Baroness Lindsay Northover writes…Our MPs must include women as well as men

We are an internationalist party.  We believe in human rights.  Our constitution commits us to equality, as well as liberty and community.

So how can it be that we, the Lib Dems of all parties, have absolutely no women MPs?  Zero.  0.0%.

Round the world, countries and parties have addressed the paucity of women in elected positions. Our sister parties have done so. We have a history of trying to do so – but trying is not the same as succeeding.  That must change now. I am extremely glad that our Party President, Sal Brinton, and our party leader, Tim Farron, are making clear that change must happen.

The SDP and then the Lib Dems led with affirmative action until the late 1990s.  Then Labour sailed past us with women-only shortlists.  They transformed their party – and the UK Parliament. Now their Commons party is 44% women.  Even the Conservatives are almost 21%.

Our current MPs were first elected between 1997 and 2005 (Tom Brake, 1997; Alistair Carmichael, Norman Lamb, John Pugh, 2001; Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Greg Mulholland, Mark Williams, 2005). Had we acted when Labour did, or even when this was controversially debated by our party in the early 2000s, then even at this undeserved low water mark in our party’s fortunes we would not have a totally male line-up.

That is why, with something of a clean slate, we must now take action that makes a real difference not just in processes, but in outcomes. As we successfully did for the Euro elections in 1999, and must again for the next ones.

The UK ranks 46th internationally in terms of women in Parliament, just below Nepal.  Had it been based on the Lib Dems, the UK would be bottom, grouped with Yemen and Qatar. I have long seen the actions taken elsewhere to ensure the election of women. The Mexican Foreign Affairs Committee Chair told me parties had to change structures first, and then, she said, culture followed.  A handful of Scandinavian countries no longer need to take action, having used quotas for years.

As analysts point out, gender quotas have proved the single most effective tool for ensuring women’s representation. They do not remove all the barriers to women’s participation, and must be complemented by other measures.  But without this, you are not even at the starting gate.

As an internationalist party we should look beyond our shores. We cannot think that solely the Lib Dems will crack this problem without using measures that affect outcomes.  We have the proof that we cannot.

We have practically a clean slate. And we have the Equality Act (2010) which tells us firstly that we must address inequality in our ranks, and then goes on to say what we can do. And that includes women-only shortlists. Something which Labour has used for two decades.

It clearly is not a reflection on the abilities and contribution that women can make, or fairness, to say that no women Lib Dems could possibly be MPs.

So I say to all our new members, all our women, and in fact to all our men, that we can and must modernise our party.  We have long laboured to train, mentor, foster. But this has not been transformational.  We now need to change the outcome. We must ensure that we are indeed a 21st century, representative, internationalist party that values human rights. Women as well as men must be counted among our Commons parliamentarians.

* Lindsay Northover was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, 2014-15, and is Liberal Democrats Spokesperson on International Development in the House of Lords.

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54 Comments

  • Yes indeed. The East is getting ahead.
    Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party just elected as the first Hakka president of Taiwan.

  • Mick Taylor 17th Jan '16 - 9:30am

    I agree with Lindsay 100%. We must also make sure that minorities get the same treatment – as did happen in 1999 six men – inc 1 minority and 6 women. All the other measures we have taken have failed. I wish we could easily change culture but in 52 years as a party member we never move far or fast enough.

  • Yes let’s do it. But not make a big deal about it. It’s not a revolution, or going to win us seats by itself. It’s just the right thing to do.

  • I agree with Lyndsay. I hope the party listens to her and takes effective action to redress gender inequality. Past measures, with the exception of zipping, haven’t done the job. How can a Liberal Democrat party not have any women MPs? Lyndsay puts forward a compelling case for the sort of measures we need to take. Without them, nothing will change.

  • Tsar Nicholas 17th Jan '16 - 9:47am

    The Lib Dems have no female MPs becuase the previous leadership wrecked the party.

    For any of the propsed solutions to work there has to be at least some prospect of target seats being gained. Despite #libdemfightback there’s no evidence that this is going to happen. Still, we have four years to go.

  • We had so few women MPs to begin with, that when last May happened, we lost those that we had. And yes, we did have some women candidates in what previously would have been winnable seats, but I wonder how many incumbent MPs would have stood down if they thought they would win in 2015?
    The problem we have as a party runs deep. We need many more women in parliament. We are not going to manage that in the way we select our candidates. There is a telling piece of research by the European Institute for Gender Equality that shows how important ‘gatekeepers’ – those who control selection panels – are and how reluctant they are to change the status quo. It is exactly what other parties have found when seeking to redress gender imbalance. Hence all women short lists.

