Opinion: An embarrassing lack of diversity

The lack of Black and Asian members at federal conference was depressing and embarrassing.

Glasgow was the most racially undiverse Lib Dem conference since I joined in 2006. Every TV scan of the audience showed a sea of white faces, even for equality debates. The day I went was no different.

The message it sent Britain was that we are not a party that reflects modern multicultural society, and therefore probably don’t care much for it.

To add insult, the Federal Executive (FE) proposed committee quotas for women while ignoring BAME and other under-represented groups.

Under this system the three BAME men would all have lost their places to, in all probability, white women. The only ethnic minority left would be Pauline Pearce on Federal Conference Committee (FCC).

Conference voted to order the FE to consult other groups, which is welcome but should have happened to begin with.

The Association of Lib Dem Councillors already has all-white committee members. We can’t afford the party’s federal committees to go the same way.

To only propose quotas for women implies a hierarchy of equalities where other under-represented groups are just not as relevant.

Currently we only have a single African or Caribbean prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) in the whole country, and that is in an unwinnable seat.

Although we have three BAME PPCs in winnable seats given our current polling there is a possibility we could emerge with another all-white Commons team after 2015.

And until Vince Cable announced a review of ethnic diversity in City boardrooms before conference there weren’t many policies to speak of which specifically tackled disproportionate racial disadvantage.

Our 2010 manifesto pledge for name-blind job applications still hasn’t been rolled out beyond Whitehall and our policy – unanimously agreed at last years’ conference – requiring ethnic monitoring and reporting for companies seeking public sector contracts has sunk without trace.

Nick Clegg’s office privately promised action on disproportionate BAME unemployment, and for other “stuck groups”, but again we have not seen any action.

Less than eight months away from the general election our standing amongst BAME communities is at an all-time low.

The Lord Ashcroft report ‘Degrees of Separation’ found that only 2% of Black (African and Caribbean) and 4% of Asians polled “identified with” our party, while 6% and 9% respectively actually voted for us at the last election.

Given that we polled 23% nationally it is clear we weren’t appealing to BAME communities even with Cleggmania.

That was in 2012. My antenna tells me now that support from African and Caribbean communities will be absolutely minuscule in 2015. So unless we are resolved to attract even less ethnic minority votes than UKIP urgent action is required.

Our remaining months in government must see name-blind job applications finally rolled out; our agreed employment and education party policy turned into reality; and action on the wider issue of disproportionate BAME unemployment and the pay gap.

We can no longer use the argument that BAME communities are interested in everyday issues like the economy, education and health – of course they are – to downgrade the importance of tackling factors that hold down people of colour.

Just as the ‘grey vote’ is respected with all parties locking in pensions guarantees, and the ‘diaper vote’ merits childcare policies, so too should we put race back on the agenda to address the scar of unequal racial outcomes.

And the further we go the more diverse our party will become, the more likely we are to attract BAME talent, and in turn that reinforces confidence of diverse communities to vote for us in a virtuous circle.

It would be right to feel embarrassed about the lack of racial diversity in Glasgow, but handwringing is not the answer. More action on policy and visible representation is.

* Lester Holloway is a former councillor and member of the Equalities Policy Working Group, and a member of the Race Equality Taskforce

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  • Tsar Nicolas 9th Oct '14 - 5:59pm

    I suspect many Muslims are appalled at the enthusiasm of Clegg and others in the party leadership to bomb Muslim countries in north Africa and the Middle east.

    There may also be an overlapping social class effect. Many members of ethnic minorities are socially and economically disadvantaged, so all these policies which have transferred wealth to the upper tiers of society are not going to appeal to them.

  • It’s because you are no longer social democrats. The Lib Dems are now the party of socially liberal social policies mixed with the centre right economically. Kinda like Tory Party lite economics without the hang’em and flog’em brigade that also want to open the borders.

    A party like that, one that isn’t big on social justice, doesn’t care what immigration has done to the living standards of masses of ordinary working people at the bottom of the economic ladder, doesn’t seem to understand how angry people are about crime in areas most affected by it, is almost certainly going to consist of the upper middle class in the shires, almost all of whom a white…

    With policies like yours, what do you expect? Lots students? Lots of minority members from the inner cities? The Lib Dems membership is what it is because the party are what they are. Do you think my description of the party is incorrect.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Oct '14 - 6:16pm

    I am sympathetic towards this. In fact when last year’s conference was on I paused the screen on the TV during Nick’s speech and asked my dad what he noticed about the crowd. He didn’t see it at first, but when I pointed out how white it was he was shocked and said “he can’t get elected with a party like that”.

