After the diversity debate: the hard part

Note: you can view the debate here, about 44 minutes in. The agenda for the conference is here and the Conference Dailies which include the amendments for Sunday are here.

On an issue where it is entirely possible to be on either side of the argument holding a position that is Liberal, it is time for all concerned to be respectful of that fact and to acknowledge that the real hard work on diversity is yet to be done.

Like a number of other people, I found myself supporting the Conference motion that included all-women shortlists despite my not supporting all-women shortlists .  I had drafted Amendment 2 to refocus the debate on the entirety of the party’s colossal diversity problem and ensure it wasn’t portrayed solely as a gender problem.

Amendment 2 commits the party to set out to local parties how to use the Equality Act.  It enables winnable seats to choose between candidates of equal merit in favour of those from an under-represented group.  It also commits the party to present the bizarre effect of the Act in not allowing ‘diversity shortlists’ – a concept many liberals would support.

So what next?  Two points have been made by people who opposed AWS that should be acknowledged and acted on, just as the points made forcefully in the debate by speakers from Liberal Youth about wider culture change in the party.

The first is to demonstrate that the party is serious about diversity, and maps out the effects of the measures now passed.  That means taking forward the expansion of Equality Impact Assessments [EIA] beyond its current focus on policy.  I chair the policy EIA Group which has assessed all policy papers since 2013 and works to a consistent methodology (a pity the Governance Review didn’t speak to us and understand what we do). Candidate selection is a perfect example of why equality impacts need to be assessed and any negative impacts on under-represented groups mitigated.  This needs to be wired into the system now before new candidate rules are drafted.

The second is a programme to change the culture of the party at all levels so it does embrace diversity.  Sadly, when a councillor and candidate I have all too often seen colleagues fall unconsciously foul of the standards Liberals should set in promoting equality, or working with under-represented groups.  What somebody on Facebook put very well as ‘a series of micro-interventions’ are needed so that in our local parties, in our campaigns and in every other aspect of the party’s work we take positive steps to root out bias and forment diversity.  This means that the delays to rolling out unconscious bias training need to be finally stopped – and the current Federal committees as well as their successors trained.  In the workplace I have seen good examples set in inclusivity and diversity by organisations being proactive and sat in on pilots of unconscious bias training.  Those who roll their eyes at the mention of it are probably those who most need it.

The job of the new candidate task force is challenging.  It must embrace the skills of the party bodies who will each have a stake on it. But it will need to engage with the members who voted against AWS yesterday, as well as local parties who may not have engaged with this agenda.  It must also get European selections moving so a diverse team (on grounds other than gender alone) is in place to campaign across the whole of the U.K. by the end of the year.

If the party is going to be serious about being representative of all of the country, it needs to acknowledge what it has just signed up for.  Talking to colleagues from the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and elsewhere, I know they are up for it.  Are you?


* Gareth Epps is a member of FPC and FCC, a member of the Fair Deal for your Local campaign coalition committee and is an active member of Britain’s largest consumer campaign, CAMRA. He claims to be marginally better at Aunt Sally than David Cameron, whom he stood against in Witney in 2001.

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  • R Uduwerage-Perera 14th Mar '16 - 12:55pm

    Dear Sisters, Brothers, fellow liberal believers,

    What was achieved on Sunday was groundbreaking for it placed a ‘wedge in the door’ that has been bolted closed for too long, and we can now genuinely work on removing the hinges which will in turn remove the needless barriers that exist to the recruitment, retention and progression of underrepresented and often marginalised groups and individuals within society.

    The Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) is committed to the gender agenda and the eradication of intolerance for all, for not doing this lessens the opportunity for society to benefit from the knowledge, understanding, skills and ability that exists within us all.

    I do though share the concerns of many of my EMLD members, for we are only too aware from personal and professional experience that after the initial euphoria that will follow, race equality may well be soon forgotten. This sad reality cannot be allowed to happen as it has so many times before.

    2016, society is possibly more divided now than it has been at any point in my lifetime. Politics has move to the Right, and it feels for many of us working in the race equality arena that such issues are all but forgotten, or is overtly ignored.

    If we as a Party genuinely wish to be reflective of the fantastically diverse society that exists in the 21st Century, and become a genuine relevance to those of us who look in the mirror and see and know our difference, then we as a Party need to change.

    Sunday marked for me the beginning of revolutionary change for our Party. Let us continue forward in a progressive and evidence based manner, utilising such things as the Equality Act, 2010, and seeking legislation changes to enable further positive initiatives. Equality impact assessing if used appropriately will aid us in many ways including understanding our electorate.

    There is my fellow Liberal Democrats nothing to fear, for having evidence, ethical and integrity driven policies, procedures and practices does not make us illiberal, but not thwarting the negative reality of conscious and unconscious bias does.