  • All women shortlists are essential. The Lib Dems currently just look like hypocrites, making the most noise about the rights of the individual, about equality, about gender issues – and have no women MPs. Seeking to part-blame the electorate speaks volumes. Walk the walk.

  • Completely agree re that we need to do more to represent women and other groups in the party and in parliament generally but the fact that we have all male MPs at the moment is irrelevant. They are the ‘survivors’ of an electoral cull – not the result of an (un)conscious exclusion of women from the PP

  • Gwyn Williams 17th Jan '16 - 11:59am

    In the last Parliament 7 out of 56 of our MPs were women or 1 in every eight. If the same proportion had been maintained in 2015 we would have one woman MP. In every General Election since 1983 we have had at least one woman MP defending her seat. In each and every General Election since 1983 we have lost at least one woman MP. The key question is why is it that women Liberal Democrat MPs fail to defend their seats.

  • Take a look at what has just happened in Scotland. Willie Rennie is tackling that situation, so should we for the Westminster.
    The last Parliament was to do with selection processes before 2010. In this Parliamentary election, the party was mashed. Women, in more vulnerable seats such as those in the SW, where the Tories targetted, were hard hit.
    I take it that you are satisfied with 7/56, Gwyn? As women are 52% of the population, there is sonething of a deficit there, don’t you think?

  • A Social Liberal 17th Jan '16 - 1:38pm

    It can only be right to aim for a cohort of MPs which represents the make up of the country. But I would start with working class MPs, then women, disabled and BAME.

    What I would not advocate is all working class shortlists, all disabled or yes, even all women shortlists. We need to encourage ALL these types of candidates to put themselves forward and then choose the best from them all.

    Incidentally, what was the percentage of women candidates, or the percentage of women on shortlists, or even women who applied. How many women are on the national candidates list?

    All women shortlists are not liberal given that they disadvantage all other groupings.

  • Jenny barnes 17th Jan '16 - 2:17pm

    Politics is strucrurally very unfriendly to women. Esp women who have children. Anyone would think the future of the human race depended on it. It needs more than quotas, although that would be a good start. I suggest 100% women in winnable seats for next GE , apart from our 8 existing MPs, who one assumes have some traction with their electorate. We had 100% men for ages.

  • “So how can it be that we, the Lib Dems of all parties, have absolutely no women MPs? ” to be fair when going from over 50 to 8 it is difficult to keep a balance. It could be same after 2020 even if there are women only seats. With such a loss of seats winning back could be quite random. With present polling there could be few gains.

  • The important thing is that we have a range of candidates of all genders/races/social backgrounds standing in winnable seats. s have pointed out, it is not the parties fault that the electorate, in their wisdom, chose to reject a number of outstanding female candidates. Can I add, that a system that effectively bans 50% of the population from standing in certain constituencies does not meet my definition of “liberal”. Actually this whole debate becomes exceedingly messy when we are all allowed to nominate our own gender, as proposed by Maria Miller and co.

  • Much as I favour activists trying to take back control of the party, this mobe would gake no account of the UK’s broken electoral system. We have to accept that the current 8 MPs are random survivors of a tidal change; there is no plot here by the party to keep women, and minorities, out. Look instead at the Lords, and the Scots and Welsh regional listings, where the party’s own preferences can be translated woth vertainty into representatives.

  • @Gwyn Williams “why is it that women Liberal Democrat MPs fail to defend their seats.” in the last election 41 non women failed to defend their seats. Why is that?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 17th Jan '16 - 4:10pm

    Simon, neither, I think most of us would say. That is a bit of a straw man. But then some people thought that it wasn’t a problem that we only had 7/57 female MPs. It worries me that there are people in our party who think that’s ok.

  • And the Greens have 0.0% of male MPs. It’s a disgrace and I demand they do something about it about right now……..

  • Peter Watson 17th Jan '16 - 4:34pm

    “So how can it be that we, the Lib Dems of all parties, have absolutely no women MPs? Zero. 0.0%.”
    johnmc: “the current 8 MPs are random survivors of a tidal change”
    Caron Lindsay: “some people thought that it wasn’t a problem that we only had 7/57 female MPs”
    Nick Baird: “the Greens have 0.0% of male MPs.” 🙂

    Unless my maths is out, I believe that if men and women have an equal chance of becoming a Lib Dem MP, then 0 women out of 8 MPs is a more likely random outcome than 7 out of 57, i.e. less indicative that it is not random and that a woman has less chance of becoming a Lib Dem MP than a man.
    In other words, being outraged about 0 out of 8 is a bit belated: 7 out of 57 was worse.
    When it comes to equality (whether by race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.) Lib Dems talk a good game but when we look at the party’s MPs (even before May 2015) there is an obvious mismatch between the party’s ideals and its reality, and worse, a lag behind other major parties.

