suffer - and the cause of female equality certainly suffers - from the promotion of clearly inadequate women to senior positions purely on account of their gender. No better example than Jacqui Smith, the woefully underwhelming Home Secretary, serves as clear evidence of this. And Labour encountered growing opposition amongst its grassroots to the continued use of all-women shortlists, which seemed increasingly to be imposed on ultra safe seats that looked in danger of selecting potentially maverick male MPs. It was this situation that led to the election of Peter Law as an Independent MP in the utterly solid seat of Blanaeu Gwent in 2001.
Now, Labour may be facing another revolt in a historically strong seat. John Reid, the former Home Secretary and all round tough guy of the Blair years, is retiring from his Airdrie and Shotts seat, and the party leadership is looking to impose an all-woman shortlist here. It is causing the most almighty row. The local party is up in arms at the actions of "an arrogant London clique". There are rumours that the move is inspired by another woman of limited abilities but unlimited ambition - Harriet Harman - in order to shore up her support amongst the sisterhood in parliament. The constituency chairman points out that his activists have previously selected not only John Reid, but also Helen Liddell and John Smith - hardly a poor record, or an exclusively male one.
All-women shortlists have made a major impact, and hopefully changed the face of the Commons for good. They have certainly shown that the centre of national politics does not need to be an all male preserve, and may have opened constituency eyes to the virtues of selecting able women. The problem is that the next step in the promotion of women in politics is to improve the quality of those who get there, thus ensuring better representation at the highest levels of government - not just tokenistic as in the case of Smith, or seriously off-putting, as with Harman. And to do this, the Labour Party probably needs to allow constituencies to choose their own candidates again. They may even have to accept a few more independent minded candidates of either sex, to parliament's significant gain. Whether or not Labour's National Executive sees it this way is dubious, and the progress of Airdrie and Shotts will show us how willing they are to cede local choice again. Central control, though, is more easily extended that rescinded, and the cause it was extended for may now suffer by its continuation.