Notice anything about this 5-minute BBC report on House of Lords reform? While it talks of ‘revolution in the air’, every interviewee is a white middle aged man.
Yet House of Lords reform could – if the Coalition chooses to make it so – prove a game-changing opportunity to promote the cause of gender balance at Westminster.
Our Commons party consists of just 12% women and the Commons as a whole barely 22%. The reasons for this are complex and different in each party, but electoral volatility and a leaky pipeline of female candidates are two major factors for the Liberal Democrats. The preferred diversity mechanism of many, All-Women-Shortlists (AWS), are philosophically problematic for many Liberal Democrats, and pragmatically ineffective without safe seats (in 2010 we had women candidates in 50% of retiring MP seats – none of them got elected).
Lords reform, with its promise of a second chamber wholly or mainly elected via proportional representation in multi-member constituencies, offers the prospect of making real progress on gender balance through the use of diversity mechanisms which do not exclude men. While gender balance is needed in both Houses, starting with the Lords would at least begin to chip away at Westminster’s male-centric culture.
Evidence from business suggests that a ‘critical mass’ of women at senior level is key to attracting and retaining more women. Lord Davies’ recent report into women on corporate Boards, commissioned by Lynne Featherstone and Ed Davey and “strongly welcomed” by Vince Cable, notes that while tokenism is both patronising and ineffective, a critical mass of senior women positively impacts not just the female talent pipeline, but also corporate governance and the financial bottom line. The ‘business case’ for gender balance is now widely accepted and politicians of all stripes have not been shy to threaten quotas for companies that fail to put their Boardrooms in order.
So now seems a particularly propitious moment for the Coalition to practice the gender balance it preaches. If the gender balance argument is compelling for business (whose job it is to make money for shareholders), is it not even more so for politics (whose job it is to serve a gender balanced population)?
Liberal Democrats’ woeful track record in the Commons makes it all the more important that we seize – and are seen to seize – the opportunity of Lords reform to signal that gender balance is an essential, non-negotiable part of an effective 21st century parliamentary democracy. Failing to use our flagship constitutional reform policy to promote gender balance would irretrievably damage our credibility on this issue.
The draft Lords reform Bill published today will be subject to extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and debate, so there’s plenty of time to work through the detail. Meanwhile we need a strong and unequivocal commitment from both leadership and grass roots that, whatever the mechanics, gender balance will be a Liberal Democrat priority for a reformed second chamber. Having gone backwards on the green benches at the last election we certainly cannot afford to be complacent about the red ones.
Dinti Batstone is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and Vice-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance. A longer version of this article will appear in the next issue of Liberator.