  • @Caron
    “It worries me that there are people in our party who think that’s ok.”

    Well, quite. Other parties have managed to make huge progress on this, while the Lib Dems – both in good and bad electoral times – have made absolutely none. Simply blaming the electorate, as some here have tried to do, will not wash.

  • Colleagues might like to look at a piece of research quoted by the Centre for Wonen that was published in 2011. It predicted – unfortunately – exactly what would happen in 2015 as far as women candidates and MPs were concerned. The party has a major problem with credibility because if its lack of women MPs.
    For those Social Liberals – and incidentally I count myself as one such – who think our Social Liberal colleague above is right, I would refer you to Eva Baudet, former Finnish Ombudsman for Minorities. she found that when gender issues are linked to other minorities, women go to the back of the queue every time.
    I find it incredible that members believe it isn’t Liberal to assist a group that is known to be disadvantaged. That argument died when we brought in Compulsory Education in the 19th century, Pensions in 20th century and Pupil Premium in the 21st. I could cite many other examples where as Liberals, we took on disadvantage and sought to redress it. The political opportunity deficit for women in our party has to be addressed.

  • Jenny barnes 17th Jan '16 - 4:54pm

    It’s all very well to argue that what we have now is the liberal outcome of a lot of individual choices. However that completely ignores structural inequalities. So we end up with a very disproportionate number of white cis hetero middle class male Mps and then there’s some “liberal” argument that therefore they were the best candidates.
    I have to disagree. How about short lists containing 0% white cis hetero middle class men? That would be different, and we might see a bit of diversity.

  • Leekliberal 17th Jan '16 - 5:21pm

    For how long have we baulked at all female short-lists for top-target seat PPCs? Of course it’s true that anything but the electoral disaster that befell us would have been better for gender balance than what happened but, as a male, I have finally lost patience with the softer options. Together with all women short-lists we need extra support for our female PPCs to redress the disadvantages that our patriarchal society has imposed on them. Parliament is supposed to represent us all and 0% Lib Dem women MPs is totally unacceptable. IT’S TIME so let’s do it!

  • A suggestion , why don t all party members implement positive discrimination when picking between two individuals of very obviously equal calibre ? Similarly on ethnicity as well as disability , even more lousy in profile in our party than gender . Also , when we have a proposal from a senior figure , say , another peer , not the author of this article , but one who is black and indeed also a woman , and a figure much loved in the memories of many , even if some disagree with the proposal , it would be good if she was listened to and engaged with by party members with respect , even from other women who , though less than men , do not always show it ! I think if we made more of the black and other ethnic minority talent in our party it would help the cause of women for more individual party members would get the message themselves and do the right thing without the need for all any group short lists !

  • Gwyn Williams 17th Jan '16 - 9:42pm

    In Wales I fail to see how the Party discriminates against women. We went into the 2011 Assembly Election with 4 women out of our 5 Assembly members. After one loss due to retirement and one defeat, we still have 2 women out of 5.

    In the Welsh Assembly Election in May 2016 our candidates in the four most winnable first past the post seats will be women. Jane Dodds in Montgomery, Elizabeth Evans in Ceredigion, Eluned Parrott in Cardiff Central and Kirsty will defend Brecon and Radnor. It is impossible for the Party in Wales to do more to see women elected to the Assembly. It is now up to the candidates and the electorate.

  • I agree we need more elected women Liberal Democrats, indeed more Liberal Democrats from all under represented groups is good!

    We should celebrate elected women LibDems like Parliamentarians Catherine Bearder MEP and Alison McInnes MSP, and Eluned Parrott AM, Kirsty Williams AM leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and Caroline Pidgeon LAM the Liberal Democrat’s candidate for the Mayor of London and Baroness Dorothy Thornhill MBE the first directly elected mayor of Watford.

    We should celebrate elected women in our Sister party the Alliance party in Northern Ireland, like Judith Cochrane MLA and Anna Lo MLA. We should join our neighbours in celebrating elected women members of the Alliance of Liberal Democrats in Europe, such as Marietje Schaake, Beatriz Becerra Basterrechea, Sophie in t’ Veld, Filiz Hyusmenova, Izaskun Bilbao Barandica, Sylvie Goulard, and Frédérique Ries. There are many more women ALDE MEPs than this incomplete list ready to be celebrated too!

