Jo Swinson writes…Been there, got the t-shirt

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As part of the Committee for the fabulous WOW Festival at the Southbank Centre, I find myself in London this weekend, which means I’ll miss the diversity motion in York.

Passions run high on this issue, and I hope the debate will unfold with respect and kindness on both sides.  Whichever side of the debate we are on, we should acknowledge that our aim is the same – a party where every individual can feel supported and welcome, with many more elected representatives at all levels, reflecting the diversity of our society in all ways, and making a positive impact on our communities.

In 2001, I took to the conference platform in Bournemouth, summating an amendment to a similar motion, in much the same vein as this weekend’s amendment submitted by the East Midlands.  Liberal Youth have also voiced their opposition to all-women shortlists. The group of us campaigning on this issue had t-shirts specially printed for the occasion, declaring “I am not a token woman.  Say No to all-women shortlists.” Our amendment was successful, and the Gender Balance Task Force was formed, now the Campaign for Gender Balance.

Yet if I were at conference on Sunday, I would be voting for the motion, and against the amendment.

All-women shortlists are no panacea, I completely agree with  Liberal Youth about that.  As I argued in 2001:

As Liberal Democrats we believe in tackling causes, not symptoms.  We need properly funded, organised, Party-wide action reporting directly to conference.

My vision in 2001 was a comprehensive programme of action to seek out and support women candidates across our party.  I put my heart and soul into making it work.  We had some success.

For example, through lots of hard work by dozens of people, providing training, advice, practical support and the excellent Leadership Programme, we did get much better at selecting women in seats where our MPs stood down.  In 2001 we had never selected a woman for one of these seats.  In 2005, Susan Kramer replaced Jenny Tonge.  In 2010, 4 out of our 8 retirement seats selected women, and in 2015 it was 6 out of 11.

So my conversion to the need for all-women shortlists is not because I think women can’t beat men in selections – they absolutely can.  I believe all-women shortlists are necessary because without forcing the issue, our party defaults to cultivating a list of candidates that is three-quarters men, and it is down to random chance whether the small number of women happen to be in seats we have any realistic chance of winning.

I believe all-women shortlists are necessary because the other parts of my 2001 vision – the proper funding and serious buy-in across the wider party from the leadership down – have proved impossible to achieve.

And I believe all-women shortlists are necessary because time and time again, our party has been complicit in the application of all-men shortlists.  Where have the voices of opposition been when members have been asked to choose only from a list of men? Funny, the arguments never seem to get raised about whether a candidate from a single gender shortlist will be good enough when he’s a bloke.

I remember asking successive leadership candidates what they would personally do to find and support more women candidates in their own constituency and across the party.  Lots of warm words were forthcoming, but actions speak louder than words.  When Chris Huhne had to resign from Eastleigh, we selected our by-election candidate from an all-men shortlist.  In 2010 we came within 165 votes of winning Sheffield Central, next door to Nick Clegg’s Hallam seat.  It had selected from an all-men shortlist too.  2 of the 10 MPs we elected for the first time in 2010 were selected from all-men shortlists.

I remember the fireworks when it was suggested that all-men shortlists should only be allowed to go ahead in Orkney & Shetland on condition that the sitting Parliamentarians – who between them are half of Scotland’s Lib Dem Parliamentarians – commit to identifying and supporting new women candidates to become approved.

I remember the vast amounts of energy I had to expend each year lobbying FE and FFAC members to secure and then defend the tiny budget for GBTF and CGB.  We employed one person dedicated to membership development of the pipeline of women candidates, and it was a constant battle to keep the position from being axed.

I remember the Diversity Fund launched by Ming supposedly to provide extra funding to women candidates which, after a lot of digging, I found was essentially just used as an extension of the overall Campaigns Budget, with women candidates allocated less from the general pot than men in similar seats, then topped up with Diversity Fund money.  I remember visiting Ming at his home in Edinburgh to give him the direct evidence of what was happening.  Nothing changed.

I remember asking my fellow Lib Dem MPs in Parliament to give me the names of women in their constituencies who would make great MPs, so the Campaign for Gender Balance could make contact, to encourage and support them to stand.  Not even a third of my colleagues responded.

