Diversity motion passes

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Welcome news from the conference floor this afternoon as the party finally votes for a diversity motion without referring it back or dithering further.

There were only a handful of people opposing the motion, led by Sophie Bridger, a candidate in the general election for Glasgow. She said what was proposed was against key Lib Dem values. It would entrench unfair advantage and tokenism. It would undermine the status quo where everyone gets a fair shot. It would even, she said, make a mockery of the selection process.

It sounded familiar to me – and Alistair Carmichael put his finger on it towards the end of the debate. “Sophie – I’ve heard that speech before. Jo Swinson made it in 2001. She might not make the same speech now. I agreed with her in 2001, but now I have changed my mind because in the last decade we simply have not seen the progress we expected.” (And if Jo wants to get in touch to let us know whether Alistair summed up her 2011 views, that would be welcomed)

Alistair is not the only one who made those points. Tim Farron too thought that twenty years ago he would have opposed any positive action – but that now the proof is clearly there that it is needed to end the bias. And he pointed to existing successes in our own party and others: zipping at the first regional Euro elections led to lasting change in the gender balance of our European Parliamentary Party. The Labour party’s All Women Shortlists radically increased the number of women and even the Conservative A lists have had lasting change.

Adding her voice to the “it is time” brigade, Sal Brinton also said that 25 years ago she would probably have taken Sophie’s position. Even ten years ago, when she saw the launch of the Campaign for Gender Balance, and Miranda Piercey’s campaign within the then LDYS to encourage younger women to speak at conference as a stepping stone to greater activism within the party, she might have taken that view. But now, with a humiliatingly low percentage of women in the parliamentary party, and beaten on diversity by both other major parties, was the time to take real action in the Liberal Democrats.

The new provisions for the party will be to establish a Leadership Programme which will give them access to parliamentarians, a comprehensive training and support package, as well as mentoring and coaching. Those on the list will – if they apply – be guaranteed a place on shortlists before going ahead to be voted on by local parties who are selected. The list will have at least 30 people in it by the end of 2011, and will be made up of at 50% women, 20% from BAME backgrounds and 10% for those with disabilities.

Of course, even writing a list of people who need extra help is going to be contentious, and representations from DELGA ensued. What about LGBTQ people, poorly represented in parliament? Ed Fordham moved an amendment on behalf of DELGA which was accepted by the movers, and subsequently voted through. He had a vivid picture of the status quo in selection of a school disco with a clear divide: the middle-aged, white men in suits and ties doing dad-dancing at one side of the hall, who get selected for all the winnable seats; and the diverse gay, black and female candidates who get selected for the unwinnable ones. Later in the debate, Chris Ward continued the demand for action for LGBTQ people: these are the people disproportionately likely to be bullied to suicide in school age years, and a group of people still desperately in need of positive role models wherever possible. It was offensive, Chris said, that the movers of the motion had excluded the LGBTQ – and it was just as bad whether it was intentional or not. DELGA’s amendment also made the important point that those who were economically disadvantaged should also be recognised by the programme.

The party’s lack of progress particularly on racial grounds was highlighted by a number of speakers. Anuja Punj Pashar told us she had worked with many faith and ethnic based groups in her community and within the Civil Service – many of whom were amazed to hear of her decision to join the Liberal Democrats. She also made the telling point that she had been actively courted by the Conservatives. She had been approached by the Labour party. But no-one from the Lib Dems ever knocked on her door: she had to come to us. Speaking in the interventions, Cllr Michael Bukola recounted his experience of knocking on doors with a black face and a yellow rosette: he was met with suspicion and discontent from members of the black communities, who asked him “You really don’t get this, do you?”

With more experiences from local government, Cllr Daisy Benson drew on her success with a talented councillor programme. The training and support she received there directly enabled her to take on a significant role with her council, and now she is responsible for a budget leading into millions and a significant staff. Mark Pack made the important point that the percentage of women in local government has stabilised at a disappointing 30% and has not changed much in 20 years. Continuing to do what we have done in the past will not cut the mustard in future.

Perhaps the most trenchant point made throughout the debate was that this has to be a grassroots movement. Whilst it is important to get a more diverse parliamentary party and increase diversity in representative roles, perhaps the most important locus of action is within our membership. Just as we are insufficiently diverse at the highest levels, we are insufficiently diverse amongst our grassroots membership. We are all responsible for recruiting more members to our movement.

UPDATE: A podcast of the debate is available here.

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11 Comments

  • Our main problem remains that we are far too much of a middle and upper class party – do I gather that yet again, very little was said about this? At present, in terms of our MPs, we have something like 40% independent school educated, as compared with (IIRC) around 7% of the general population. Is it any wonder we have little empathy with those who will suffer under the cuts, when so many cannot even understand what poorer and lower middle already go through?

  • Perhaps we should have an Empathy Academy, not a Leadership one? Having spent a fair number of years of professional life dealing with “leadership” issues, I was very disappointed when “Political Leadership” was imposed as the number one criterion for PPCs. I consider empathy issues to be considerably more important. Arrogance is not totally absent from candidate ranks, and by playing up “leadership”, we are liable to be encouraging it, not discouraging. Sorry.

  • The Party has FINALLY come up with a ‘positive action’ programme rather than pushing ‘positive discrimination’ which a number of committee people who wouldn’t last five minutes in any election process have been pushing for years. Which ‘useful’ Labour MPs came out of their Blair Babe list? It was just tokenism. The best women have all risen on their own merits.