  • Nearly a third of MP’s are women so things in other parties are getting better. The Tories, Labour and SNP all had increases in the number of women MP’s. I think the truth is that the state of the LibDem party is the reason you have no female MP’s. You could have fielded 100% women candidates and still had no MP’s. There is no quick solution, it could be 10 or 20 years before there is a another woman LibDem MP in the commons – it may never happen. The good thing is the other parties are doing a lot better, 20 years ago who would have thought the Tories would have around 70 women MP’s – all without “women only short lists”.

  • Apart from 2 or 3 contributions this piece completely overlooks the problem posed by the British electoral system. A woman in either of the two big parties only needs to get the backing of the selection committee in a safe seat to become an MP. There are no safe Liberal Democrat seats. The party lost North Cornwall, North Devon and Montgomeryshire (where there was a woman candidate) which had had Liberal or Liberal Democrat representation for a large part of the 20th century. The 8 remaining MPs almost certainly hold their position because of personal factors so if a woman candidate had replaced any of them there would probably have been less LibDem MPs. I remember Lady Violet Bonham Carter, who was an outstanding advocate of the Liberal cause, being rejected by the electorate in several constituencies, including my own, despite those places having a strong Liberal tradition.

    Those places where women have been elected in equal numbers, such as the Welsh Assembly, enjoy the benefit of proportional representation. That is most unlikely to be adopted for the United Kingdom Parliament unless there is a political earthquake or a direction from the EU. Our only MEP is a woman because of PR.

    These articles play into the hands of our opponents who will continue to sneer at the lack of women or BAME LD MPs while deliberately obscuring the real reasons.

  • The Northern Ireland Assembly is elected by prortional representation.

  • Proportional – sorry

  • Why are country folk so poorly represented in the party ? Farming and grower producers are very poorly represented in our upper echelons as they spend most of their time actually working and not playing with KEYBOARDS. We do need much more rural input. Our greatest resource is the land and those who work it yet it is our most neglected resource.

    We really do need to work for a much more inclusive social policy in which we have a two member constituency reprsentation, one Male One female. We really do need to satop this sexual bickering and behave in a more mature fashion. Children grow out of this bickering stage. The cost is much more balanced discussion.

    A nut is a Nut and a bolt is a Bolt. Put them together and you have a really valuable unit, On their own they are of limited use.

  • Sadie Smith 18th Jan '16 - 1:44pm

    This is very important .
    How women are used also matters once elected.
    We are unlikely to revisit the Coalition but it was notable that there was no woman on the negotiating team, no woman became a full Cabinet member and there were no women to choose as Leader. Thank heavens for Sal and some of our peers.

  • David Allen 18th Jan '16 - 4:19pm

    As mentioned above, the Tories have achieved 20% female MPs (which of course is far from perfect, but it’s also far better than us) without recourse to a highly restrictive selection process. Can’t we find parallel options which will work at least as well as what the Tories do?

    One thought – Yes, Labour impose all-female short lists, and then cause a lot of internal resentment by doing that in some constituencies but not others. What about a rule that in all constituencies, if there is more than one male contender, there must be a preselection stage, such that only one male contender is then allowed into the final selection stage? That way, nobody could ever say that the best man (and I do mean “man” here) was denied the chance to win. But, given a majority of female candidates for PPC, the voting membership would be likely to choose a woman much more often.

  • I think Jenny Barnes idea is a good one to get more diversity within the party but this should be combined with all women short lists. Several people have talked about structural causes of our lack of MPs who embody our Liberal Democratic values. However there are also causes relating to hidden bias. This is not overt prejudice but common to all of us as we make judgements about others in our everyday life, at the most simple level, about who we want to be friends with. We do not make initial choices based on logic but on visual and oral cues which make our minds up in a matter of seconds. We also need to counteract this hidden bias against women and minority groups by removing the safe male option. We have to show that we want diversity not just talk about it otherwise women and members of minority groups will be discouraged from joining us.

  • In responding to David Allen I think you might find that the Tories used affirmative action – the A List of some 100-150 candidates of whom more than half were women – to increase the number of Tory MPs who were women. It worked.

