Dinti Batstone writes: diversity opportunity at #ldconf

This weekend in Sheffield, Liberal Democrats will be debating important internal steps to ensure that by 2015 our parliamentary party in the House of Commons better reflects the diversity of modern Britain.

In the coming months, with the Draft Bill on House of Lords reform, Liberal Democrats will also have a key external opportunity to kickstart culture change at Westminster.

Here’s why we need to grasp that opportunity:

§ Diversity is part of the solution to our broken politics. Diversity is good not just for under-represented groups and parties who want their votes, but, far more importantly, for constituents, politics and society as a whole. Lord Davies’ recent ‘Women On Boards’ report highlights a growing body of evidence that diverse, gender balanced businesses outperform those with male dominated boards and senior management. If more diversity at the top is good for business, why not politics?

§ Constitutional and political reform is a flagship Liberal Democrat policy area. It’s Nick Clegg’s ministerial portfolio and one of our key ‘wins’ from the Coalition. Campaigners inside and outside the party will be watching closely to see what priority we give to diversity in forthcoming reforms. The new second chamber represents a unique opportunity to signal that, despite our depressing record in the Commons, Liberal Democrats are serious about parliamentary diversity. If not now, when?

§ A diverse second chamber will draw from the widest possible talent pool. Effective scrutiny requires breadth, as well as depth, of skills and experience. Research shows that to harness the full benefit of diversity tokenism is not enough – there must be ‘critical mass’. Embedding diversity into plans for the second chamber will attract new blood into politics, widening access and participation and challenging Westminster’s dominant culture. What better way to mark the centenary of the Parliament Act?

So much for the ‘why’; here are a couple of ideas on the ‘how’.

§ Embrace the ‘business case’ for diversity. While arguments about equality and representation are compelling to under-represented groups, they clearly haven’t been compelling enough for the wider body politic. It’s time to supplement equality arguments with an evidence-based articulation of how gender balance and diversity can improve our politics. The people making these arguments should not just be women and ethnic minorities, but also white men – starting from the top.

§ Electoral systems matter. Liberal Democrats know this better than anyone, so we should be paying close attention to what electoral system is proposed for the reformed second chamber. An open list system would leave the voter in the driving seat whilst at the same time facilitating one-off measures such as zipping or quotas.

§ Use temporary equality guarantees for the first round of elections/ appointments to the reformed second chamber. I’ve spend most of my adult life passionately opposing quotas, but an overwhelming body of evidence suggests that they are the only way to effect change quickly. The combination of lengthy terms, grandfathering and incumbency (for peers seeking election to the reformed chamber) means that there will already be an in-built white male bias, so countervailing measures are needed. Our party used one-off zipping for the first proportional Euro elections in 1999 – twelve years later our MEP group remains gender balanced.

Actions speak louder than words. If Liberal Democrats do not grasp this opportunity to show that we genuinely want a more diverse Parliament – and are prepared to stick our necks out to get it – we risk remaining ‘male and pale’ for another generation.

Dinti Batstone is Vice-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance and a member of the Federal Policy Committee.

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9 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 10th Mar '11 - 9:26pm

    You mean we should demonstrate our party’s commitment to opposing discrimaition on the grounds of race and sex by er discriminating on the grounds of race and sex?

  • Indeed. Quotas, zipping, reserved places – all wrong in principle and wrong in practice.

  • agree that you dont achieve equality by discriminating

  • “In practice”, Liberal Democrat parliamentary leadership is overwhelmingly white and male. The theory may be that everyone has an equal shot, but if the actual outcomes don’t support the theory, isn’t it time to revisit it?

  • Maybe everyone does have an “equal shot” but there’s an imbalance in the people doing the shooting? What evidence of systemic discrimination in any of the party’s selection processes is there, which might justify using positive discrimination to overcome?

  • But GP consortia are already hiring in united health care US multinational

    Some GPs want to float their practice on stock exchange on the basis of the reforms

    GP consortia don’t even need to meet in public

    Help sos our NHS

    Worried nurse

  • Dinti Batstone 11th Mar '11 - 11:09am

    As mentioned in the article, I’ve come at the suggestion of one-off quotas/ zipping very reluctantly. However reform of the second chamber represents such a unique opportunity that we need to grasp it and, for the first time in UK history, create a fully representative chamber. What happens after the first set of elections/ appointments can be then be debated on the basis of the difference a fully representative chamber makes in practice, which is not something we’ve ever yet experienced in this country.

    I also see an important philosophical distinction between equality guarantees which EXCLUDE people (like All-Women Shortlists in single member constituencies which prevent a man from representing his local area) and equality guarantees which INCLUDE people (quotas/ zipping in multi-member constituencies). The best white men will still be able to get elected in multi-member consituencies – I’m simply proposing that when creating the new chamber we ensure that the best women and ethnic minority candidates get a look in at the first set of elections/ appointments.

  • Roland Baker 20th Sep '11 - 8:47am

    I commend to Dinti Batstone the book edited by the eminent Liberal Democrat Andrew Duff, MEP for Eastern England, in honour of Baroness Shirley Williams on her 80th birthday in 2010. (“Making the Difference”, published by Biteback Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-1-84954-052-0.)

    The third essay by Germaine Greer is sceptical about “affirmative action” to promote the participation of women in politics and points to Margaret Thatcher, Shirley Williams, Barbara Castle and Gwyneth Dunwoody as examples. I could add Baroness Shephard of Northwold. Baroness Williams gave her 1911 Centenary Lecture in honour of the 100th birthday of the Parliament Act on Nancy Astor to whom reference may also be made. If you want to know how easily an all-women shortlist can be abused, even by professed equalitymongers like Harriet Harman, just look at Jack Dromey MP.

    Dinti Batstone spoke eloquently from what I saw of her speech on BBC Parliament with sincerity and decency. However, she may like to reflect on historical examples of great women in politics and consider whether, if she makes it to the top of a political career, she may always be tainted by some suggestion that it was made easy for her by special preference and she never quite got there purely on her own merits.

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