Jo Swinson: Why I now back all women shortlists

12496325_10207909151261642_614223791405517749_oBelow are the two speeches Jo Swinson made to Scottish Conference yesterday. The Diversity Debate took place in two halves. The first was on a constitutional amendment which would allow the Scottish Party to implement arrangements on gender balance which had been approved by conference. One amendment to that was submitted, and supported by the movers, changing gender balance to the much wider “diversity”. The risk of such an approach was that a 2/3 majority was needed for it to pass, but the working group had been advised that a constitutional amendment was vital to enable any new arrangements to be implemented.

It’s worth pointing out that in the intervening period, Jo has done so much to encourage and support women candidates, running training events and supporting so many as they embarked on selection campaigns.

Here is her speech proposing the constitutional amendment:

15 years ago, at party conference in Bournemouth, I was getting ready to give the most important speech of my life. I was so anxious I felt physically nauseous. I had to speak at the very end of the debate, immediately after, and in opposition to, my political hero Shirley Williams.

The motion aimed to introduce All Women Shortlists. Shirley was in favour, and I was arguing against. Then, just 5 of our 52 MPs were women. I put the case for an alternative approach: a properly resourced, systematic campaign across the party to seek out, encourage and support women candidates. Conference agreed.

Since then, through the Gender Balance Task Force, and later the Campaign for Gender Balance, I have worked with some brilliant people, including many in this room, to talent-spot, inspire, train and assist women in our party.

We raised funds, we ran events across the country, we developed the Future Women MPs weekends of intensive training for promising candidates. I was so determined to prove we could do it, I even got myself elected.

Conference, 15 years on, we have no women MPs at all.

Over the last 30 years the representation of women as a proportion of our elected Scottish Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians has barely moved, hovering between 1 in 10 and 1 in 7 of our combined group of MSPs, MPs and MEP. Or to put it another way, the representation of men has varied between 86% and 90% across 3 decades.

Incumbency has been a significant barrier to improving diversity, so many of our Parliamentarians being middle aged, middle class, straight white men, with only a small number of faces changing at each election.

But incumbency is not the only problem. It’s not just a matter of time. When we have been electing new Parliamentarians in Scotland over the last 20 years, it’s been in the same ratio as our existing group.

For every new woman added, there have been between 6 and 9 new men.

In May last year a night of huge losses actually increased our proportion of Scottish Lib Dem women Parliamentarians to its highest ever level – 16%, or 1 in 6.

Literally 1 out of 6: the superb Alison McInnes MSP.

But this 16% will be a short-lived “high”. In a couple of months we could have no women MSPs at all. The members in the North East voted to make Alison second on our regional list, and Katy Gordon has a tough fight on her hands to win us back a seat in the West of Scotland.

We have been left behind by the other parties – back in the late 90s positive discrimination was a Labour experiment. Now, a third of SNP MPs are women, more than 40% of Labour and Conservative MSPs are women and all of those parties are led by women at Holyrood.

We’re now the outlier, the anomaly, the party that looks like we just don’t get that the world has changed.

15 years ago I spoke against similar measures. Now I am in favour. We need to do more and that is why I’m backing this change.

The next stage of the debate was around the details. The motion itself proposed a strategy for the next electoral cycle through to 2021. The all women shortlists part covered just 3 of 15 paragraphs of action, ranging from ring-fencing funds for candidates from under-represented groups, to party communications, to action to make council candidates more diverse, to the leader and executive taking special responsibility to “support the drive to ensure the election to Parliament of more women and people from under-represented groups. The leader also has to announce a diverse team of spokespeople. Here is Jo’s speech supporting that package:]

Thank you Conference, for voting for the constitutional amendments, and sending such a strong message with three quarters of you backing the change.

And thank you Willie for your leadership on this issue. When you asked me to join this working group I was sceptical, to put it mildly. In my 19 years in the party I’ve worked on these issues with 9 Leaders in Scotland and the UK. Warm words at opportune moments have been easy to come by. Sadly, sustained interest and a willingness to use political capital to ruffle feathers and drive change have been in much shorter supply.

