Sometimes I wonder if John Bercow is a mole sent to undermine causes from within. Then I wonder if he even knows what cause he's pushing for.
Bercow has written the astonishing piece Where is the Tory Harriet Harman? for The Guardian. There's not much to send Conservatives into a greater spasm of anger than "an article in The Guardian" but "Harriet Harman" is the nuclear option. Exactly why we need an upper-class anti-equality hopeless partisan is beyond me.
But for those who can get past that, Bercow is reiterating the call once again for the party to adopt all-women and all-black or minority ethnic shortlists. With many seats having all ready selected (and some having picked candidates for two term strategies) it's an odd time to be raising this.
And I have to wonder if something isn't getting lost in this debate. Is the aim to simply get more women and black & minority ethic people into Parliament or is it to create a level playing field in which neither is an impediment to being selected? And I am not naive to believe that there is no bias in the current selection process, though I believe things have been getting better in recent years and that if the Conservatives had done a lot better in the last election the proportions in the parliamentary party would be different.
There is something absolutely nobody argues for. It is called the "compulsory all-men shortlist". It can still happen but rarely (recently one Conservative selection wound up with only women on the final shortlist out of their own merit, not because it was imposed; I can't remember the last all-male shortlist). But nobody wants to bring it in because they rightly accept that it would reinforce the existing bias.
And yet there is a real danger that all-women shortlists will have this effect. If for instance one of a pair of associations in an area were to have an all-women shortlist imposed upon it, what would be the effect on a women's chance of being selected in the other seat? I believe it would decrease the chances. For people would feel that men would have a more limited chance and so would boost them. "Open" seats would rapidly become regarded as "male" seats because some women would instead be on the shortlist for the AWS seat, whilst those who did go for the open seat would be up against demands for "balance" locally. When the language of statistical exactitude is used to justify positive discrimination it is very hard to argue against it being used to justify discrimination in the other direction.
And this is before we even get into the thornier area of all-BME shortlists, a description that crudely assumes the BME population of this country is homogeneous and that representation could be easily apportioned out. And then would all-BME shortlists be used across the country or would they only apply to certain parts? Would Adam Afriyie have been selected for Windsor if all-BME shortlists were in existence or would he instead have been expected to go for a far less winnable seat with a shortlist?
Surely the real goal must be to break down barriers in open selection, not try to match discrimination with discrimination? Equality of opportunity will, I admit, take longer to achieve but it is by far the better goal for the long term. Equality of outcome breeds resentment but also risks ghettoisation.