  • I’m not sure that all this “women only short lists” or “BAME only shortlists” make any difference in attracting voters or new members. The Tories continue to be the most popular party with women voters and they are also making significant headway in attracting BAME voters. Out of an estimated 3 million BAME voters over 1 million supported the Tories which is a fantastic result for them. Perhaps the LibDems have a lot to learn from the Tories on what women and BAME voters and party members really want.

  • malc: Maybe many women voters do not want the same things and prefer the Conservatives or Labour party as they seem more likely to win power ?

  • nvelope2003 19th Jan '16 - 1:01pm

    One of the reasons why Asquith was unwilling to grant women the vote was that he and the Liberal leadership feared it would mean the Conservatives would be in power most of the time and they were absolutely right about that.

  • Ruth Bright 19th Jan '16 - 1:04pm

    The contention that the electorate is the problem is intriguing because, of course, where we lost in Twickenham, Eastleigh, Cardiff Central, Birmingham Yardley, Redcar, Brent Central, Hornsey and Wood Green, Lewes, Berwick, Burnley, Taunton, Eastbourne, Chippenham, Portsmouth South, Cheadle, Bristol West and Brent Central the voters were quite happy to elect a woman.

  • nvelope2003 19th Jan '16 - 1:18pm

    Ruth Bright: Yes they elected Conservative or Labour women.

  • Ruth Bright 19th Jan '16 - 2:05pm

    Yup nvelope2003 I had noticed that! The undertone of one commenter here is that female candidates are a liability with the electorate – clearly not in the seats I listed.

  • David Allen 19th Jan '16 - 4:44pm

    Flo Clucas – Yes, the Tories’ A-list scheme is a little bit like mine, in that it acted effectively to favour the selection of women without going to the (extreme?) lengths of banning all male candidates for selected seats. I guess the Tory scheme worked partly because lots of money was available and could be thrown towards the A-list. We don’t have that money, so for us, my scheme might work better.

  • Well said Ruth Bright. The excuses for not pursuing affirmative action have been round for decades and look at the result. Isn’t it time that, as a party, we looked to be truly Liberal and support those in our ranks who are disadvantaged just because of their gender? 52% of the population are women, yet only a fraction of MPs are women; slightly better figures in local government, but women are still not at 50 or even 40 per cent. The time is now. So, let’s get on with it and do something positive.
    As for women voters looking to the Tories, doesn’t that tell us something about ourselves?

  • Ruth Bright 19th Jan '16 - 7:59pm

    Flo, I admire you and your many years of service to the party. Forgive me but we are both in our middle years shall we say?! I joined the party at 18 and next week I enter my fiftieth year. This year my daughter will become a teenager. I am in freefall panic that I will not see parity for women in this party in my lifetime. Perhaps my daughter will live to see it.

  • I agree Ruth. I don’t want today’s youngsters having the same battle that I thought had been won years ago. For those of us who recall the great promise of equality for women in the late 20th century, seeing that battle still having to be fought is incredible. I want the party to succeed, but without change, it will find the course harder and harder to complete. As for age, yes to that too. Middle years? Mmm… Young in mind and spirit, I hope!

  • This is a disappointing posting. It is the sort of attitude which will probably ensure that few Lib Dem women will ever get elected again. 🙁 I write as someone who abandoned his own political activity at a certain age for some time in order to try to get a woman elected.

    This Party is not going to get ANY new MPs at all at the next general election, or the one after that, unless particular exceptional individuals willing to exploit themselves (and their immediate families and friends) close to death join up with good teams prepared to flog their guts out in a specific rather small number of constituencies. The gender of those exceptional individuals is, unfortunately totally unpredictable at this point in time.

  • Sorry you feel that way Tony. I am intrigued by your remark that ‘It is the sort of attitude that will probably ensure that few Lib Dem women will ever get elected again’. I assume you mean Lindsay’s post.
    All the research shows that selection processes are biased to the status quo. In other words, culture change is very difficult. I don’t think it is difficult to precict who those individuals are who will fight seats. They will largely be male, largely middle class, largely white, largely of a certain age. If we are facing really difficult times over the next two cycles, isn’t the time to change now? Isn’t this the opportunity to make a difference and encourage more women to stand and to have a real chance to be selected and elected? Isn’t this the time to reach out to women across the party and beyond and to demonstrate that not just in our words, but by our deeds too?
    After all, given where we are as a party, it might just make the difference…

  • There are three times more men than women commenting on this thread.

  • Not scientific, but enough to have confidence in the ratio. It’s easy for people not to notice when women’s voices are absent.

    Embracing diversity including genderfluidity shouldn’t prevent us from recognising the under-representation of women.

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