What I mean is that women are only one group of many which is under-represented in government. So too are: single people; ethnic minorities; people without degrees; people educated at state school; the under-30s, the over-60s; and, of course, the 95% of people with lower incomes than MPs. Ms Harman is not calling for quotas for these groups. So why single out women?
I can think of several possibilities, none of them wholly convincing:
1. Men can’t represent the interests of women in the same way that, say, 40-60 year-olds can represent the interests of younger and older generations. So it is important for women to represent themselves.
But is this really true? Most male politicians, I suppose, know lots of women and so should be able to take account of their views, insofar as these differ from men’s. Surely, a bigger danger of a lack of representation arises from the fact that MPs are disconnected from people on below-average incomes.
Or is the argument here that men find women’s minds inscrutable - to a greater extent than they do the minds of the poor or of single people?
2. The very under-representation of women in government is a form of injustice - gender discrimination - in a way that the under-representation of, say, older people is not.
But isn’t the under-representation of state-school people also a form of injustice - the inferior life-chances one gets by virtue of not having rich parents? Or of ethnic minorities? Or of single people?
3. Women have gender-specific skills, so having more women in government will improve the quality of government. This, I suppose, is a reason for discriminating in favour of women but not in favour of people without degrees (or private schooling?).
The evidence here is mixed. There have been several studies of whether women bosses improve corporate performance. And they are inconclusive: some say they do; others find no effect.
Herein, though, lies a problem. Let’s grant that women - on average of course - do have special skills and that quotas for women shadow cabinet ministers would attract more skilled women into politics. Would this really be a good thing? I mean, if skilled women are attracted into politics, they will be diverted away from other professions. Would the gains to us from having able women in politics exceed the losses we incur from them not exercising their skills elsewhere? Or could it be that positive discrimination in politics will give women an incentive to do better at school, with the result that there’ll be an increase in female talent generally?
Now, maybe I’m being stupid here, but I just don’t see the intellectual force of Ms Harman’s argument. What - apart from trivial power plays - am I missing?