From today’s Independent:
Nick Clegg is planning to introduce all-women shortlists for the Liberal Democrats if not enough female candidates are selected in winnable seats in 2015.
The radical policy change, which will upset many activists who believe it would go against the party’s constitution, would be introduced in the next Parliament as many candidates have already been selected for the election in 18 months’ time.
Only 12 per cent of Lib Dem MPs are women, and there are none at all from ethnic minorities. Lib Dem sources said a number of “excellent” female and ethnic minority candidates have already been selected to replace outgoing Lib Dem MPs and in winnable seats for 2015. But if the female tally does not increase dramatically, all-women shortlists will be imposed for the 2020 election.
Let’s just look at this a bit more carefully. Even if this is Nick’s view, and there is no direct evidence in this story to suggest that it is, it is not within his gift just to impose it on the party. If we were ever to take such a move, it would be the party who would decide, not the leader. It would take some doing to persuade the two-thirds necessary to change the constitution if that were deemed necessary. Indeed, getting a simple majority would be challenge enough in a party which has been historically opposed to positive discrimination. Our most recent survey on the subject showed a large majority remain of that view.
I bear the scars of the zipping debate ahead of the 1999 Euro elections. I was very much in favour of it as a one-off measure to ensure that we sent a gender balanced team to Brussels. Others were furiously opposed. Gloom, doom, pestilence and the sky falling in were some of their more optimistic predictions if this were allowed to happen. The Scottish party was having none of it, although they selected Elspeth Attwooll without it. Of course, all that actually happened was that we sent a gender balanced team to Brussels.
Our record on gender balance in other parliaments is embarrassing. Currently we have 7 female MPs out of 57, 1 MSP out of 5 and 2 out of 5 AMs in Wales. This harms us and makes us look out of touch with the public. How can women have confidence that we understand their views and issues affecting them if our parliamentary parties have such an overwhelming majority of men?
For this coming election, the problem has been tackled by setting up the Leadership Programme aimed at giving intensive mentoring and training to candidates from under-represented groups. I am unconvinced that it’s the lack of training that’s the problem and if our gender balance does not improve in 2015, we will have to look at other alternatives.
It’s not comfortable to think that there may be sexism within our selection processes, but I have seen this at first hand. A selection where a male and female candidate had children of similar ages – which do you think was asked by members they visited about their childcare arrangements? These questions are not allowed at hustings, but female candidates regularly face them in private. I’ve even seen a female candidate whose children had left home quizzed on how she’d support her family.
Having said that, as Stephen summarised yesterday, we’ve seen female candidates selected in held seats and in our targets. Three women out of five have been selected in retiring MPs’ seats so far and there are two still to come. Of the 19 selections in our top targets, 6 of them have gone to women, 4 in seats which were held pre 2010.
If there is no significant improvement in women elected in 2015, we will need to have the debate. It would be better if we could conduct it in a calm, rational manner and work together as a party to find a solution to a significant problem. We could do with losing that casual assumption that everyone selected under the current system is the best candidate and that any women selected by an all-women shortlist are somehow not as good. That assumption says more about sexism within our ranks than anything else. While Labour’s experience of all women shortlists has been mixed, it has worked and they now have the best gender balance in the Commons.
In the meantime, can I suggest that if Nick is in favour of all women shortlists, he shows some clear intent if there are further places in the House of Lords up for grabs. He had an opportunity earlier this year to significantly improve the gender balance in the House of Lords and didn’t take it.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings