The use of all-women shortlists (AWS) is the political practice intended to increase the proportion of female Members of Parliament (MPs) in the United Kingdom by allowing only women to stand in particular constituencies for a particular political party. Though the practice is available to all parties, only the Labour Party uses it. Jacqui Smith, who served as Home Secretary, was one prominent politician elected on an all-women shortlist.
In the 1990s in the United Kingdom, women constituted less than 10% of parliamentary MPs. Political parties used various strategies to increase female representation, including encouraging women to stand and constituency associations to select them, and providing special training for potential women candidates. Another strategy, the creation of all-women shortlists, is an affirmative action strategy making compulsory the selection of women candidates in some constituencies.
The strategy has been criticised as undemocratic, as "bypassing competitive principles and hence as ignoring the merit principle," and as "a form of discrimination against men."  For the 1992 General Election the Labour Party had a policy of ensuring there was at least one statutory female candidate on each of its shortlists, however few of these women were successful in being selected in winnable seats (seats within a 6% swing). Following polling that suggested women were less likely to vote Labour than men, the party introduced All-women shortlists at its 1993 annual conference.
Labour used all-women shortlists to select candidates in half of all winnable seats for the 1997 general election, with the aim of reaching 100 women MPs post-election, a goal that was reached. The shortlists provoked controversy, however. In 1996 Labour party branches in Croydon Central, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, Bishop Auckland and Slough all submitted hostile motions criticising the policy.
Concern about such sex discrimination was especially strong in Slough where the local party refused to even cooperate in selecting a candidate after having an AWS imposed. Another concern was that AWS were being used as a device to keep out certain men who might have made trouble for Tony Blair, Prime Minister at the time. Labour leader Tony Blair stated that AWS were "not ideal at all" in 1995.
In December 1995, Peter Jepson and Roger Dyas-Elliott, prevented from standing on Labour shortlists because of their gender, challenged the policy in court. Supported by the Equal Opportunities Commission, they claimed that they had been illegally barred from applying to be considered to represent the party and that the policy contradicted Labour's policy of aiming to promote equality of opportunity.  In January 1996 an industrial tribunal found the Labour Party had broken the law, unanimously ruling that all-women shortlists were illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 in preventing men from entering a profession.
The 34 candidates who had already been selected by all-women shortlists were not required to seek re-selection, but all 14 unfinished all-women shortlist selections were suspended. Dr Jepson and Mr Dyas-Elliott did not seek compensation for their loss. In the 1997 general election, 35 out of 38 Labour AWS candidates were successful.
Prior to the 1999 European parliament elections, the Liberal Democrats used a system called "zipping" in which equal numbers of men and women were elected as MEPs.
Following the reduction in women MPs after the 2001 general election and increased lobbying by gender equality advocates, Labour introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which allows parties to use positive discrimination in the selection of candidates. They will remain legalized until the end of 2015, due to the "Sunset Clause".
In contrast, in 2001 the Liberal Democrats rejected a proposal to use AWS, suggesting such shortlists were illiberal and unnecessary. Prominent women MPs of the party opposed the all-women shortlists. Party members argued that the main problem was not discrimination, but a lack of female candidates. Instead the party set a target of having 40% female candidates in winnable seats.
In the 2005 General election, the shortlists helped to increase the number of female MPs in Parliament to 128, with the Labour Party's 98 women constituting 77% of the total. However, a Labour-controlled "safe seat" was lost when explicitly anti-AWS independent candidate Peter Law won the Blaenau Gwent constituency in Wales beating Maggie Jones who had been selected using Labour's All-women shortlist policy. The loss was widely blamed on controversy over AWS, though a scholarly analysis suggests that additional factors may have been at play, and noted that overall there was no significant anti-AWS backlash during the election.
A Speaker's conference was set up in 2008 to study the reasons why MPs were predominantly white, male and able-bodied. An interim report released in July 2009 called for women to make up at least fifty percent of new candidates at the following general election. However, all-women shortlists continued to elicit criticism. Ann Widdecombe criticised the use of AWS stating that women in the past who fought for equality such as the Suffragettes "wanted equal opportunities not special privileges" and "they would have thrown themselves under the King's horse to protest against positive discrimination and all-women shortlists".
Diane Abbott, one of the early supporters of all women shortlists criticised their failure to recruit ethnic minority women into politics, stating that they had in effect "been all white women shortlists"  As evidence of this she cited the 1997 Parliamentary intake, where none of the MPs selected using all women shortlists was black. Conservative leader David Cameron tried to institute AWS in 2006. There was opposition from some female MPs, such as Nadine Dorries and Ann Widdecombe.
However, in October 2009 David Cameron stated that the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities was "a real problem for parliament and for my party", and reversed his opposition to AWS. In February 2010 he indicated that he would impose AWS because the pace of change towards the selection of more women MPs had been too slow. In 2009, Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg stated that he would consider introducing all-women shortlists if the number of female MPs did not increase following the next election, but he did not see this as a long-term solution for the unrepresentative nature of parliament.
All-women shortlists had been credited with breaking down prejudices that impeded the selection of women and discouraged women from offering their candidacy. In both 1997 and 2005, fifty per cent of women MPs elected were selected from all-women shortlists.
The increase in women in politics brought increased parliamentary priority to issues such as women's health, domestic violence, childcare. In addition, the increased number of women MPs and greater focus on women's concerns likely resulted in increased female support for Labour at the polls. AWS may also have made it easier for women to be selected non-all-women shortlist seats. The shortlists also gave rise to the appointment of Britain's first female Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith in June 2007.
Many countries today use political gender quotas. Among the first to use party reservations for female candidates by political parties were Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In 1983, the Norwegian Labour Party mandated that "at all elections and nominations both sexes must be represented by at least 40 per cent", and in 1994, the Swedish Social Democratic Workers' Party mandated "every second on the list a woman", which meant that male and female candidates would be alternated between each other on the party list of preferred candidates. In 1988, the Danish Social Democrats "each sex has the right to a representation of at least 40 per cent of the Social Democratic candidates for local and regional elections. If there is not a sufficient number of candidates from each sex, this right will not fully come into effect"; however, this party law was abolished in 1996.
Iraq held its first post-Saddam parliamentary elections in January 2005 under an electoral law providing for compulsory integration of women on the candidates lists, like several European countries with a proportional electoral system.
- Affirmative action
- Racial quota
- Identity politics
- Reserved political positions
- Critical mass (gender politics)
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