In a normal election, hustings can be a great place to spot key differences between candidates and find where they stand on various areas of policy. Internally, however, there’s often a lot of overlap between the candidates’ values and hustings can become a little ‘same old, same old’. For this reason, Scottish Lib Dem Women teamed up with Ethnic Minorities Liberal Democrats, Liberal Youth Scotland, and LGBT+ to organise an event in Scotland that wasn’t about policy but was about one specific area instead: diversity, both within and outwith the party.
This is a topic seen far too often as a fringe issue or a minor problem, so it was great to have a full two-hour discussion that allowed us to touch on a great number of areas under the umbrella of diversity. There was a lot of interest in the event so we streamed it online and also took questions through Google Hangouts, Facebook, and Twitter.
Following a coin toss, Norman Lamb made his opening remarks first. He talked about celebrating diversity and removing the pressure to conform, then discussed some of his experiences as a Minister and his commitment to improving the way people receive services, giving examples of racial and LGBT+ inequality found in our NHS. He went on talk about individual rights, celebrating our achievement of introducing same sex marriage (“it wouldn’t have happened without us!”) and discussing the work that still needed to be done regarding the spousal veto as well as non-legislative, cultural problems that need to be addressed. He wrapped up with a discussion of our party, and proclaimed it “shocking that a liberal party that fundamentally believes in diversity is the least diverse party in British politics”. He put forward his “liberal case for positive action” and described his vision for the Lib Dems as a “radical, progressive, liberal movement of change that can capture people’s imagination.”
Tim Farron talked about being brought up in poverty and the lack of opportunity afforded to people of his background to kick off his opening remarks. He went on to describe inequality as being utterly immoral as well as stupid and “an utter waste of talent and capability.” With a reference to the preamble to our constitution, he talked about his plans to put muscle behind addressing diversity. After a brief rundown of our achievements on addressing diversity internally so far, he stressed that there was still some way to go, and also made reference to removing the spousal veto. He set out his plan to build up diversity in a “self-disciplined, deliberate way” and stressed that we need to address the matter “consciously and pro-actively”. He went on to talk about how we advertise ourselves to the public and warned against just talking amongst ourselves like the Labour party. He described us as “internationalist and anti-nationalist” and highlighted our need to take the lead in an EU referendum. He wrapped up with praise for Charles Kennedy and his style of leadership.
Both candidates criticised the make-up of our parliamentary party and both stressed the need to win elections in order to make a difference to people’s lives, reminding us all why we’re in politics in the first place.
We then took questions from representatives of EMLD, SLDW, LGBT+, and LYS, followed by questions from the floor and online. These covered a range of topics including our internal gender-balance, support for EMLD candidates, LGBT+ equality, youth engagement, LGBT+ priorities in Northern Ireland, recognition of non-binary genders, the importance of electing people from more diverse socio-economic backgrounds, gender mainstreaming, policy impact assessments, conflating women’s issues with family issues, the make-up of our local party executives, abortion, standing up for people in urban communities, and much, much more. It would be a monumental task to try and summarise each candidate’s answers to all of these wonderful questions, so instead I’d like to summarise some of the key points made by each of them on some of the main areas of discussion:
On LGBT+ equality, Tim talked about the need to recognise “minorities within minority communities” and ensure that we don’t forget about trans people when discussing LGBT issues. He suggested that some of our priorities need to be to end the gay blood ban and stand up against conversion therapy. He also talked about our personal responsibilities to stand up against anybody who is bullied and he stressed the need to stand against homophobic bullying in schools. Norman urged us to celebrate the advances in attitudes and legislation that we’ve made but also to recognise that there’s still a long way to go. He talked about young people and combatting cultural issues to ensure that they grow up knowing that same sex attraction isn’t in any way ‘not normal’. He talked again about equal treatment through public services and the need for training for healthcare professionals as well as changes needed to curriculum in schools.
On gender balance, both Tim and Norman expressed concern about Alison McInnes’ effective deselection, with Norman describing it as “tragic” and said he wants to hear from the membership about which specific positive action mechanisms we would prefer to see implemented. He stressed that more than positive action was required though, and he talked about addressing other barriers such as income, childcare, and work commitments. Finally, he spoke about his desire to see a gender-balanced leadership team and his openness to a discussion about opening up future leadership contests beyond the parliamentary party. Tim advocated all-women-shortlists and zipping for regional lists. He also praised the Leadership Program and urged us not to be too quick to judge it a failure, and promised that at least 10 of his team of 20 spokespeople, if elected, would be women. He agreed with Norman that there is a liberal case for positive action, but added that he would want to do it even if it was a little illiberal because he considers it so important.
On the under-representation of BME people, Tim reaffirmed his commitment to positive action and suggested that zipped lists should have a minimum of 10% BME candidates in total, and also talked again about his commitment to having a diverse team of spokespeople. He said he wanted to see more muscle behind the Leadership Program to ensure that there’s appropriate support in place to elect our diverse candidates once they’re selected. Norman talked about his commitment to speaking to under-represented groups outside of the party about their priorities, and the need for us to ensure we reflect modern Britain. He also advocated the use of by-elections as excellent opportunities to give experience to our BME and other under-represented candidates.
We started to see a much bigger distinction between the candidates when it came to their stances on youth engagement; Norman advised listening to young voters rather than lecturing them and confronting their criticisms of us (including on tuition fees) in order to convince them that we can be trusted. He talked making sure that we were seen as a party who understands aspiration and different routes to success, and as a party always on the side of opportunity for all. He wrapped up by advocating that we engage with young people on areas that most affect and interest them – particularly regarding our “antiquated drug laws” which unfairly criminalise young people. Tim’s response to this was a strong line against trying to be “down with the kids”. He dismissed the strategy of talking about “clever policies” and spoke with passion about getting people by their gut and engaging young people on a level outside of politics. He talked about his “football surgeries” as an example of immersing himself into communities and making sure that he was accessible so that young people in his constituency recognised him as somebody they could talk to about problems. He recommended immersion in communities and putting yourself where people are.
Both candidates need a little slap on the wrist for some of their language during the debate: I had to grit my teeth when Tim referred to “both genders” following a discussion about recognising gender as being non-binary, then Norman got an eye-roll for his use of the word ‘youngsters’ while discussing youth engagement. Aside from these slip-ups, I think both came across very well throughout the debate.
Thanks again to Tim and Norman, our excellent chair, everyone who attended, and our online audience. The event seemed to be well-received, and I hope it’s something we can do more of in future contests. I also hope that this will help make the case for streaming more of our events to engage with people who can’t attend.
* Jade O'Neil was a European list candidate for Scotland and blogs at Misinformed Musings. She proposed the motion on protecting the safety and rights of sex workers at Scottish Conference.