Needed: Spanish practices

The announcement earlier this year of a Spanish Cabinet that is majority women should cause everyone involved in British politics to stop and wonder why we’re doing so badly.

We know that the under-representation of women in politics is a bad thing – and that this applies to the Liberal Democrats as much as anyone else, even if we do have a good heritage of standing up on issues of inequality.

But how many more women do we really need to stand for us if we’re going to get a more equal party?

It turns out that the answer is at least 100 – and that we need to identify them, persuade them to stand and get them selected in the next three years.

Working on the assumption that we want to have over 30% of our representatives as women and that we double our MPs over the next two general elections then we need the following.

Around 25 women are needed to replace MPs who will stand down at the next two elections (assuming that at each election roughly one in five MPs continues to stand down). This assumes that every MP who stands down is replaced by a woman – which is the only way we’ll make rapid headway. While in practice this will be impossible to achieve, we need to aim this high if we’re going to make significant headway.

We will need to make sure that as many as possible of the 63 seats we aim to gain are gained by women. Only 10 of these don’t currently have a PPC. But many of these 63 seats will reselect after the next election, and in many of those we won’t have an incumbent PPC. Realistically this probably means another 30 women PPCs in the most winnable seats in the election after next.

Then there are the other elected levels of the party. To increase or maintain gender balance if we are aiming to double our representation we will require:

  • 6 more MEPs
  • At least 15 more MSPs
  • 3 more Welsh Assembly Members
  • Several more Mayors
  • Over 2,000 councillors

Just to make this more difficult we know that the biggest factor in success for candidates is early selection. If we assume that there is a May 2010 election this realistically means that most of these candidates have to be elected by late 2011.

Excluding the council candidates this means that we need to recruit, motivate, train and get selected around 100 women in the next two and a half years for the most senior positions alone. Add in councillors and we need well over a thousand new women candidates.

Centrally, run by Cowley Street, this is impossible. But if every Liberal Democrat Voice reader made it their mission over the next two years to find one woman candidate each it would be easy.

So to encourage us all to do this I’ve set up a pledge on pledge bank – where I have pledged to find and get a woman selected in a winnable seat in the next two years – but only if 50 other people pledge to do the same:


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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Ruth Bright 3rd Jul '08 - 8:12pm

    I don’t doubt the good intentions behind this article but it misses the point. It is not just about selecting female PPCs but SUPPORTING them once they are there and acknowledging the extra commitments they might have. Over 18 years I encountered little or no sexism in the party as a councillor and a PPC until I had a baby and then I found things got very nasty indeed. Maternity leave for a PPC? – no such thing. A mature and supportive attitude from colleagues about their PPC breastfeeding at a meeting? -forget that too.

  • David Morton 4th Jul '08 - 3:20am

    When I decided to stand down from my council seat I went off in search of a female replacement. I might as well have engaged in a Grail quest. Having approached 10 talented party members and 5 more outside the party not a sausage. The three big reasons were

    1. child care commitments

    2. other carer commitments

    3. Culture. they were put off by council culture and suffice to say “old boys network” and “testsoterone” were often mentioned.

    This isn’t about involvement in politics, 10 of these people were active/semi active party members.

    I hope the isue of culture and support for candidates is central to the commng Presidential election. Another reason to elect someone who will really work on party reform rather than provide a extra title for a sitting MP.

  • Rob Blackie 4th Jul '08 - 9:03am

    Ruth, Jennie & David – I agree with you that culture is a part of it.

    But where I don’t agree with you is the implication that we can’t do anything until this is solved.

    If we get more women candidates then we can support them – at present we have far too few women candidates.

  • Maternity leave for a PPC? I’ve never heard of anything so ludicrous in my life.

    Its 18 months/two years before an election. As your PPC, Can I please have a year off campaigning and establishing the party locally to have a baby? er no you can’t.