Anyone who suggests there aren’t enough good women potential candidates around in our communities must have their eyes closed.  As an MP you meet countless fabulous women working tirelessly to make a difference in your community.  They may not be banging down our door to be candidates, but that’s why we have to go out there, find, persuade and support them.  That’s what was supposed to happen at scale after 2001.

We pride ourselves on our liberal values and commitment to equality.  Of course we want to think we don’t need to resort to these kind of measures, that we don’t share the problems other parties have with inertia, jobs for the boys, and outright sexism.

There is nothing currently stopping MPs and local parties from identifying, encouraging and mentoring women candidates.  But there’s nothing making them do it either.

I can see how it happens – I’ve been there too, as a local party officer when you’re trying to fundraise to print the next leaflet, recruit members and volunteers to deliver Focus, lead canvassing teams, help in the nearest target seat and hold down a day job too.  It’s easy for important things that don’t seem urgent this week to slip off the priority to do list.

All-women shortlists do help with this problem.  They will force some local parties in our most winnable seats to make this talent-scouting a priority, rather than shrug and say with a reluctantly accepting sigh: “What can we do? No women put themselves forward”.  It puts the ball firmly in their court, rather than hoping that someone else will take responsibility.

All-women shortlists are not enough on their own.  We need to continue with – and step up – all of the other measures.  We need to make it the norm to reach out and encourage people, from *all* under-represented groups to be candidates, agents, conference speakers, local party office bearers, media spokespeople and more.

I’m deeply disappointed that 15 years on, my experience of driving change to improve diversity in our party has made me conclude that we do need all-women shortlists.  But I’ve been there, got the t-shirt, and know we need to do this now.

* Jo Swinson is Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire, and was a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Equalities Minister from 2012-15.

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23 Comments

  • Mary Hutton 12th Mar '16 - 8:01am

    We need urgent action. Our parliamentary representation is too male, pale and stale.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 12th Mar '16 - 10:13am

    Thank you to Jo Swinson for calling for respect and kindness from both sides in this debate. I feel this has sometimes been lacking in the discussions on Lib Dem Voice and elsewhere.
    Several people have suggested that AWS is essential, because absolutely everything else has been tried and just hasn’t worked. But from some of the quite disturbing evidence Jo Swinson gives in this article, it seems often to have been a case of measures being agreed to, but then not really tried at all.

  • It is about time people stopped saying our surviving MPs are too “male, pale and stale”, just because they were the only ones who managed to hold on to their seats, when others (male and female MPs) failed to do so.

    They were the most effective MPs at holding back the tide which was going against the party and should get credit for doing so, not being told that the resulting lack of diversity is in some way their fault.

    As Jo confirms in her article, “In 2010, 4 out of our 8 retirement seats selected women, and in 2015 it was 6 out of 11”. Therefore it is clear that it was not the lack of women being selected for good or held seats that resulted in our all male parliamentary group, in fact it shows the opposite.

    I can remember when I was an MP, being asked if I would be happy to mentor potential female Parliamentary candidates and agreeing to do so, only to not be contacted by even one of them.

    I can remember being part of a Council Group which was 50% male and 50% female with a female group leader and offering to support an able and capable female councillor to apply for and win a held Westminster seat, only to be told that she did not want to be an MP despite clearly having the ability to do so.

    I would be delighted to help a great female candidate become the next Lib-Dem MP in my old seat of Edinburgh West, but saying to every hard working dedicated male campaigner and activist who has worked for years in the seat, that they are not even allowed to apply for selection is not the way to win back the seat from the SNP.

    It is worth noting for those who say that we should look outside the party for able women who have shown no interest in the seat or the Lib-Dems in previous years, but who have the ability to become MPs. This is exactly what the SNP did in my old seat of Edinburgh West.

    Since the 2015 election, my present MP has withdrawn the party whip and is under police investigation. Should there be a by-election, are we really going to ask the man she defeated to come back and fight it?, but if there is no by-election, to say to the same man that he cannot even apply to fight his old seat, where he increased the vote last time, but only lost it because of the SNP tsunami.

