Since long before the 'A' list, the Conservative Party has been biased in its recruitment, in favour of women applicants. This is today, as it always has been, principally for the perfectly good reason that we wanted to have more women candidates and MPs - not as part of some crusade to help women (not that there would have been anything wrong in that, but it happened not to be the reason), but, rather, because having more women candidates and MPs would make us a more skilled and successful political party. To put it a different way, our discrimination in favour of women has been because of a business case, not a moral case.
There are many firms that would have a strong business case for recruiting extra women that would like to be able to advertise specifically for them but cannot, because of equalities legislation. In many consultancy and sales settings, it is attractive to be able to present a mix of faces so as to appeal to a variety of potential clients. In other settings, the issue of wanting to hire women is not one of diversity, but of preferred business model. Some mid-life women would prefer to work in small teams with other mid-life women. But they could not advertise: “50-something woman wanted to work in three-woman team”.
Once one starts to think along these lines, it becomes very difficult to defend the status quo of equalities legislation. Why shouldn’t there be a firm of 50-to-55-year-old blond women accountants competing against firms of 30-to-40-year-old Indian extraction male accountants, 20-to-25-year-old deaf accounts and myriad firms of much greater diversity? In a competitive labour market, if you can’t get a job (can’t even get an interview) at one type of firm, then you go and work for another one. Provided that the labour market is actually competitive, the argument would go, what’s the problem with firms specialising gender-wise, racially, by hair colour, or whatever?
Quite probably, one might say, there was a need for equalities legislation in the 1970s, when so much of employment was public sector, labour markets were so imperfect, and so many employers were monopsony purchasers of labour. So, a good idea at the time, but an idea whose time has now passed. Equalities legislation, far from promoting the cause of women and ethnic minorities, may well now hold them back, preventing employers from active promotion of diversity for business reasons.
On this basis, one might find some unexpected sympathy for Harriet Harman’s plan to allow firms to favour certain candidates for jobs or promotion on the grounds of race or gender. However, and this is absolutely crucial, what is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. If firms are to be allowed to discriminate in favour of women, they must equally be permitted (if they so choose) to discriminate in favour of men. And if they are permitted to discriminate in favour of certain races, then they must be permitted to discriminate in favour of any race. It cannot be that we have enacted into our laws that women are required to be treated differently from men, or that members of certain races are required to be treated differently from those of other races. This would be, quite literally, institutionalised sexism and institutionalised racism. We must have none of it.
Personally, I would have considerable sympathy with a system in which, provided that labour markets are competitive, hiring policy is free, but only if couched positively. So, one could advertise “Red-haired young woman required” or "Grey-haired Chinese man wanted" but one would be forbidden from stating “No Arabs need apply”. In contrast, equalities requirements would need to apply to all the public sector - the State must not discriminate. They would also need to apply in any situation in which the OFT determined that a labour market was not competitive (a finding that a firm is a monopsony purchaser of labour would automatically trigger a requirement to have an equal opportunities policy).
Such a system would, in my view, have the result that there would be much more aggressive hiring of women and ethnic minorities into high-quality jobs in which they are currently under-represented - we would have more women managers, more women in the City, and so on. We know from Labour’s all-women shortlists that positive discrimination can have this effect. But to allow Harman’s scheme as it stands would be, quite straightforwardly, to legislate for the oppression of young white men.