    Presumably, my daughter, who is 1/4 French, will now be eligible for assistance since she is not only female but is one quarter French! đŸ™‚

  • @Tim13

    I agree with your statement “we are far too much of a middle and upper class party” – one of my main disagreements with the Lib Dems is exactly that. Those of us who are in the poorer income bracket, who live in social housing or who are otherwise “financially disadvantaged” feel this more and more as the years go by. We can no longer afford to go to Conferences for a start – charging £40 for a Conference Dinner ticket, to those of us who are poor, is totally obscene – that is my food bill for two weeks! I have posted in many places that, nowadays, being a member of the Liberal Democrats is becoming out of reach – we are now seeing it as a “rich person’s playground” and poor, grassroots activists don’t get a nose in. We are fine as foot-slogging, pavement-bashing, leaflet posting brigades but try to get selected for election to one of the Parliaments – forget it! You have to be well-off, white with a PhD or in similar academic, social or financial Ă©chelons to be considered. You have to be “a Someone” to be recognised as being worth the investment! I am cynical – I have good reason to be!

  • Maureen Rigg 13th Mar '11 - 11:06am

    I used to agree with Sophie but have reluctantly had my mind changed by the really dismal number of MPs we have who are not white men in suits educated independently of the state system, living in houses that most people can only dream of. I want not just positive action to get a diverse range of people onto the ballot papers in winnable seats but also some systematic support for those of us in constituencies with significant ethnic minorities who need to get out and knock on their doors but need help in getting our message across. Labour have been good at this in the past – what can we learn from them?

  • The figures speak for themselves. Just take a look at the present Government line-up – 15+ millionaires, mainly white, male, over forties? Where are all the young people, women, LGBTQ, disabled MPs in Government (or even in Parliament at all)?

    One Local Party recently stated – “anyone can stand for the Local Council as long as they have been a Party member for one year”.

    One year? How much experience of politics and the political system would that person have? They may have wide “life experience” but that is not enough. They need to know the ins and outs of the political system, especially the Local Party one, they need to know their own local area (or at least the one for which they hope to stand) – too many candidates are “imported” from elsewhere and they do not know the local issues, let alone the members of the Local Party.

    If the same is applied to Parliamentary Elections (as I know it has done) who in their right minds is going to select someone who has only been a Party member for one year? They do not have campaigning experience, canvassing experience or any idea of how the political wheels turn within the Party. In my view, a prospective candidate should have been a Party Member for at least five years and have learned the ropes. They should know the local area, the local people, the local issues and the Local Party Members!

    One of the problems which I have found in the past is that certain people who “think they are Somebody” takes a fancy to a new person whom they think will make a good candidate. I can almost hear the conversation – “Ooh, he/she’d be good – let’s sign them up as a Party member and put them up as a candidate”. No! I don’t think so.

    What is also needed are much broader criteria for the Candidate Approval process. People who wish to be considered as candidates should have the right to put themselves forward for selection, not necessarily with the “permission” of a Local Party. When they have been Approved, then they may approach a Local Party to stand as their candidate, preferably within their own constituencies (although this might not always be possible).

  • Simon McGrath 13th Mar '11 - 1:15pm

    Discrimination is wrong whether it is for good reasons or bad. Which bit of this don’t people get? All that has happened is that the supporters of quotas at the Liverpool conference have got it through the back door.
    Is there Any evidence of discrimination in the selection of candidates for good seats?
    I suspect that constituencies havng to have 2 people from the A list on their shortlists will actualy work against some good candidates.

  • Derek Young 13th Mar '11 - 4:25pm

    Unfortunately for those who spoke for the motion, voted for it, drafted it in the first place, and supported the idea from the outset, the motion is not constitutional and has no effect, for two reasons. Guaranteeing a right to be shortlisted in a selection is, without question, a change to selection procedures. Selection procedures are a matter for the States, not the Federal Party. Writing “applicability: Federal” at the bottom of a motion doesn’t change that. So if the Federal Party wants to take on this power it would need to do it by constitutional amendment, not a business motion, and that would require a 2/3 majority, not a simple majority as a business motion does.

    Any Local Party which refuses to shortlist at least two of the “leadership” candidates when one of them applies might face an appeal from the candidate, but the Appeals Tribunal would have to rule that the motion has no effect.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the motion – it’s a better idea in principle than clustering, zipping and all the other things which have been suggested before. It’s just that supporters of positive action can’t seem to find a way of doing it without adopting a completely ham-fisted approach that ignores our constitutional structure, and just provokes resentment among those who actually care about our internal democracy.

  • Christine Headley 13th Mar '11 - 11:15pm

    @ Rebekah

    You don’t have to have been a member for a year in order to stand in a council election. Someone who knows the ropes just has to get a subscription off you and persuade the person so delegated by Cowley Street to sign the form that says you can have the LibDem description on the ballot paper. I suspect this is not infrequent.

    ALDC is encouraging campaigners to approach all sorts of people in the community to stand for the council – there is a specific training session. It ought to be done in time for a proper application process and interview, but it is not realistic to demand that they join a full year before polling day.

  • Christine – where I am we use the term “ideally” for having belonged a year! Needless to say, this wording is much mocked, but remains inplace, for the reason you state! However, I agree with Rebekah that it is not so easy to do things on a national scale without some finance behind you. Personally, I think it could come via some more public funds, but as we know, at present with cuts that is nigh on impossible, and we face an intransigent electorate, who don’t generally like political parties of whatever colour, and are very reluctant to put any money into them.

    I don’t know whether Simon Hughes spoke in this debate, but it wasn’t so long ago he was more or less recommending that in order to improve diversity at Parliamentary level we go out on the streets (especially MPs it was implied) and bring in promising people. I am watching the career of new Totnes Tory MP Sarah Wollaston with interest, the first MP to have been selected as a result of “open selection”. She has already burnt the fingers of the Tory leadership considerably! I understand the Tories have put open selection on the back burner now!! But seriously, many of us have seen people who have arrived merely as proteges of others, and it is not usually a good sign.

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