Dinti Batstone writes… If not now, when?

Notice anything about this 5-minute BBC report on House of Lords reform? While it talks of ‘revolution in the air’, every interviewee is a white middle aged man.

Yet House of Lords reform could – if the Coalition chooses to make it so – prove a game-changing opportunity to promote the cause of gender balance at Westminster.

Our Commons party consists of just 12% women and the Commons as a whole barely 22%. The reasons for this are complex and different in each party, but electoral volatility and a leaky pipeline of female candidates are two major factors for the Liberal Democrats. The preferred diversity mechanism of many, All-Women-Shortlists (AWS), are philosophically problematic for many Liberal Democrats, and pragmatically ineffective without safe seats (in 2010 we had women candidates in 50% of retiring MP seats – none of them got elected).

Lords reform, with its promise of a second chamber wholly or mainly elected via proportional representation in multi-member constituencies, offers the prospect of making real progress on gender balance through the use of diversity mechanisms which do not exclude men. While gender balance is needed in both Houses, starting with the Lords would at least begin to chip away at Westminster’s male-centric culture.

Evidence from business suggests that a ‘critical mass’ of women at senior level is key to attracting and retaining more women. Lord Davies’ recent report into women on corporate Boards, commissioned by Lynne Featherstone and Ed Davey and “strongly welcomed” by Vince Cable, notes that while tokenism is both patronising and ineffective, a critical mass of senior women positively impacts not just the female talent pipeline, but also corporate governance and the financial bottom line. The ‘business case’ for gender balance is now widely accepted and politicians of all stripes have not been shy to threaten quotas for companies that fail to put their Boardrooms in order.

So now seems a particularly propitious moment for the Coalition to practice the gender balance it preaches. If the gender balance argument is compelling for business (whose job it is to make money for shareholders), is it not even more so for politics (whose job it is to serve a gender balanced population)?

Liberal Democrats’ woeful track record in the Commons makes it all the more important that we seize – and are seen to seize – the opportunity of Lords reform to signal that gender balance is an essential, non-negotiable part of an effective 21st century parliamentary democracy. Failing to use our flagship constitutional reform policy to promote gender balance would irretrievably damage our credibility on this issue.

The draft Lords reform Bill published today will be subject to extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and debate, so there’s plenty of time to work through the detail. Meanwhile we need a strong and unequivocal commitment from both leadership and grass roots that, whatever the mechanics, gender balance will be a Liberal Democrat priority for a reformed second chamber. Having gone backwards on the green benches at the last election we certainly cannot afford to be complacent about the red ones.

Dinti Batstone is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and Vice-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance. A longer version of this article will appear in the next issue of Liberator.

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  • paul barker 17th May '11 - 6:47pm

    Totally agree, might be useful if we had an LDV poll on it ?

  • Dinti Batstone 17th May '11 - 7:17pm

    Thanks Paul – will suggest!

  • I’m with you Dinti. And I think Katy’s points about Holyrood are right on the nail too. It’s a vicious circle I think -without better working practices, women are dissuaded from standing (or staying on) and so things don’t improve! House of Lords reform offers a great opportunity to start with a relatively clean slate, and we should grab that opportunity with both hands.

  • Dinti Batstone 17th May '11 - 11:03pm

    Spot on Katy & Jo. We need to break out of the current vicious circle whereby many women candidates and MPs throw in the towel not because they lack the talent or work ethic but because the yah boo, presenteeist, family-unfriendly culture makes them question the point of continuing to fight in a system where the odds are so clearly stacked against them. Lords reform can be a step towards changing that culture.

  • I agree with Katy about working practices. In some ways less combative atmosphere in the Lords is more suited to some women. We must make sure elections don’t bring more of the unnecessary party political aggression into the House. Also, as a woman who has stood down from a senior role in politics a year ago, I agree that family friendly (and life friendly, for those of us without families, but who want a life too) working practices are key to this. Let’s not forget about other people from diverse backgrounds too, including people from working class backgrounds who are well represented for the Liberal Democrats in many of our councils, but not in the Commons.

  • Carol Weaver 18th May '11 - 10:26am

    Well said Dinti! Our party seems to have been heading in a reverse direction when it comes to gender balance. This is an important issue for Nick to champion via the Lords reform.

  • Well said Dinti. It is vital that we as a party have a strong commitment to gender balance and a real commitment that we can find ways to enact.

  • Lynne Ravenscroft 18th May '11 - 11:36pm

    The result of the voting referendum woud suggest a lack of interest in reform of our political system, but with more than half the general population being female, it is just possible that a non-negotiable commitment to gender equality in the new upper chamber would spark a greater response from the electorate. The resistance to an elected chamber looks related to a fear that the yah-boo politics of the schoolboys in the Commons will be replicated in the ‘Lords’. Gender equality would at least have a decent chance of changing that culture: as has been written, the critical mass is the key.

  • Alison Willott 24th May '11 - 11:32am

    Quite agree that a 50-50 upper chamber could revolutionise our politics. I remember an article by Gro Brundtland years ago, when she said that the critical mass mentioned by Lynne was about a third. That was when, she said, the women’s priorities e.g. environment started taking over from men’s priorities eg defence and completely altered the balance of her Labour Party’s manifesto and government spending.
    We would certainly need to alter the working times and culture of the Lords to make it more appealing to women – the Commons is hopeless for young mums and its hours and general practice are a positive disincentive to family life. It is a pity that the growing number of ex-MPs who have now been pushed into the Lords seem to be altering its courtesy and constructive ways of working so that it is acquiring the more aggressive tactics of the Commons.
    I do worry that by making the chamber completely elected we are ruling out as members the majority of the population (many of whom would be able to contribute a lot to government policy and political life) because they would not consider putting themselves up for election. We currently have a lot of hugely talented peers who entered the house by appointment, who are experts in their field and bring an informed view into the framing of our Acts. We would be the poorer without them, but most of them wouldn’t want to be election candidates, particularly given the hostile way in which candidates are treated both by the press and by candidates in other parties. It has to be a special sort of person who can put themselves through that, and we need them as well, but I think we would miss having the contribution of the others. And actually I think that this particularly affects women, a lot of whom would not consider putting themselves (and their families) through the appalling havoc of election, even though they would have a lot to offer once they were there.

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