NEW POLL: How should the Lib Dems increase their number of female MPs?

At the Speaker’s Conference yesterday, Nick Clegg delivered a frank assessment of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party, calling it “woefully unrepresentative of modern Britain”. It’s not hard to see why. No ethnic minority MPs, and just nine female MPs among our 63 representatives. Woeful is the word.

The real question is: what to do about it? Nick has previously indicated – and repeated the point in his submission yesterday – that he would consider recommending all-women shortlists be adopted by the party after the next election if he’s unable to point to real progress in improving the Parliamentary party’s representativeness. David Cameron has caused apoplexy among some Tories with his suggestion that the positive discrimination of all-women shortlists might be the answer for his party, which is also ‘hideously male’.

So are all-women short-lists – or quotas for the number of women selected for seats – the way to address the issue? The party has, of course, been here before: in 2001, conference delegates rejected a controversial proposal for all-women shortlists, instead setting a target (not a quota) that 40% of candidates in winnable and held seats should be female.

Over to you, LDV’s readers, to decide how best the party can tackle the under-representation of women – if, indeed, you feel it is an issue which should be tackled. The question is simple: How should the Lib Dems increase their number of female MPs?

And your options are:

* All women shortlists and/or quotas in winnable and held seats
* All women shortlists and/or quotas in ALL seats
* No short-lists and/or quotas, but invest in getting more, better-trained and supported candidates
* No short-lists and/or: focus instead on electoral reform – until we have that, all our efforts will be limited.
* No short-lists and/or quotas for women – all candidates should stand or fall on their own merits regardless of gender

(My thanks to James Graham for suggesting the above options.)

Surely it’s time for a heated debate …

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This entry was posted in Voice polls.


  • Andrew Suffield 21st Oct '09 - 8:21pm

    I cannot under any circumstances support an effort to make elections less representative, which is what this would be. If a gender imbalance (or any other imbalance) in MPs is really a problem (and I’m not winning to take it as given that it is), then the focus must be on two things:

    1. The corresponding imbalance in the candidates who put their names forward for election
    2. Why some of the candidates are systematically weaker than others, and what can be done to improve them

    If the “wrong” people are getting elected, then the solution cannot be to rig the voting! I don’t see how liberals can even propose that.

  • Paul Griffiths 21st Oct '09 - 9:08pm

    Mr Suffield’s comment conspicuously ignores a third possibility:

    3. Why some local party selection committees and/or members systematically discriminate against certain candidates, and what can be done to change this.

  • Everything, Jo.

    The present voting system discriminates against Liberal Democrats. We do not have “safe” seats to bestow upon people. We need the strongest and most dedicated candidates in order to win at all under FPTP.

    With STV the voters could say – assuming one succesful Lib Dem candidate per constituency – whether they wanted that person to be male or female.

    Meanwhile, we are stuck with FPTP. And the problem is – risking a gross generalisation – that most women are not prepared to make the necessary sacrifice to get themselves elected.

  • Cllr Patrick Smith 21st Oct '09 - 10:03pm

    From experience it is necessary to invest time and attention and resources on attracting more women into Liberal Democrat community `activism’ that will include more polite requests to women to get involved, especially at a younger age i.e Sixth Form College.

    We should remember that JS Mill went all all out to assuage prejudiced Victorians that women should be treated equally and become the recipients of the same voting rights as their male counterparts.He when an MP was ridiculed publically for his efforts and castigated by cartooning and verbally abused for campaigning for women`s suffrage .

    One important lesson is for men to listen to women when they tell of what is their experience of attending public meetings and it is still not unusual for them to report that they were not asked to speak when indicating..

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Oct '09 - 10:25pm

    The answer is “none of the above”.

    The real problem is that the PPC selection mechanism is biased in favour of certain characteristics which happen to occur more often in males.

    So putting in all-women shortlists and the like will be massively favourable to those small number of women who have those characteristics, but will do nothing at all to solve the real bias.

  • I’m afraid I’ve become so bored with this debate over the years. It comes only second to the even more boring debate about why we don’t have enough ethnic minority candidates.

    It’s very little to do with local parties, nearly all the fault of our selection procedures and methodologies, regional parties and the national party and the simple fact that we don’t have safe seats where an HQ can get away with ‘quota-matching’ parachuted candidates like our opponents.