Willie, you get it and you make it happen and we are lucky to have you as our leader.

So we’ve agreed the general principle that nothing should be off the table. Now we come to the nuts and bolts, deciding exactly what we’re going to do.

I think we can take as read the reasons why we should act, so wonderfully articulated by Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when asked why he’d appointed a Cabinet that was 50/50 men and women: “Because it’s 2015”

It’s worth emphasising, in a debate that can quickly be polarised into views on positive discrimination and all-women shortlists, that there is no magic solution and many organisational changes are needed.

Encouraging diversity needs to be embedded in our DNA – something our staff see as part of their job, reflected in everything from our newsletters to our team of media spokespeople, and with local parties recognising the role they can play.

We rightly celebrate the Lib Dem win on gender pay gap transparency for large companies, arguing that making employers set out the details of their pay gap will force them to consider what they can do about it.

In exactly the same way, this motion will use transparency to make local parties account for their record in involving women, new members and those from other under-represented groups. It is up to all of us to tackle this problem, and these measures will help nudge us to do it.

That brings me to the issue of guaranteed places for women – in the case of this motion, at the top of our Euro list, in 5 of our most winnable MP seats, and for half of our 10 most winnable seats at Holyrood for 2021.

I still believe there is an alternative route to equality that does not involve all-women shortlists, but after 15 years of pursuing that path, I am now more realistic about whether there is the political will across the wider leadership of the party to make that happen.

I remember asking at a Parliamentary Party Meeting for help from my MP colleagues. I produced a table which outlined how many approved women candidates were in each of their constituencies – in most cases, none. I asked them to write down the names of 3 women in their area who could be promising candidates – we at the Campaign for Gender Balance would do the rest: get in touch, encourage, train, mentor.

Fewer than a third of them responded with any names.

It’s a slightly depressing point to make, I realise. But it’s the truth.

It’s the reason we need this motion, to force the issue.

There is of course nothing currently stopping MSPs, MPs and local parties from identifying, encouraging and mentoring women candidates.

But there’s nothing making them do it either, and certainly not on the scale we need. And in a world where you are endlessly fundraising for re-election, on a merry-go-round of constituency events, and busy with casework and Parliamentary duties, I can see how it falls off the priority list.

In these top target seats, where it matters most, there will be an imperative to talent scout and bring on new candidates. As a priority it will be up there with how we find the money for the next leaflet, instead of a ‘nice to do’.

These measures will deliver a step change in our representation, so that within 5 years we can be proud of our diversity.

Taken together, these changes will move the culture of the party too, so that we take a proactive approach to inclusion
Men, Women and those who identify as neither
White, Black, Asian
Gay, Straight, Bi
People with disabilities
People from different socio-economic groups
We have a lot to do, conference, and today is the first step.

Conference, please support the motion in its entirety.

Photo credit: Hannah Bettsworth

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • A splendid result and two great contributions to the argument; thank you Jo, Willie and all our Scottish members who supported the change. Let’s hope we, in York, will follow suit and reach out to our women members and potential supporters. All the research and evidence backs the change as it will lead to more Lib Dem votes all round and not just for women candidates.

  • paul barker 28th Feb '16 - 2:27pm

    Its 2016 but we can catch up with our Canadian brothers/sisters, lets just do it.

  • A Social Liberal 28th Feb '16 - 4:51pm

    I applaud Jo’s attempts to find out exactly how many women we have in the candidate pool per constituency, in this Google definately isn’t our friend.

    Until we know the statistics, we would be foolish to force such draconian, illiberal decisions on selection committees – to do so would be illogical.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 28th Feb '16 - 6:07pm

    A Social Liberal: It’s about the women who don’t join our party or who don’t fancy being a candidate because things are weighted in favour of the local favoured son. The stats you ask for are pretty meaningless. What we do know is that 84% of MPs have been men in the history of the party. That is unacceptable.

  • “What we do know is that 84% of MPs have been men in the history of the party. That is unacceptable.”

