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Gary Younge
Always in the shadows

If there are broad conclusions that can be drawn from the demotion of Chris Smith and Harriet Harman, the promotion of Paul Boateng or the sideways moves of Nick Brown, they remain elusive. Those who claim Estelle Morris's resignation last week represented a defeat for all women fail to explain how her appointment, or her performance in office, marked a victory for all women. The value of these public appointments and private disappointments, under this particular government, are symbolic rather than substantial.

But symbols are important. Morris's return to the backbenches is emblematic, not only of the endemic sexism that permeates New Labour, but the left's general failure to promote meaningfully those from under-represented groups. For the awkward - and intriguing - truth is that if you are looking for women and minorities to accede to positions of real authority, you are most likely to find them coming from the right. It may be the left which invokes the cause of equality of opportunity, but if you are looking for black and female faces in the highest places, reactionaries have a better record.

It is a fact that sits uncomfortably with received liberal wisdom. After Morris's resignation, one female former minister said: "The wider implications are the Norman Tebbits of this world saying women are not up to it. It does not bear a moment's scrutiny, but it is an easy jibe."

But a moment's memory is all it would take to recall that Tebbit served under a female prime minister and regards her reign as his party's finest hour. The Tories can look back on providing the country with its first democratically elected female leader; there are few in the Labour party who could confidently look forward and suggest a time when they might provide us with a second. Moreover, far from being confined to British politics, this is a global phenomenon. Applying left and right in their crudest terms, the right has produced almost twice as many female leaders around the world as the left since the war.

The right's ability to elevate the under-represented extends to race too. During Bill Clinton's impeachment process, nobel laureate Toni Morrison may have argued that "white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president". But with a cabinet that includes those of Asian, Arab, Jamaican and African descent, it is George Bush who has the more diverse cabinet. Moreover, it is the Republicans who have produced the most likely black contender for president, secretary of state Colin Powell, and may yet put forward a black woman for vice-president, Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

The good news for the right stops here. The left is way ahead when it comes to representation. Only twice since the war has Labour provided fewer than half the women in parliament. Today, all of the ethnic minority MPs and 80% of the women MPs sit on Labour benches. Likewise, the Democrats boast 38 of the 39 black members of Congress and around 70% of the women in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This, it must be said, is a high proportion of a pitifully low number. The US ranks 56th in the world league table for the representation of women, behind Bolivia and Botswana; at 44th, Britain does not fare much better.

N onetheless, the paradox remains that while the left supplies the lion's share of parliamentarians from under-represented groups, it struggles to place them in leadership roles. This is partly due to the innate conservatism that permeates the culture of Labourism in particular and the left in general. Its policies aimed at combating discrimination and promoting equality attract women and minorities to its ranks. But on their own they do not immunise the movement from the prejudice that infects the rest of society. So while its demographic profile as a whole might change, the power dynamics that enable advancement within it do not. What Engels termed the "labour aristocracy" may differ in many ways from the regular upper class. But it looks the same - male and white - and has the same instinct to preserve its privileged position.

That alone, however, would only explain why the left's record is as bad as the right. The primary reason it is worse lies in the essential differences that distinguish the two political traditions. The free-market principles of the right, at their Darwinian core, recognise only the individual. In the libertarian jungle it is each for themselves. Notwithstanding the casual, culturally ingrained bigotry that emanates from Conservative party associations, the right embraces equality to the extent that it believes everyone should have the right to exploit anyone else. It seeks neither to redress the imbalances of the past, nor to address the lack of opportunities of the present. So when it promotes minorities and women it promotes only individuals. Those who emerge under its banner do so free from the baggage of history and community. And since they are travelling light they can also, when the opportunity arises, travel fast.

The collectivist traditions of the left, however, prioritise the interests of the many above the few. Those who rise on the left from under-represented groups do so, by and large, with an organic link to the demands of those who are marginalised. And since they seek not only to represent themselves but a set of broader interests, the pace and direction of any individual advancement will be informed by the demands of the collective. Nelson Mandela, for example, refused to come out of jail until the conditions for a democratic transition had been agreed. The individual may not travel as far up the ladder, but they will take many more with them. To promote Jesse Jackson or Diane Abbott you must shift your agenda; to promote Colin Powell or Theresa May you must merely shuffle your inner circle.

Ironically, it is the gains of the left - in civil rights, anti-discrimination and women's suffrage - that create the conditions for women and minorities on the right to progress. To its credit, the left keeps opening the door. To its shame, it keeps letting the right walk through first.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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