  • I will not actively oppose all women shortlists if our parliamentary party accepts them not just for target seats but for all held seats. I am not optimistic of the chances of that.

  • By all held seats I mean imposing it on half of all the held seats but which half to not be known until the principle has been agreed.

  • I’d support option 3, with the proviso that what we need is better trained and supported candidates of both genders (and all races, by the way.) I can’t imagine any local party being happy to be told they were having an all-woman shortlist, even if on principle they agreed with it! I’m fundamentally opposed to all-women shortlists, firstly because I’m opposed to discrimination in any shape or form, but also because I agree with Anne Widdecombe (help!) when she points out that female MPs selected on that basis will be judged by their male peers (and probably many of their female peers) as only having got through because of the women-only shortlists and not on their talents.

    I think the point that Martin was making is, as has been suggested before, that because of how politics is the qualities we tend to look for in candidates are usually (though not exclusively) found in men. It almost creates a catch-22 – in order to change the nature of politics we need more women to become involved, but they don’t or can’t because of the way politics is.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '09 - 9:57am


    I think the point that Martin was making is, as has been suggested before, that because of how politics is the qualities we tend to look for in candidates are usually (though not exclusively) found in men.

    Yes, that is also the point I was making. If our approval and selection procedures are essentially looking for those qualities, imposing all-women lists will not tackle the problem. It will just give a massive advantage to those small number of women who have the ‘rutting stag, testosterone-driven’ way of thinking and acting, while doing nothing at all for those of us, whether male or female, who don’t.

  • The introduction of Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote should result in more representative MPs

  • Jo, I’m not really sure what point you’re trying to make in the last bit of your post. I agree that, yes, there probably are some people with “snotty attitudes” to women in the Lib Dems, but then so there are in Labour, the Tories and the SNP too, and that sort of problem isn’t unique to politics. If selection committees or members reject a candidate because they disagree with their opinions – such as those of a “watered-down Conservative”, or because they support the war in Iraq, or disagree with PR – then all well and good. But to make a bold, sweeping statement that “equality is a dirty word in the Lib Dems” simply because someone disagrees with your views is just ridiculous.

    The two most difficult things about being a candidates are time and money. If you’re a dad like me who actually likes spending time with your young family, then it can be pretty difficult having to spend four or five nights a week out knocking on doors. The general expectation by the party that a candidate “leads” and directs the campaign locally, rather than it being done by an agent or organiser (voluntary or paid), has meant that the time spent by PPCs trying to do things which other people can or should be doing has increased – and as a result the buck of responsibility can be too easily passed from the local party. It’s also meant that we’re in greater danger of developing PPCs who are great, fighting campaigners but maybe don’t necessarily have the people skills necessary as an MP (and which tend to be found more in women, I think.) Likewise, the simple expenditure – increased phone bills, petrol, postage, sometimes printing – can easily get out of hand, and again with a family (and no expenses) it can become difficult to justify.

    I guess what I’m saying is that maybe we need to think more about making the PPC role more “family friendly” in a way which makes it easier for men and women to do, and also tries to take some of the aggressiveness out of it.

  • “But having young children never seems to be a barrier for men …”

    Not true, especially so if your wife/partner also works. But fundamentally there is a societal attitude that needs fixing (witness the reaction of men who are afraid to take paternity leave as they see it as career death).

    The people (mainly men) who run companies and organisations tend to be very single-minded to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, including their families. Until that changes, then life in general won’t change. And the problem is that this system is self-replecating as by definition it is the single minded who get to the top.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '09 - 11:54am

    Many years ago I went for approval as a LibDem Parliamentary candidate. I wasn’t planning to trawl round finding a seat, I just thought it might be useful to have that approval so I could step in and do it if my constituency needed me to do it.

    The judgment from the approvers was essentially (though they didn’t phrase it quite this way) “You’re an introvert, we don’t want people of your personality type as PPCs”. I never bothered trying again. I very nearly left the party. At that time I had just been elected as a councillor, and so many of my constituents and people who knew me from elsewhere and didn’t know until then I was involved in politics were saying “You’re really good at this, why don’t you stand for Parliament?”. How was I supposed to reply to them? “Because the party of which I have been an active member for 15 years has just told me they don’t want people like me running for Parliament”?

    Maybe it was also my working class accent. Or the stupid role-playing exercise they made us do where we were supposed to jump up and down cheering “rah rah rah for Paddy Ashdown” or something like that, which I don’t think I shone in.