    While massively disappointing it is not quite “unacceptable”; what is unacceptable would be the underlying attitude behind this stat for the previous century and continuing into this. All women shortlists may (may) be necessary evil but they should be recognised as an evil and should be a short term measure. Potentially a better idea would be to move to mandatory varied shortlists, afterall 84% female would be just as much of a concern.

  • Tony Dawson 28th Feb '16 - 7:03pm

    Most unfortunately a failed proposal from a once very promising politician who joined the ‘group of failure’ and is now looking for solutions to problems which are relevant but cannot be a reasonable priority for anyone wanting to change society and use the Lib Dems as a vehicle for such change.

    Unless we put forward the best candidate for the constituency, whatever race or gender or sexuality or disability status that person may possess, in thirty or so constituencies then there will be no Lib Dem party worth having after 2020. Now, there is a very good argument for saying “Ah yes, but there is a serious chance that discrimination may creep into the selectorate’s choices in such matters. ” So we need to have a very careful process.

    But let us be clear. We have in the past put forward parliamentary candidates in certain constituencies, including former MPs who might well happily drift towards victory in a favourable political climate when backed by a reasonably-financed and able political machine but who have, because of their personal limitations, no more chance of ever winning anything in an under-resourced breakthrough situation than I have of becoming Olympic high jump champion.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Feb '16 - 7:17pm

    I don’t agree with the policy, but I can’t be bothered arguing about it and I’m only a commentator anyway.

    My preference would have been for diversity shortlists with an option for a no-confidence motion if people weren’t impressed with their candidate.


  • Jo persuaded me not to vote for AWS back in 2000 – and I would still agree with her now.

    It does seem from reports that Scotland have passed a much more robust and far reaching set of proposals than the rather timid ones going before Federal Conference though

  • Simon Horner 28th Feb '16 - 8:17pm

    I accept all-women shortlists (AWS) are now a necessary evil given the huge gender imbalance in our MPs and MSPs. But having voted for the principle, I strongly disagreed with two of the measures the conference went on to adopt. I think these go much too far, replacing one injustice with another.

    For the European poll in Scotland, the 1st candidate must be a woman and the 2nd a man. With only 6 Euro-seats in play, even if we equal our best vote at any election since the war, we will only gain 1 MEP. In reality, the person in the 2nd slot will be a “token male”. This should have been left as an open contest.

    And why did we choose a single ballot system. It is politically inept to enable a man to win the membership vote (possibly by a landslide) if the rules only allow him to be second on the list. With two separate places and two mutually exclusive candidate pools, you need two different elections.

    For Westminster, AWS were agreed for the 5 most marginal non-held seats. Realistically, 6 seats will be a very good result in 2020. I would have accepted AWS in the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th best prospect seats but one that excludes men so comprehensively is deeply illiberal.

    I supported the 50-50 proposals for marginal seats at the 2021 Scottish election. If we had had the same debate just after our Scottish losses in 2011 (when the gender imbalance among Scottish LibDem parliamentarians was even worse than today) the male incumbency in Orkney and Shetland means that all-women shortlists would almost certainly have been required in Edinburgh Western and N.E Fife.

    We knew we had this problem four years ago, so why have we left it so late to tackle it? Perhaps some of the current male candidates with good election prospects, who were so keen on this motion, could stand down to enable their local parties to run quick all-woman selections. It may be too late to establish new female local champions, so this might be electorally inadvisable. In which case there is another option where this argument is weaker. All it needs is for men to renounce their 1st and/or 2nd slots on three of the lists to put more of our women candidates in an electable position. Such a move would would have an immediate impact and be entirely in the spirit of the motion passed on Saturday.

  • This is a catastrophe for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, the likes of which Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon in their wildest imaginings are incapable of inflicting.

    People who vote Liberal Democrat do so in the main because they want independent minded people who care about their communities to represent them. They do not vote Liberal Democrat to provide career opportunities for persons imposed centrally by the leadership on the basis of their gender and/or ethnicity.

    The people who voted for this resolution probably genuinely believed that they were furthering some noble enterprise. What they actually did was take power from the members and hand it to the leadership (and by necessary implication, whomever happens to have influence over the leadership at any given time). All in all, a shocking and thoroughly retrograde move.