    If he won it, would he then have to put up with being told he too was, “male, pale and stale?”

  • Jo Swinson suggests the Lib Dems have ‘winnable seats’ at the moment as if these are magic things which are nothing at all to do with the candidate. We do not have such seats.

    We have, unfortunately, iun past years handed over quite a number of what once were ‘winnable seats’, including incumbent seats, to candidates who, when push comes to shove, have not managed to make the difference needed to win or retain those seats. The ‘extra value added’ needed from individual candidates to hold onto seats in the face of the appallingly useless national campaign from 2005-2010 was probably too much for us to expect of virtually any individual. But, in a better year for us (and if we don’t have a better year in 2020 we will be finished as a national Party) it might make the difference in 20 to 30 constituencies.

  • John Barrett 12th Mar '16 - 11:14am

    I should have added, that sadly we have already decided for seats in Scotland that this is exactly what we have done, as the decisions on AWS have already been taken regarding Westminster seats north of the border.

    We are well on track to winning back the Scottish Parliamentary seat in May, with Alex Cole- Hamilton now without doubt the highest profile, most energetic and inspirational candidate with the level of name recognition and any constituency could hope for.

    However should he not manage to win the seat in May, despite probably being the most likely and most able person to win the seat in the future, as he would have had years of campaigning in the seat under his belt, and despite many party members and members of the public of both genders supporting him, he will not even be able to apply for the seat.

    The decision has been taken for Scottish seats and I will just have to live with it, but I sincerely hop that those involved in the York debate do not follow the decision made at the Edinburgh conference.

  • J: There is an odd contrast in your comment between saying you’d be really keen to support a female candidate and then also making a list of reasons why women should be blamed and outsiders shouldn’t be welcomed in. Don’t you think it’s that very approach of ‘everyone is at fault except for the men in the party’ that might be a reason we’re not doing better at reflecting the diversity of the country in our elected representatives?

  • Helen Tedcastle 12th Mar '16 - 12:52pm

    Jo Swinson points out the following facts: ‘ In 2001 we had never selected a woman for one of these seats. In 2005, Susan Kramer replaced Jenny Tonge. In 2010, 4 out of our 8 retirement seats selected women, and in 2015 it was 6 out of 11.’

    Indeed. In 2015, the party was pulverised, yet 6 out of eleven retirement seats had female candidates.

    So on the evidence, AWS will not make any difference if the party is on 7% or less in the polls, as it currently stands.

    What does make the difference is the preparedness of that candidate, of whichever gender or identity, to dig in to the constituencies and fight, perhaps for a decade.

    It’s not rocket science. This party has been through near-death experiences before.

    Let’s do the Liberal thing and judge each candidate on their merits.

  • John Barrett 12th Mar '16 - 2:00pm

    Mark ( for some reason J appeared in stead of my name) On the contrary, I was simply pointing out that it has not been because of bias or sexism in the past that we are where we are. We have only 8 male MPs for a wide variety of reasons, none of which I think will be dealt with by the diversity motion, or the introduction of AWS.

    Again, I only point out the risks, and there are many, of identifying those who have shown no interest in the party for whatever reason and heralding them as potentially good MPs. Most of our exiting members, new and old ones, are well aware of our need for more candidates at all levels. If they decide it is not for them and there is no bias against any group, ruling out 50% of the members in key seats will not help.

    There are many good campaigners of both genders in the party and I would hope they will provide the inspiration to others and lead the team in seats where we have a chance at the next election.

    I just do not accept that parachuting in a candidate who has no track record in any seat is a wise move. We have seen in the past where good seats have tried this and failed.

    I did not list the failings of men in the party and would agree that many of them have contributed to the demise of our Westminster MPs, as many others have also pointed out. I only defended the existing MPs on the grounds that the could not help being white , middle aged men, but since I have been invited to, I am happy to add that there were many, including Nick Clegg and in the leadership team, who were directly responsible in a number of ways for the disastrous result at the last election.