  • David Evans 4th Jul '08 - 12:22pm

    I always find “gender balance” a massive red herring, as it inevitably leads to a tick box approach to candidate selection. The real problem is the under representation of “Liberal Democrats” of whatever sex in parliament. Selecting the best candidate is key, but the prime critereon must be they are a good Lib Dem, not that they are a woman. Equally, I believe we chose the wrong candidate for Henley, he doubtless ticked many boxes for being erudite; looking good; being young; working in the ‘right sort of job’ etc etc, but we had a perfectly good local candidate in Sue Cooper, who had earned the chance and certainly woyuld have given us a better result.

  • Ruth Bright 4th Jul '08 - 1:22pm

    I am not surprised anonymous wishes to remain anonymous! Of course I’m not talking about 18 months away. I am just asking for some flexibility around a post which, after all, is purely voluntary. Including myself I know three LDs (one a PPC and two councillors) who were expected by their council groups/ local parties to be politically active within DAYS of a Caesarean section. Surely that’s taking the macho political culture a bit far!

  • Agreed Ruth. Idiots who expect a women to jump to it DAYS after a cesarian are just not being very human. That is an issue of understanding and support.

    Sorry I mistook your plea for something else ie maternity leave which is understood as a now statuatory and legal mechanism which suggests 6 months/1 year off.


  • Amy Kitcher 4th Jul '08 - 3:54pm

    This has been a very interesting debate so far and I am enjoying reading the many varied viewpoints of the contributors.
    I did a quick tally of selected PPC’s a few weeks ago and by my reckoning we have (so far) selected about 69 women out of a total of 218 candidates. This is about 31%, which is better than the Tories 27% (I couldn’t find any figures on PPC selections for Labour) and is possibly on target to surpass the 23% of women candidates that we fielded in 2005. However, I still don’t think that the party is doing enough to a) encourage women to come forward as candidates and b) support those women who do come forward.
    Jo Christie-Smith’s comment; “Why would you want your really good people to spend 5-10 languishing in no hope seats?” is part of the problem. There are many dozens of seats across the country where the activists, councillors and PPC’s work just as hard as their counterparts in more winnable constituencies, but because they don’t have the luxury of needing a small swing to secure victory their efforts are routinely overlooked.
    I’m a PPC in one of the ‘no hope seats’ that Jo mentions and I can assure I am far from ‘languishing’.
    My team and I have built the party in our area from a base of nothing and we are proud of what we have achieved to date and what we are confident we will continue to achieve in the future and as PPC I wouldn’t swap my constituency for any of those on our top 100 target list.
    We need people who are committed to their own local constituencies and seats and who are prepared to put in 5-10 years to their development because without this where are the next raft of our ‘winnables’ are going to come from?
    I think I’m right in saying that, given the choice today, my local party wouldn’t pick one of Jo’s ‘really good people’ to over me to be our PPC despite my apparently hampered status as both a young and a pregnant woman. Maybe they appreciate the fact that, despite being busy, I am prepared to put the time into our ‘no hope seat’.

  • Ruth Bright 5th Jul '08 - 4:29pm

    There is a constructive way forward with this. Dinti Batstone has produced an excellent report on how to improve things for female candidates/councillors with families. Let’s hope the report is implemented and not left to gather dust on some shelf in Cowley Street.

    In local government Lib Dem controlled Southwark a cabinet member recently took six months maternity leave and the earth did not cave in as a result!

    Looking forward to a day when none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or maternity.

    Ruth x

  • Martin Land 5th Jul '08 - 6:15pm

    ‘Too many old men in a hurry’ is the cause of so many problems in politics.

    This lies at the heart of this problem as well. I’m am NOT a fan of the GBTF which always seems to me to be there to promote the interests of a small group of women rather than women in general, I’m afraid.

    Until the GBTF works with local parties to recruit more female members,and works with them to ensure we have more women parish, district and county councillors who can provide an experienced pool of potential candidates for parliament we will always struggle to meet any reasonable (or intelligent) target. Like I say, we keep falling at the hurdle because we are in too much of a hurry to adopt a long-term strategy.

    The same thing applies to Ethnic Minority LD’s and if someone ever gets around to it, ‘non-university educated, non-middle class LD’s’.

    By the way any female candidate who would like to work hard over 10 years to win a seat, backed by a well-financed, highly professional and active constituency association, let me know.

