Congratulations to all of the new Liberal Democrat Peers announced today. They will strengthen our existing excellent team in the Lords, fighting for a democratically elected second chamber while in the meantime using their power to provide a check on the government and its worrying assaults on the poor, on our civil liberties, and on the environment.
It’s also good to see recognition for those in our party who have served our communities and our country so well – Sir Vince Cable, Dame Annette Brooke, Ben Williams OBE and others.
What is depressing and wearily familiar, however, is the missing women.
But surely our Lords list is balanced? 5 out of the 11 nominations (45%) for the peerage go to women, which is progress I suppose – of the 40 people nominated to the Lords under Nick Clegg’s leadership, just 17 (43%) were women.
And 45% women wouldn’t be so bad if the existing Lords group was well-balanced, but of our 101 Peers, just 35% are women – so we’re still far from equality.
If in 2015 when we have a 65% male Lords party and a 100% male Commons party, we can’t even appoint 50% women to the Lords, what message does that send about how seriously we take equality?
Personally, the last thing I’d want to be doing right now is joining the House of Lords, but I’m delighted that Lynne, Dorothy, Sharon, Shas and Lorely will be, and we have loads of talented women in the party who would make a brilliant contribution there. Any argument suggesting we just don’t have the women to nominate is complete nonsense.
The picture is slightly better on race, but still a missed opportunity. 1 out of 11 (11%) on this latest list is not white, which is an improvement on the 8% figure for our Lords group currently, but behind the 13% in the general population. It is worth noting recent progress on ethnic diversity in our Lords group – under Nick’s leadership 15% of his 40 nominations went to people from BME communities.
Turning to the rest of the honours, where women are just 4 out of 15 (27%) on the Lib Dem list, I’m at a loss to understand why, for example, the utterly brilliant Polly Mackenzie, Lena Pietsch, Jo Foster and Hollie Voyce go unrecognised. It’s as if the contribution of the women is invisible.
If most of our MPs are men, and they surround themselves with male advisers, and then our House of Lords nominees are drawn from that pool, we will just reinforce and entrench the inequality that is so morally wrong, damaging for our party, and at odds with our fundamental values as enshrined in our constitution. We need to change all of these things – create a diverse Parliamentary party, with advice from a wide range of viewpoints, and complement our Lords team with experience from outside the political bubble.
I’ve spent the last three years in Government working with business to increase the number of women on boards, tackle the gender pay gap, and solve the challenge of getting more women into senior executive roles. Sorting out gender inequality isn’t easy in any organisation – whether it’s a FTSE 100 company, public sector body or a political party. You have to start with the data, analyse and understand the problems in your own organisation, and then take action.
There’s much we need to do to change our culture, nurture talented women, improve succession planning, and learn from our mistakes. Improving the gender balance of our party in the House of Lords is only one piece of the jigsaw, but it is actually a fairly straightforward one to get right. We’ve got the data here, and it’s sadly a missed opportunity to take action.
I’m heartened by Tim’s promising start. By appointing a truly diverse team of spokespeople for the first time in our party’s history he sent a very clear signal about his commitment to using all the talent in our party. We need more fresh thinking like that, to make the steady stream of male-dominated appointment lists a thing of the past.
* Jo Swinson was Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire from 2005-15 and was a Minister in the Department Business, Innovation and Skills and Equalities Minister from 2012-15