    We can and I believe will become the Party of equality, fairness and justice, and Sunday’s vote demonstrated this can be a reality. We are now 24hrs post-vote. Let us now start the real work that our members have enabled us to do.


    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Chair – Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats

  • Did Keighley not have qualified minority candidates? #confused

  • Lester Holloway 14th Mar '16 - 4:06pm

    Well said Gareth, the hard work does indeed start now the diversity motion and amendment two are passed. For reserved places to succeeed in the Lib Dems where they failed with Labour will require a shift in party culture. Local Labour CLP’s viewed the BAME place (held and winnable seats) as ‘token’ and the BAME place was often filled late when other hopefuls were well ahead in the local contest. Both problems can be avoided in our party if we are conscious that they can happen by default. There is, of course, nothing to stop local Lib Dem parties picking shortlists that just happen to be all-BAME, as has happened a handful of times in Labour (for held seats) so long as the choices can be defended on quality / best people grounds. As pointed out in yesterday’s debate, the Equality Act allows for factors to be in play as ‘tie-breakers’ between equally qualified candidates when certain attributes may be beneficial to the organisation (in our case enhancing the knowledge and experience of the parliamentary party for the whole party’s benefit).

    I agree that Equality Impact Assessments should be wired into candidate selection. Despite being a party of mostly volunteers we should aspire to the professional standards the public would expect. On unconscious bias training, I’m not such an enthusiast; we certainly need equalities training to reach local parties rather than simply training at conferences where most attendees are already the most aware. To do this, we need many more trainers with expertise. I favour anti-bias training, so that unwitting unconscious bias is not the default assumption. The candidate taskforce should look at headhunting and recruitment on two levels, local and national – they make require different strategies.

  • EIAs would certainly be welcome – and should be paid attention to – in all sorts of areas. Otherwise how are we to know that the measures enacted are (or are not) working?

  • Simon Banks 15th Mar '16 - 8:46am

    Yes, I am. Like Gareth, I supported the motion with serious misgivings: as an equality professional I long believed positive discrimination (which all-woman shortlists is, whereas the other actions are positive action, something different) was justifiable only if all other options had been tried and clearly failed. The marginal decision was over whether that was true of us and woman candidates and MPs.

    I would like more attention to the first stage of the process. Our membership needs to be much more diverse. We attract lots (proportionately) of woman voters and good numbers of at least some minority ethnic groups to at least consider voting for us, yet this is not reflected in our membership and the post-election membership surge actually made this worse.

  • Lester Holloway 15th Mar '16 - 9:53am

    The problem with EIAs from the start is that many public authorities treat it as a tickbox exercise, with little or no expertise applied to areas of well-documented unequal outcomes in that particular subject area. I support EIAs, but ones that take the process seriously. They work best when they are carried out with reference to published research and measured against the need to tackle disadvantages. I recommend that our party adds a new area to EIAs; whether the policy is likely to influence voters in protected characteristic groups, or could do if promoted. This won’t apply to all policies but if enacted across the board opportunities won’t be missed. Results of this aspect should be passed to campaigns and the media team for consideration.

  • Rabi Martins 15th Mar '16 - 12:07pm

    Like many others I supported the Diversity Motion only because Amendment 2 extended the desired outcomes to beyond AWS (Gareth thanks for your help in drafting it)
    But as we all know motions of itself achieve little It is the follow through that is key
    And as far as this motion goes the responsibility for ensuring the wishes of conference are followed through will fall to the proposed Candidates Work Force
    It is crucial that FE get the make up of that Task Force right – There is a strong case for giving Regional Diversity Champions a central role in liaising between the Task Force and the relevant constituencies
    It is also important that this Task Force is given proper authority to drive and monitor the selection process in constituencies Given how much store the Party puts on the autonomy of Constituency Parties this may not a straightforward exercise
    I also hope that the make up of the AWS is inclusive of individuals from the under represented groups (BAME, Disabled etc) On hindsight I should have included this in my suggested amendment But I hope that good sense will prevail and move Constituency Parties to do this anyway

  • Lester Holloway 15th Mar '16 - 1:29pm

    Gareth – I agree up to a point that the taskforce needs to be about the ‘what’ rather than the ‘who’, but the ‘who’ remains important because of the need to feed back and include SAO groups and to ensure that, on race, the right expertise with the right politics on race is there. The Race Equality Taskforce on employment and education previously bumped up against a knowledge deficit in HQ and Spads, and had to rewrite the thing to reflect actual debate and views! We start from a confidence deficit position! On EIA, yes let’s discuss!

  • I couldn’t attend conference but listened to the debate. I’m not sure whether the question of reporting back to Conference was raised. I’m sure that all those who voted for the motion want to see as rapid as possible change not only for women but for all minority groups too so there should be regular reports back at the Autumn conference on progress and results.

  • Lester Holloway 15th Mar '16 - 10:00pm

    Gareth, I believe we are agreeing.

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