  • David Evans 5th Jul '08 - 11:48pm

    Ruth makes an interesting point with her comment “In local government Lib Dem controlled Southwark a cabinet member recently took six months maternity leave and the earth did not cave in as a result!”

    I presume someone stood in for her, or did we just leave the officers to do what they wanted. The question is not whether maternity leave (or any other form of leave for that matter) by a senior politician can be overcome, it usually can. However in a situation where a party holds a majority of one it would be problematic. The question could be the extent to which it is fair to impose on someone else to stand in for them and then, presumably, demand or at least expect one’s original job back, particularly if the stand in had made a better job of it.

  • Ruth Bright 6th Jul '08 - 12:37am

    David – someone did take her place temporarily whilst she was on maternity leave. This happens in the world of work all the time. Since this article is called Spanish practices let’s remember that the Spanish Defence Minister was pregnant when she took office and she was entitled to four months of maternity leave. Another minister took on her portfolio for a while.

  • What a load of nonsense – what happened to meritocracy?

  • This has been a fascinating debate but I think there are a few issues which have been missed so i’d like to contribute a bit of controvesy if I may.

    1) Family issues are not just women’s issues

    Jennie put this very astutely in point number 2, but the issue that has been missed is that sacrficing time with your family has always been a requirement of being an MP. As it largely has for being a council leader, CEO of a major company, a top barrister or any major time demanding job.
    The gender issue only comes into play because less women have been prepared to make those sacrifices. Changing this is about a national cultural change. We can make mitigating measures as a party, but the real difference here is in work culture.
    On this point, I applaud the maternity cover in Southwark.

    2) We shouldn’t waste our time with tokenism

    A bit of a personal interest here on this one. Tomorrow will see the results of the Wales Euro list selection, in which I am a candidate. The process should have been completed in August last year. It was delayed because no woman came forward; then it was delayed again for the same reason; and then again. Eventually a woman came forward but I’m sure she wouldn’t be offended by my saying that it is not a key priority for her and she has not campaigned hard. It would be a suprise then if she comes top of the list tomorrow.
    My controversial statement here then is that I would rather have the men on this list have had an extra 10 months to campaign than there be a woman on the list just for the sake of it.

    3) Becoming a Lib Dem MP is difficult

    Contrary to the impression given by some above, we do not have rafts of safe seats that we can parachute “good people” into – be they men or women. Jo suggested that good people are too “sensible and busy” to waste their time trying to win in a difficult seat. If we run a system where these “sensible” good people (ie, ones who don’t want to campaign) into supposed “safe seats” then perhaps we will achieve gender balance in Parliament. But for me, gender balance of 10 women out of 20 MPs is a false achievement.
    We need more MPs and they need to come from people who are talented and prepared to work hard. Whether you can do that and have a family is questionable, but as an expectant father and agent in a developing seat, I shall report back in 5-10 years on how the politics and family are developing.
    Whilst I absolutely want more women Lib Dem MPs, I also just want more LIb Dem MPs.
    So my contravertial summary here then is that I would rather see 30 women Lib Dem MPs in a group of 150 than 30 in a group of 60.
    The suggestion made above is that we won’t be able to find 150 people with the talent and commitment to become MPs. If we can’t find 150 liberal minded talented individuals from a population of 60million then we might as well pack up and go home now.

    Anyway, that’s enough from me this morning.

  • Hywel Morgan 6th Jul '08 - 11:56am

    “However in a situation where a party holds a majority of one it would be problematic.”

    In that case they would only need to turn up to full council – ie 6-8 times a year so nowhere near as problematic as you suggest.

  • David Evans 6th Jul '08 - 12:06pm

    Thanks for the clarification Ruth. I don’t know if the person who stood in was found to be less able and dropped afterwards, found his/her rewards elsewhere, or was just totally altruistic.

    Kevin’s points are very good, and I agree totally. We are in danger of becoming a tick box party rather than one that trusts its principles and the judgement of its members.