    Anyway, then I was young, free and single, now I’m none of these, so I can’t commit the time or sacrifice my paid career for it in the way that it seems to be deemed essential for a PPC in our party. So, there you are, maybe people are thinking “Thank God Huntbach never got to be a LibDem MP, given his views”. Or maybe I really am useless and don’t want to admit it. I think one might detect, however, a slight tone of bitterness in some of my comments re the party as a result of this.

  • “No ethnic minority MPs”

    Grrr. This is not true. Lembit is an ethnic minority MP (unless second generation sons of refugees don’t count now).

    This might seem a pedantic point – but if we are to have this debate about prioritising certain groups we need to at least get the definitions right.

  • The question that needs to be answered in this debate is: given the time commitment and resources required to win, the lack of financial and organisational support for most candidates and the unmeetable expectations of many local parties, why would a rational person of either sex take on the job?

    Yes, there may well be discrimination against women from some areas, but if the proportion of selected women candidates is roughly the same as that on the approved list, then there must be other factors at play which explain why, for example, the efforts to encourage more, good, women to put themselves forward for approval have only yielded modest gains.

    If we’ll failing to support selected candidates, whether men or women, and their local parties properly and to help them achieve their local goals… is that not the greater problem in terms of dissuading people to come forward?

  • Matthew – it’s a great shame that you suffered that experience in the ppc approvals process: you’re just the sort of person we could do with in Parliament!

  • Jo is spot on to pinpoint the issue of support AFTER selection. For me the final straw was being told by my region
    when I was a PPC that ‘statutory rights did not apply’ when it came to maternity leave for PPCs.

  • I’m happy with questions of ethnicity being left to self-definition – in my case my Welshness peaks in the Spring with the 6 nations and my Englishness in the summer in the test matches 🙂

    The problem arises if we were to prioritise potential ethnic minority candidates for selection and ended up with a shortlist of (very hypothetically!), Lembit, yourself and Mark Valladares people might question the procedure!

    Candidate selection for electable places is extremely cut-throat and I can well beleive that people might try to take advantage of anything that would give them a better chance.

  • Jo – apologies if I misunderstood your position. I think it is a strong point that you make that there is already a great deal of support and training to get women selected only for them to resign later because of the attitudes they face.

  • Painfully Liberal 22nd Oct '09 - 2:52pm

    Just in the name of having all the facts at one’s fingertips, does anyone know the male/female ratio for party membership?

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '09 - 3:55pm

    Matthew – it’s a great shame that you suffered that experience in the ppc approvals process: you’re just the sort of person we could do with in Parliament!

    Thanks Alex, I wasn’t left feeling like that after the process, in fact I was left feeling like shit. If it wasn’t that I’d already been a long-standing member of the party, I’m sure I would either have dropped out or arranged to defect to another in public just to spite it. But, hey, who cares, I was white and male and there were plenty more of those.

  • Cllr Patrick Smith 22nd Oct '09 - 5:22pm

    I take issue with Jo Anklezarke that the questions of involving and motivating women proportionately to ignite their vital spark to move forward in Liberal Democrat community `activism’ and stand for Council or present for PPC is in fact dependant on a few important factors.

    Many women may have heard Nick Clegg state at Conference that the target in the General Election was the approval of 150 female PPCs.So Jo Swinson leading on `Real Women’ policies should not be alone on the L/D benches for want of support in the next Parliament.

    On Councils there are 34% L/D`s already elected and clearly there must be progressive Town Hall provision like crèches in the future, when more parenting role can be performed before,during and after Meetings for males as well.

    There should be no barrier for the many L/D women supporters who seek to embark on confidence boosting taster or training sessions, as all women that have the potential for taking an active part in L/D community politics or those making the eventual decision to stand for election to PPC status, do not all start from the high self confidence.

    Women should be encouraged to get involved from all backgrounds and a targeted training strategy will innevitably help women to determine their best role..

  • Andrew Duffield 22nd Oct '09 - 10:57pm

    There is a very simple, equitable and Liberal solution to this:

    – all constituencies returning a Lib Dem MP must select a candidate of the opposite sex upon the incumbent’s retirement.

    This also means that female MPs would be replaced by males on standing down, so is fair to both genders.