    I don’t agree with name blind application forms, what if someone phone’s up for a job and has a conversation with someone and the person wants to remember their name?

    In the past I have had borderline hatred for the idea of gender quotas. The first reason is because it is anti-merit, but the second reason is because it tramples on other areas of diversity. I can understand the logic of diversity quotas, but not just women quotas.

    I’ve heard female representatives say that gender inequality is the most important, and I admire their honesty and I am even open minded to it, but really I don’t think it is acceptable for mostly white middle class men to give such a greater priority to mostly white middle class women, than all other under represented groups.

    My own contribution to the debate is also the importance of skill diversity. The left tends to ignore this one.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Oct '14 - 6:21pm

    “The lack of Black and Asian members at federal conference was depressing and embarrassing.”

    If we start from the point that BAME communities are not distributed evenly across the country, I’ll then assume for the sake of this discussion that our BAME membership is similarly concentrated in those areas where BAME population is higher (the population in my own patch is well over 90% white).

    So does Party membership in areas with significant BAME communities reflect local ethnicity? And if so does conference representation in those areas reflect local ethnicity? Because if not then it might not be surprising if we didn’t see many Black or Asian people at conference.

    Or might this be a situation of some BAME members wanting to attend conference but unable to afford the cost?

  • “The lack of Black and Asian members at federal conference was depressing and embarrassing.”

    Whilst I fully appreciate and understand Lester’s exasperation, I do agree with Nonconformistradical, there are some very pertinent questions that need to be addressed, hopefully a move to OMOV will help encourage a wider membership to attend conference. Also taking Eddie’s comments a little further, I would hope that Lester would also berate the party if effectively the only BAME member present was on the stage, only there because of a quota…

  • What about the group that is most disadvantaged, the working class.

    If you’re going to create quotes etc to make it look like the general population then what about the working class? A white working class man will have a much harder time than a black upper middle class woman.

  • Liberal Neil 9th Oct '14 - 8:11pm

    Anood Al-Samerai is a member of the ALDC Management Committee.

    I agree with your general point though.

  • I must admit I am not totally in favour of unamed application forms at least not as a longer term solution and it could do more harm than good. There will always be a way out/around such a system whether the name is on the application or not. i.e Drop your CV in in person, will become the trend. Plus for it to be effective many other information which could even remotely identify a persons ethnicity will be used to decipher. i.e area of residence would have to be omitted too. I take it these forms do not omit address so the electoral roll will give the name in any case won’t it along with 192.com and similar easy to findout sites? It is the cultural bias attitude some hold that has to change and no amount of name omitting/changing will do that. I am a white woman with a mixed race child and some people do and have changed towards me when they discover this. Thankfully not all but for each 100 makes no difference or just opened their eyes people, there will be one or two with other ideas which are far from healthy.

    I agree wholeheartedly there is not enough representation of other ethnicities within the MP base we have.

  • Graham Neale 9th Oct '14 - 11:37pm

    I remember being told at a training session in Brighton that there was no budget to promote social and cultural diversity, as it had all been allocated to gender diversity.
    It’s a bit messed up when, for example a barrister, married to a government minister will get more help than a keen wannabe councillor in east London, (but that’s how small political parties work I guess).
    The worst outcome will be the elite simply installing minority women to fill two quota targets, closing the door for less privileged male candidates, in order to maintain the status quo, either that or we will see ‘second rate’ candidates, being selected, to make up quotas, then left high and dry.

  • Graham Neale 9th Oct ’14 – 11:37pm
    I remember being told at a training session in Brighton that there was no budget to promote social and cultural diversity,

    But enough money to employ Ryan Coetzee to drive the opinion poll rating for the party down to 6%. I am told he is not on a contract that includes payment by results.

  • Jonathan Brown 10th Oct '14 - 12:01am

    A depressing and embarrasing article Lester, but one that I sadly don’t think can be challenged in substance.

    Having identified specific things that we could do (implement specific policies and improve the diversity of our internal committees), as well as detailed the threat to the party if we don’t change, there can be no excuse for innaction.

  • Tsar Nicolas 10th Oct '14 - 2:52am

    Lib Dems on 1% in Clacton. Congratulations Nick and Ryan!

  • Caracatus 10th Oct ’14 – 5:35am
    ………..the people who can ignore our 6% poll rating will carry on ignoring our unrepresentative collection of MPs – soon to become even more unrepresentative.

    If we are reduced to 30 MPs it is not impossible that they would be 100% white, male and 90% public school.