    If the English Party follows, I will have to consider if I can remain a member. I will never, ever support a quota candidate, and I would find it incredibly difficult to vote for one.

  • The problem is that while we have sexism in the party, women will never achieve high office. We had a number of very capable female MPs in the Coalition, at least as good as the male Ministers, but none of them were promoted to Cabinet ministers, or to The Quad. When we have that sort of discrimination, how is the party going to move forward?

  • A Social Liberal 29th Feb '16 - 12:02am


    26% of the candidates in 2015 were women – and non of them were elected. Now, was this down to sexism amongst the voters – of course not.

    It’s quite simple. To get the balance we all call for we have to understand the figures – all of them. If there aren’t enough women getting through selection – for whatever reasons – how can you expect to get enough women to be chosen for PPC? If you want women to be selected for 50% of the parties constituencies then we have to identify where the shortfall begins and find out why that shortfall is occuring.

    Simply burying our collective heads in the sand and pretending that the ends justify the illiberal means will result in just one thing – the eventual demand that only women will be allowed to stand in all constituencies.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Feb '16 - 12:11am

    This is getting like the discussion on Nick Clegg ,are Mark Wright , Eddie Sammon and I the only people on Liberal Democrat Voice, who try not to make a drama out of a crisis?!

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Feb '16 - 12:35am

    Lorenzo, I like your comments too, but rest assured that I have been known to make a drama out of a crisis, or a crisis out of a drama, on this subject too! But I don’t want to go back there. 🙂

  • I’ve long thought the only way to change things is to step in and change them rather than hope they will change by themselves. Positive discrimination is a simple way of addressing the problem of under representation and a tendency towards picking the same kinds of candidates over and over again. An all women shortlist seems a perfectly sensible given the current state of things.

  • Phyllis
    The situation with women ministers which you raise does seem to arise from the choices Nick Clegg made. NC has always protested great support for anti-sexism, but when it actually came to personal choices, there seems to be more than a doubt. Lib DEms no longer have the powers of patronage possessed in Coalition, but it will be interesting to see, in recruitment choices for instance, whether Tim Farron shows a different approach.

  • Will four of the current eight parliamentary seats have all women shortlists enforced in due course.?
    If this policy is to have any credibility, then four of your male MP’s will presumably have to fall on their swords for the perceived greater good.

  • The big question is whether there are actually thirty people in the Liberal Democrats whose personal strengths are such that (with a little help from their friends) they can get themselves elected in 2020 in particular constituencies. At the moment, I rather doubt it. So arguing about which type of candidate will make the best losers is a bit like arguing about the 2015 election manifesto. Nobody read it, nobody (outside of a few policy geeks) cared what went into it and nobody got elected (or not elected) because of it.

  • David Cooper 29th Feb '16 - 10:25am

    Jo, It is revealing that you put “people from different socio-economic groups” right at the bottom of your list. AWS is a row between young gals fresh out of Cheltenham’s Ladies College and their boyfriends from Eton. Economic inequality, which has the largest impact on life chances, is an afterthought. Those who are chosen from all women’s shortlists will be treated with contempt; it will be deservedly assumed they have gained their position by a combination of box ticking and patronage.

  • “It’s about the women who don’t join our party or who don’t fancy being a candidate because things are weighted in favour of the local favoured son. The stats you ask for are pretty meaningless. Caron Lindsay 28th Feb ’16 – 6:07pm

    Actually the stat’s aren’t meaningless; particularly if you actually intend to do anything about a problem. In some ways the issue of woman (and candidates from other groups eg. Roma) is similar to the “gender pay-gap”, namely: the headline figures are pretty meaningless, what is important is the organisational learning that happens when they start to look at it.

    So I think it is necessary for the Libdems to demonstrate organisational learning and so produce the research that indicates that by having AWS, suddenly hundreds of women will come out of the woodwork, join the Libdems and put themselves forward as candidates when there is no evidence for this to be the case…

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