    I hope that whatever the result of the vote on the motion, we can all work together and regain some more seats, unfortunately I believe that if the diversity motion is carried it will actually make it more difficult to gain many seats, for the reasons I have previously outlined.

  • John Barrett 12th Mar '16 - 2:12pm

    Paul – the end of the process is not when we select the candidate, it is when the electorate judge that candidate and the party at the ballot box.

    Unless the party delivers much more in the way it connects with the wider public and our support increases dramatically, it will not matter what process we have used to select any of our candidates.

    Unfortunately I will not be in York for the discussion and vote, but hope that at the end of the day everyone will work together, regardless of which side of this debate they were on.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 12th Mar '16 - 2:40pm

    The “stale” part of the phrase “male pale and stale” seems ageist

  • I’m a massive admirer of the work Jo and others have done but this time I think she’s wrong.
    I have already written an article on LDV so will just add 2 comments. If a woman is not strong enough to be selected in a fair fight by a local party there’s little prospect of her being strong enough to lead a campaign to get elected to parliament any time soon.
    Secondly this measure is not liberal or democratic. I hope the Liberal Democrats will say no to sexual discrimination.

  • Grahame Lamb 13th Mar '16 - 7:58am

    A women-only list would be an insult to women and an insult to a liberal democracy. We must surely select the best available candidate regardless of sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, social class etc. If we do not – are we really Liberal?

  • I agree with Jo. Ideally other measures would have worked but they haven’t, so AWS should be tried. It’s a shame they are necessary.

  • Hmmm. “I disagree with all-women shortlists because women aren’t tokens, and there should instead be a comprehensive programme of action and leadership programmes to bring women forward. But it turned out such a plan takes time and money. The passage of time has made me impatient and the Lib Dems have no money. So tokenism and AWS it is!”

  • Ronald Murray 13th Mar '16 - 6:29pm

    Can’t help but agree with everything John Barrett says. I cannot help but think the party fiddles while Rome burns. Lets get the best candidates who will work hard in all the seats we contest.

  • So………………. what happens if in a winnable seat the local Lib Dem Association (let’s say, Edinburgh West) says ‘sucks to this’ we’re going to adopt a man (let’s say he’s called Alex C-H) we know and like, have confidence in and know will be a great MP ?

    Will the angels of wrath and diverse righteousness descend on them from above and excommunicate them forever ?

    Answers please………………………….

  • John Barrett 14th Mar '16 - 10:55am

    David -I just hope we never get into the position that the Labour Party got into some years ago.

    Remember this? After the 2005 election, following on from Labour losing their safest seat in Wales to their own male party member, who stood as an independent against the candidate forced on to the local party.

    Mr Peter Hain told BBC Wales’ Politics Show he was issuing the apology on behalf of Labour at the highest levels.

    Independent Peter Law defeated Labour’s Maggie Jones at the election.

    Blaenau Gwent was Labour’s parliamentary seat in Wales, but Mr Law overturned a 19,000 majority in defeating Ms Jones.

    Mr Hain said on Sunday: “I’m saying sorry to them (people in Blaenau Gwent). We got it wrong last time.

    “We sought to present a choice of women only and we over-rode local party wishes and the wishes of the people of Blaenau Gwent.

  • John, I remember that very well. Always had a chuckle when the ex-Young Lib I knew used to say “We in Wales think…..” when he was on Any Questions.

    I have a hunch the AWS militant tendency haven’t thought through how they’re going to impose their notions on the awkward squad in any particular constituency. I suspect they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.

  • Kay Kirkham 14th Mar '16 - 1:55pm

    Little noticed or commented on was the accepted amendment aimed at getting more women to win at local government level. Campaigning as a councillor is an excellent way of learning the skills required to campaign on larger scale, building confidence and discovering whether fulltime politics is for you. This also works for men, disabled, LGBA+ and members of minority communities of course.

  • Good to see you’re still involved Kay 🙂 My view is that what was passed at York is necessary, not idealistic, but necessary. With our limited funding, anything else is just not realistically attainable. I appreciate all the concerns, but the amended motion was passed so let’s get on with implementing it even if we disagreed with it.

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