This Saturday, Conference has the opportunity to show that Liberal Democrats are genuinely committed to achieving gender balance in our own distinctively liberal and democratic way.
Conference will debate an amendment which Jo Shaw and I have put forward to Mark Pack and Paul Tyler’s Lords reform motion. Our amendment builds on the approach taken by our party in the late 1990s, when one-off zipping was used to deliver a gender-balanced cohort of Lib Dem MEPs in the first PR elections to the European Parliament.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t need these kinds of measures. But with just 12% women in our House of Commons parliamentary group, Liberal Democrats urgently need a gender game-changer at Westminster. The conundrum under first-past-the-post has always been how to achieve that without riding roughshod over our party’s philosophy and local candidate selection procedures. Multi-member proportional representation constituencies help us out of that rut. We can make progress on gender balance without resorting to divisive mechanisms which exclude men. We can ensure the best men – as well as the best women – get elected.
Our amendment also calls for piloting of “modern flexible working practices”. “Piloting” means just that – small scale temporary innovation to explore what works and what doesn’t. Like zipping, flexible working boosts women’s participation without excluding men. Indeed, there may be plenty of male – as well as female – QCs, academics, surgeons, and assorted high flyers who see flexible political working as the ideal way to maintain a professional foothold whilst serving in a reformed second chamber. Westminster benefits from legislators with a hinterland outside politics, and flexibility liberally and democratically empowers people to serve in public life without sacrificing every other aspect of their lives. (Anyone sceptical about how this might work in practice is warmly invited to attend a fringe I’ve organised with Lynne Featherstone – Sunday, 6.15 – Jury’s Inn).
The third and fourth limbs of our amendment relate to appointments. Our preference is for a 100% elected house but, if an appointed element is retained, we would like to see much greater transparency in how appointments are made. Peers are first and foremost revisers of legislation – their appointment should reflect this, rather than appearing to reward extraneous factors such as wealth, status and being part of the political in-crowd. A recent Radio 4 programme highlighted an alarming number of peers who have not spoken in a single debate since their introduction – this cannot be acceptable. Finally, we want to ensure that any further interim appointments take account of the fact that incumbents seeking election will have a significant advantage over new candidates. We therefore call for interim appointments to mitigate, rather than perpetuate, the existing gender imbalance in our parliamentary group – at least 50% of further interim appointments (if there are any) should be female. The success of recent appointments such as Claire Tyler (who had little profile in the party before her appointment) shows that when we are proactive about looking for high quality women we have no trouble finding them.
One of the most senior women in global politics, Christine Lagarde, recently admitted to having changed her mind about the need for equality guarantees: “I don’t like them, you don’t like them… We have to have them”. Jo and I have reluctantly made the same journey. In the spectrum of options ranging from All-Women Shortlists to status quo, temporary measures which do not exclude men seem to us a workable, if not likeable, compromise. We hope Conference agrees.
Dinti Batstone is a member of the FPC and Vice-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance.