There’s a great quote from Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” Maybe it was the combination of the heat and the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream sandwich I’d just eaten, but when the news broke last night that Kamala Harris has been selected to be Joe Biden’s running mate, I whooped and woo-hoo-ed. A lot. Only four women have ever been named by a major US party as a presidential or vice-presidential nominee, and none of them have been elected.
We are all acutely aware that this US election is one of the most significant of our lifetimes – a chance for America to reject the corrosive rhetoric of Trump and the appalling racism which his administration has helped to foster. There will be numerous attempts to undermine Kamala Harris, Fox News will throw everything at her; but I have no doubt she has the tenacity to weather any kind of storm. And representation matters.
For the Liberal Democrats, it’s the opportunity to look around and see what we can and should be doing differently, and that means making sure more diverse voices in the party are allowed to take centre stage.
I was really delighted that both of our Leadership Candidates have publicly committed to supporting the Rooney Rule, and hopefully this will ensure that there are Black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates in as many target seat selections as possible. Selections also still need to include female candidates – and if you don’t get why that’s important, when over 50% of our MPs are women, it’s worth noting that in the General Election, just 31% of our candidates were female.
No one is saying the best candidate shouldn’t win – but for goodness’ sake let’s remove barriers to their success.
We can all help identify talent and ask candidates from diverse backgrounds to stand. Trust me, it’s a tremendous boost when someone asks you to stand and offers their encouragement and support to help you get there. We are very fortunate to have superb mentoring for female candidates in our party from the Campaign for Gender Balance (indeed like so many other female parliamentary candidates I would never have got through approval without the support of the CGB).
Of course while getting approved is one thing, finding a seat is another challenge entirely.
So I’d really like to see local parties encouraged to think differently when selecting parliamentary candidates. For a start, to get away from thinking that PPCs have to live in their seats, particularly if rents and house prices are prohibitive. Commutable distance should be good enough.
And while convincing local party membership to support a candidate is obviously important, perhaps members also need to remember when they are selecting that it’s the electorate that need to be convinced.
I’d also like to see more financial support offered to candidates who need it. During a recent 50:50 Parliament zoom session Jess Phillips told us she’d spent £60k to become an MP. That’s clearly prohibitive, but even help with getting to and from hustings can be welcome.
Let’s find our Kamala Harris, our Jacinda Ardern. Let’s offer more seats at the table.
* Liz Jarvis stood as a Parliamentary Candidate in the 2019 General Election and is the Vice-Chair of Liberal Democrat Women