It was quite a day today. Middlesbrough Constituency Labour Party gathered at Teesside University to select its candidate for the by-election following the sad death of Sir Stuart Bell. A big day – Stuart was Labour’s MP for 30 years, so it’s been a long time since there was such a selection meeting.
The quality of almost all the prospective candidates was very high, with all but one of the 2 women and 3 men having strong connections to the area. The average number of attendees for such meetings across the country is apparently only about 40 people – we had 182 in attendance, plus a number of proxy votes for people too ill to attend, which speaks well of the level of engagement of local Labour members.
It was an interesting experience. We gathered on time but started the proceedings proper just over an hour late, as there was some discrepancy in the attendee count. But when things eventually got going, the speeches were strong, the level of passion high, and the quality of what was said equally so.
But in the end, I think the best candidate won – Andy McDonald, the only candidate who has always lived in the area, won in a relative landslide, with almost twice the votes of the nearest challenger. His passion and desire to represent the town shone through, and it was heart-warming and inspiring to see, as the results were announced, how much it meant to him in his pressed lips and glistening eyes. I think he’s going to be a great candidate and he deserves every congratulation and all our support.
You might know, if you’ve visited this blog before, that I had put myself forward for the candidacy, but didn’t make even the longlist because I haven’t quite been a Labour member for 12 months yet. I’ve been thinking about the possibility of applying for Stockton South – the only local constituency with a Tory incumbent – to challenge for 2015. A Tory MP in the north-east is a scandal, even if he only scraped through in 2010, and he’ll be vulnerable in the next election thanks to the bumbling, corrupt government his party has created.
However, I was told today that Stockton South is going to have an all-women shortlist. I have to confess, with a certain amount of discomfort, that I have very ambivalent feelings about all-women shortlists. On the one hand, I’m a firm believer in the need to increase the number of female MPs and in the importance of just over 50% of the electorate having commensurate representation in Parliament.
On the other hand, today’s experience makes me wary of the practice. Because this is a by-election, apparently the NEC didn’t have the option of appointing an all-women list. But if this had been a regular election and it had chosen to go the all-female route, the best – and by far the most qualified and popular candidate – wouldn’t have been able to stand, let alone win.
If there had been other women applicants with equal or superior credentials and ability, they would have been on the shortlist, along with or instead of the very estimable female candidates we heard today. So either the NEC selected wrongly or there weren’t other suitable women candidates. Yet, for Stockton in 2015, just a few miles across, the local party will be presented with a list comprising only of women – to compete in a constituency which opted for ‘the enemy’ in 2010. It may be that there are fantastic women candidates for that – but if so, where were they for the Middlesbrough by-election?
But I also read a post by Ellie Mae O’Hagan today in which she responded to some comments about her recent appearance on Newsnight (in which I thought she acquitted herself excellently, by the way), which apparently suggested (I haven’t seen the original comments) that she was only on the show because she was a woman, when there were more qualified men. She posed the question of whether it’s possible for a white, middle-class male (which would also describe me, except for the middle-class bit) to suffer from any kind of institutional discrimination. Maybe she’s right, and the only solution for the overall situation involves disadvantaging middle-aged white men like me. I’m honestly torn.
I feel a frustration with the situation which I’m sure is in part selfish. I believe in local candidates, yet I’ll be barred, on the grounds of gender, from even applying for the job. But it’s not entirely selfish – right or wrong I think I’d be a very good candidate, and I also believe that a north-east marginal seat needs the best candidate available, regardless of sex and whether it’s me or someone else. And I’m aware of local women who feel the same – perhaps far more strongly. And the fact that Ed Miliband is said to want more working-class candidates, more candidates without university qualifications, and more candidates from a business background – and that I fit all three categories – makes it doubly frustrating.
But it almost feels wrong to feel that way, like some kind of betrayal. So I’m conflicted. I don’t imagine for a minute that the Labour Party is going to abandon its policy of selecting all-female shortlists for some seats (and I can’t say I’m sure it should), and I agree with the need to increase the number of female candidates. But surely there are better ways than excluding capable and passionate men from even attempting to present their case? For example, a weighting could be applied across all seats, so that in close votes between a male and female candidate, the woman’s support was factored more highly.
It might seem undemocratic to weight votes for a woman more heavily than a man, but surely no more so than excluding men altogether. Being as impartial as I’m capable of being, I still want the best candidates to win, regardless of gender. Or maybe I’m being self-centred and short-sighted, and should just suspend any personal desire to contribute and participate for the sake of the bigger picture. But that doesn’t feel right either. It’s a tough call.
Anyway. Whatever the ins and outs of that question, I’d like to offer my heartfelt congratulations and support to the very worthy winner of today’s vote, and to commend to you the excellent Andy McDonald as Middlesbrough Labour’s Candidate for the impending by-election. If you live in the area or can make it here, please get behind him, give him your full and practical support, and let’s make sure Labour wins the by-election with a resounding majority that reflects the contempt with which the Tories and the coalition government are so rightly regarded.