    Personally I would extend the proposal as follows:

    – all constituencies returning a Lib Dem MP must select a candidate of the opposite sex, or of a different ethnic group, or with a physical disability upon the incumbent’s retirement.

    This would permit “same sex succession”, but still ensure a change that reflected other aspects of UK society.

    Within a very few election cycles we would have much greater gender balance and a more reflective societal mix.

    I move.

  • Theo Butt Philip Theo Butt Philip 23rd Oct '09 - 1:19am


    I don’t agree with you plan, but it’s not without merit. It wouldn’t make a great deal of difference at this election though, six Lib Dem MPs have said they’re standing down (all male) one of those constituencies has selected a man, four women and the last has yet to select. At the last election it means that Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, Dan Rodgerson and Martin Horwood would not have been elected in their current seats and neither would Susan Kramer. Assuming that all those seats were held with different candidates we’d have had an extra 3 women MPs last time and an extra 1 or 2 next time (once again assuming we hold all the seats). Whilst that would be a good increase it’s not a massive one.


  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Oct '09 - 10:01am

    – all constituencies returning a Lib Dem MP must select a candidate of the opposite sex, or of a different ethnic group, or with a physical disability upon the incumbent’s retirement

    No, this is not “liberal”. Liberal means people are trusted and left to make their own decisions. It means a group of people coming together can choose who they want to represent them. The idea of some big state-level bosses coming down and saying “No, you have no right to pick the person you want, we will tell you who you must pick” is thoroughly illiberal.

    As I have already suggested – and in the end I decided to make my point properly I had to reveal some personal information about myself which it was very uncomfortable to do – I think the small number of women MPs is a side-effect of some other bias in our system rather than a primary bias. Tackling the side-effect while ignoring the primary bias is a bad way to handle this.

  • Tom Papworth 23rd Oct '09 - 11:30am

    “Liberal means people are trusted and left to make their own decisions.” I agree, Matthew Huntbach. I totally agree.

    I think I need to sit down!

    On the choices in the poll, I’m not sure that the last three mutually exclusive. Why could the party not invest in getting more, better-trained and supported candidates, focus on electoral reform and allow candidates to stand or fall on their own merits regardless of gender?

  • I think the best solution I can think of is to require / recommend local party chairs or executives to attend diversity training at (regional) conference, which obviously requires making that training more widely available.

    I’m involved in LGBT equality and the most rewarding training I had at Bournemouth last month (and there was a lot of excellent training) was Issan’s diversity training – talking about what diversity is, and what we are trying to achieve, and why it’s good for the party. And particularly why all-women shortlists isn’t good for equality!

    I feel that having more people in local parties aware of why diversity is good for their local party might help challenge the subconscious, implicit sexism which seems to exist in a lot of local parties I’ve heard about – which might mean more women feeling welcome in local parties, more women getting involved with local party executives, and hence more women getting to the level where they’re fairly considered for selection as candidates.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Oct '09 - 10:44pm

    Tom Papworth

    “Liberal means people are trusted and left to make their own decisions.” I agree, Matthew Huntbach. I totally agree.

    I think I need to sit down!

    Why? This has always been the basis of my politics. It’s only your one-dimensional political mind which thinks just because I don’t support your right-wing economics means I must be some sort of nanny state socialist.

  • Grammar Police 25th Oct '09 - 11:15pm

    @ Jo Anglezarke
    “Chairs should have to submit a long lengthy report to regional exec whenever they choose a male candidate where a female candidate was available to encourage them to really think about the impact of their decision – the process should be scrutinised much more”

    Jo – I’m not clear on what you mean here. How would this lead to more scrutiny? As a chair of a local party (which ultimately selected two women PPCs), if my local party had voted for male candidates, what could I have possibly written? It wouldn’t have been my decision.
    It seems to me that the only way for anyone to win as a Liberal Democrat is to make a massive personal sacrifice in terms of time, energy and money – and there are not terribly many people in the population generally willing to do this.

  • Answer: by increasing the number of Liberal Democrat MPs.

    Next question?

    (Shouldn’t this have been “How should the Lib Dems increase the proportion of their MPs who are are female?”)

  • The target for ensuring that at least 40% of all shortlists should be women is being ignored for various reasons. So according to the (mostly male) contributors of this link, we should do nothing – just more of the same – encouraging, training, blah blah.
    Yes and in a 100 years we may have somewhere near approaching equal numbers of men and women representation in Parliament. How very radical and liberal.

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