Today’s Daily Mail has an article making various allegations of sexist attitudes towards women within the Liberal Democrats. They’ve been running similar stories all week following the Rock the Boat fringe meeting earlier. One particular woman candidate says that she was told by someone in her local party not to get pregnant because “we don’t want a baby hanging of your t**s.”
The Daily Mail is an unlikely feminist champion, but that shouldn’t detract from the need to tackle such behaviour, which includes inappropriate questions to female candidates during the selection process about their relationships or their plans to have children.
Such allegations, sadly, ring true with me. In one particular selection I know of, two of the candidates, one a man, one a woman, had children born within a few months of each other. Take a wild guess as to which of them were asked about their childcare arrangements. Even women whose children had left home were not immune from such questioning.
The response by the Party was not entirely helpful. A party spokesperson said:
Questions of this sort should be ruled out by the returning officer.
That’s all very well, but these questions aren’t asked in hustings meetings. Our selection process involves candidates going round members’ houses to visit them and it’s during these one on one meetings where they find themselves under scrutiny that men just don’t get. Layla Moran, our PPC for Oxford West and Abingdon told me:
It is shocking to me and deeply offensive that I have to divulge aspects of my personal life to get a job I have applied for. I wouldn’t have gone for it if I didn’t think I could manage it all.
So how do we tackle that? The Party Spokesman was a bit more helpful here:
We are implementing reforms to tackle unconscious bias and discrimination at every level of the party.
That’s all well and good, and will certainly help. I do wonder, though, whether members be warned in the notification about the selection process that such questions are against the law and should not be asked. How do we change the underlying culture, though?
The Daily Mail report goes on to quote Baroness Lindsay Northover’s shock at a colleague’s comments criticising Jo Swinson for becoming pregnant while a minister. In the Commons, David Ward was suspended for a time for comments, albeit made in public, about Israeli/Palestinian issues. I know the Lords is a much more genteel place, but our peers need to know that expressing such views, even in private, is highly inappropriate. If they don’t understand why, they need to be taken by the hand and led very gently into the 21st century. And if that doesn’t work, we need to think about whether they should be allowed to be representatives of the party in Parliament at all. After all, they do have a vote on laws that we’re all expected to obey.
This party, like any other, is not immune from the sort of sexism you find in the rest of society. If we believe in equality, though, we should take practical action to tackle it wherever we find it within our ranks. Our leaders across the UK set a very good example in terms of their outlook on life. Nick Clegg championing shared parental leave is a huge asset and will do much to change expectations for the next generation but we can’t afford to wait that long.
I don’t think women should be put off from taking an active part in the Liberal Democrats nor from seeking nomination as a candidate. By and large, the experience is a positive one. We need to make sure, though, that we are the best that we can possibly be. For that reason, the candidates’ office, returning officers and those responsible for selections need to look at today’s stories and work out, calmly and reasonably, what changes need to be made. We may not have anybody in our ranks who suggests that wearing trousers is a hostile act, but, there is much we can do to improve our attitudes and procedures.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings