Gender balance amongst the Liberal Democrats: some evidence

Over the weekend, Paul Head criticised the party’s Leadership Programme, saying,

While the Candidate Leadership Programme seems like a good idea, giving candidates from underrepresented groups the support and training they need to go on and, hopefully, become MPs, I believe it is destined to failure for the same reasons that shortlists are not the answer.

They both ignore the real problem.

Shortlists in particular are a quick-fix, tinkering round the edges, top-down attempt to create the façade that we are a party that is representative of the whole country. The truth is we aren’t. A quick look around the conference hall and most fringe meetings would have demonstrated what the real problem is, not just that our Parliamentary Party is “too male and too pale” but that the Party as a whole is “too male and too pale”.

Looking around conference is of course not the only way to judge the party’s grassroots diversity, so what do other measures say? I’ve not got figures for other diversity (and in a comment Paul has said “my post was probably more relevant in the case of BAMEs than women”), but on gender the story is more nuanced than this:

  • Overall, the party’s membership is slightly more male than female, with 52%-48% the frequently quoted figure. That’s approximately the reverse of the actual UK population, but still pretty evenly balanced. In other words, the hugely lopsided gender imbalance at most levels of elections can’t be put down to the party not having recruited enough women to the party. If the party’s election winners reflected the party’s overall membership the collective picture would look very different.
  • At the local level, the proportion of Liberal Democrat councillors who are female has been stalled at 30-35% for the last two decades. Hopes that social changes will gradually over time remove the gender imbalance amongst those elected to public office look likely to be dashed.
  • The only elected level at which the proportion of females amongst those elected is significantly higher for Liberal Democrats than for other parties is the European Parliament, reflecting the knock-on effect of introducing zipping (see link for full figures).

The past is not a sure guide to the future, but it can help illuminate the choices – and this trio of evidence from previous experience goes a long way to explaining why people such as Paddy Ashdown have, as Paul pointed out, changed their minds over the years and moved in favour of more radical action.

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  • paul barker 3rd Oct '11 - 1:56pm

    Affirmative action of any sort is inevitably going to be Top-down, Short-term & for those reasons, superficial.
    Whats wrong with that ? If we are serious enough to make changes now then we will carry on making the deeper changes needed for the long-term.
    The simple fact is that the changes weve made so far have not been enough to have an effect the voters can see.

  • Tony Dawson 3rd Oct '11 - 5:56pm

    Two factors appear to be ignored in these regularly-regurgitated arguments.

    1. The differential, in terms of level of ‘positive support’ from the Party and from friends and family, and the lack of chance of proceeding to ‘high office’ (sic) without having such support, is far larger, between people with major childcare responsibilities and those who have not, than is the case between the genders. You are far more likely to become an MP if you are a middle-aged woman with no family (or whose family has grown up) than you are if you are a genuine single parent father of three.

    2. Becoming and being a Lib Dem ‘breakthrough’ or ‘target’ candidate where there is not already a strong local party base is not a rational act, either in terms of self-care or care for one’s family. The candidate often has, personally, to put in massive resources in those areas of the local campaigning/constituency profile where there are few or none. So, except in a handful of ‘inherited’ held seats, where a MP retires/resigns, being a Lib Dem ”target’ candidate generally requires one to possess a lower ‘family-care/ consideration coefficient’ and either or both a higher level of ego or fanaticism than is the norm. Women generally (it is not an ‘exclusive’ property but the distribution is highly-skewed) have far higher ‘family-care/consideration coefficient’ s, much less fanaticism and smaller egos. So the sanest and cleverest of women (the ones we might most wish to become MPs) do not wish, in anything like the same numbers, to involve themselves in the processes of self-harm necessary to fight to become target constituency Lib Dem candidates, let alone to fight those constituencies for 3-10 years in order to win. It would be stupid for them to do so. It is equally stupid for our party’s males to do so but there are more of them willing to put themselves through the mill. And a few of them win.

  • Tom Papworth 4th Oct '11 - 2:36am

    “A quick look around the conference hall and most fringe meetings would have demonstrated what the real problem is…”

    …which is that Conference isn’t representative of the Party. Maybe we should start zipping at AGMs for Voting Reps.

    Oh, and paying for them to attend, of course.

  • We need to go back to the question of why it would be good to have a diverse range of people as MPs and as “leaders” within the party and then work out what to do about it. The advantage of having people from different backgrounds is that it gives us fresh ideas and helps us understand the problems and opportunities in the UK today. For example, if we had party members who scraped by on the minimum wage, then they would have been able to guide Clegg’s Alarm Clock Britain idea – an idea I that was roughly correct but didn’t resonate because we don’t have enough people from this background to test it on.

    If we truly want to recruit people from all parts of society we would have to do something radically different. We need to think what it’s like to be a party member without much disposable income and then to be pressured by raffles, donations and standing orders. We need to think about how ordinary members can get their voice heard in a local and affordable way – I can’t go to conference because of (a) the cost and (b) can’t get childcare. But I would be able to attend an evening locally if an MP or member of the various policy bodies came to listen to people’s views.

    A very simple thing to do for local parties is to organise informal babysitting for several children, which would allow parents to go out canvassing or attend training. Another thing would be to have some events that don’t involve fundraising so there is no pressure on low waged people.

    I don’t believe that women don’t want to engage in politics – many women talk passionately about gaining the right to vote and the Suffragettes – it’s just that we’re made to do it on terms that suit the establishment and we have to juggle everything in our busy lives and we have to prioritise. That’s why it’s important to consider why we need women, low waged or unemployed people, people from different ethnic backgrounds – it’s not a token gesture to look good – it’s because they will give us an insight into the UK today and give us new ideas. And if we want these people we have to think about what we offer and whether we demand that everyone conforms to the established idea of what membership is – giving money, delivering leaflets, going to conferences – or whether we as a party are prepared to think differently about what people can contribute to the party.

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