    The situation is as absurd as one I was told of long ago where a snap general election was called and a local party official in one constituency decided that we would not put up a candidate, as there was not enough time to give the notice demanded in the constitution to call the meetings to select a candidate! Thankfully the national party found out quickly enough to effect an appropriate attitude realignment.

    Ultimately life is full of compromises. Some will sacrifice lots of time to build a base of support in an area over several years. I must admit Jo’s comment about “they are far too sensible …” gives me a lot to worry about. Once we start thinking people who work hard in tough seats are not sensible, and that ‘good’ people can be easily identified (by their lack of hard work??)… Well it comes back to judgement, some people make decisions quickly. I prefer to support someone who I can see has walked the walk and not just wants a free ride into a seat that others have worked hard to make winnable, but then my Labour MP was parachuted in at a recent General Election, so I can view it from a totally dispassionate viewpoint.

  • David Evans 6th Jul '08 - 12:54pm


    I’m afraid I have to disagree with you a bit on this one. To an extent it depends on exactly what you mean by maternity leave. My comment was based on the legal right of “Bye, don’t expect to see me for 6 months!” Turning up to three or four meetings then is not quite maternity leave. However, I do think that it’s not solved by just turning up to a few full council meetings, there are group meetings, where local insight of as many as possible is needed to make sure things are fully considered, and many more points than that. Having seen our Party Whip on pins because three members were not present a couple of minutes before a meeting (traffic), it is problematic, but he hasn’t had a heart attack yet!

    Ultimately the success of the Lib Dems is because they are willing to work as a team and accept that some bring different skills to others. We all have rights, but with them come responsibilities, and a key one is not to demand our rights just because we have the right, when in reality we may be imposing excessively on the liberties of others. A team may be able to get by for six months without its star goalkeeper, but to be able to do this needs a good stand in; teamwork; and a willingness to work for each other. If you then demand (because it is your right) to be put straight back in the team, even if the stand in is found to be better, then you may not be a team player after all. Again it is a question of judgement; we all have our strengths and weaknesses. It’s how the members of the team work together and support each other that will determine our success.

  • Dinti Batstone 7th Jul '08 - 2:56pm

    Well done Rob for raising this issue!

    In June 2007 I wrote a report for CGB outlining some practical suggestions for attracting and retaining more women PPCs. I sent the report to both leadership contenders and submitted an abridged version to the Bones Party Reform Commission. One year on, despite valiant efforts by Jo Swinson and others, there has been little tangible progress.

    Every quantitative and qualitative study I have seen of why LibDem women are not putting themselves forward as PPCs identifies perceived incompatibility with family life as the single most important issue.

    Some posts above rightly point out that childcare shouldn’t be an exclusively female issue. I share that view.

    However, putting aside utopian visions and looking at what happens in practice, we can see that the impact of starting a family is more detrimental in career terms for women because of time off around childbearing/ breastfeeding. Because maternity leave is not transferable to fathers, in most families the mother becomes the primary child-carer in the early months of a baby’s life, and this pattern continues long after maternity leave ends. The reality of life with young children (as I well know, having had to make 5 trips to see paediatric consultants in the last 10 days) is that at least one parent MUST put the children before all else. In most families the parent who does this is the mother (often for pragmatic reasons, such as higher male earnings).

    The upshot of this in terms of practical action for our party is to understand that while family-friendly working practices potentially benefit both men and women, in practice they will disproportionately help women.

    So, if we are serious about increasing female parliamentary representation and lowering our female attrition rate, supportive, flexible family-friendly working is not an optional extra- it is an essential pre-requisite.

    Enlightened businesses adapt their working practices and understand that taking time off to have and care for children doesn’t make women any less effective when they return to work. It’s time Liberal Democrats did the same.

  • Andrew Turvey 10th Jul '08 - 11:49pm

    The issues are well covered here, but we need to realies that not only are we bad at this, we are actually WORSE than the other parties! Surely amazing for a Liberal party!

    The elephant in the room is surely the near-obsessive amount of time that Lib Dem politicians and would be politicians are expected to spend getting elected.

    This is the sting in the tail to the mantra of “where we work we win” and the philosophy of pavement politics.

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