    Your “A list” would work. And for those who have a difficulty with the description “working class” it could be simply replaced by ” attended a state school. If our candidates reflected the national statistics, we would have 93% from state schools and 7% fom public schools. Simple. Indeed requiring that 93% of our candidates were from state schools would increase BAMEnumbers automatically.

    As I have said in a previous thread, if Nick Clegg can be fast-tracked from public school ski-instructor to leader of the party in just15 years, anything is possible for a black girl currently at a Peckham comprehensive if given the same sort of support that Clegg was given.

  • Lester Holloway
    “…..The difference between the Tories and us is that the Tories, in opposition, applied pressure on local associations including Cameron himself phoning committee chairman, to assist the selection of aspirants …”

    But Lester if you read the book ‘The Clegg Coup’ you will see that powerful people in the Liberal Democrats did exactly this sort of thing.
    The difference is they did it for a white public school boy.
    They did it to get Nick Clegg to be first an MEP and then an MP.
    If you have a copy of the book ‘The Clegg Coup’ — look again at pages 58 and 59 for Paddy Ashdown’s initial leg-up for Clegg. Then go to pages 62 and 63 to see the involvement of Ian Wright, Neil Sherlock and Andrew Gifford.
    These white boys from public schools have been operating their own “A list” for generations.
    You didn’t think that Clegg got to his present position on the basis of his talent and political ability did you?

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 10th Oct '14 - 8:28am


    Actually, I do have to disagree with you on the question of Nick’s ability.

    I was the Returning Officer for the South East European selection in 1997, when Nick made his first pitch to be selected as a candidate. I sat in on his interview with a panel of members from across three Regions, who were extremely impressed with him, and would have been very happy to have him on their Regional List. And trust me, they weren’t a bunch of naive idealists or centrally imposed to make his life easier.

    He made the very astute decision to run in East Midlands though, where the depth of the male list wasn’t as strong – South East had Chris Huhne and David Bellotti and at least three other very credible contenders, whereas East Midlands was very much seen as a two-horse race – Nick and Atul Vadher. He then convinced some very capable people to support his campaign and won the selection.

    Now I would argue that his actions in that campaign demonstrated a range of political skills at a high level, and you also know that local parties tend to respond rather badly to any suggestion that a candidate might be imposed upon them by the centre. He also persuaded a majority of party members who voted that he was the best choice to be leader, and members in Sheffield Hallam that he should be their candidate – they’re hardly the deferential type in South Yorkshire.

    So, don’t let your honestly held belief that Nick is, and has been, bad for the Party to blind you to his abilities. Has he made mistakes? Certainly. Is he the right person to lead the Party? We’ll never know if anyone else could have done better. Should someone take over? Depends on who it is.

    It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that someone so apparently useless could be selected and elected as an MEP, selected and elected as an MP, and then become party leader and Deputy Prime Minister…

  • Mark Valladares 10th Oct ’14 – 8:28am

    Mark, I have no reason to doubt anything you say here.
    Neither do I have any reason to doubt what Clegg’s mate Jasper Gerard wrote in his book ‘The Clegg Coup’.

    As for Clegg’s ability well the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Liberal Democrats have been eating poorly since Clegg became leader (even before the coalition). In Clacton we have once again been on starvation rations.

    In the context of this thread and Lester’s original piece there is no doubt that powerful people in the Liberal Democrats over the last twenty years have repeatedly operated a system of positive discrimination to fast-track white public school boys like Clegg, Laws and Browne. I do not recall any fast-tracking of black girls from a Peckham Comprehensive but perhaps you had a queue of them lined up when you were the Returning Officer and just chose Clegg on merit. Apologies for the sarcasm, I know you are an honest and reliable bloke, but I have sat through too many decades in the party waiting for something to be done to be done to tip the balance away from public school boys, and I am still waiting.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 10th Oct '14 - 9:15am


    There is a genuine problem in terms of how candidates get chosen, particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the Liberal Democrats.

    Firstly, the public school set are imbued with a sense of confidence which makes it more likely that they will put themselves forward. They come from a background whereby they are more likely to know influential people because they are within their social circle – the ‘known quantity’ tendency will certainly help.

    Then, our process requires the completion of an application form, although that is more a formality than a sifting exercise and the passing of an assessment day. The skills required are universal ones, but having the opportunity to tap the experience of others will help.

    And then, we require almost Stakhanovite intensity from our candidates, and a lot of people simply don’t want to sacrifice their lives to a cause that offers no guarantee of success – a problem which is far worse for us than it is for Labour and the Conservatives – and I can’t blame them as it has never appealed to me either.

    The processes of the Party do not, I firmly believe, discriminate against anyone – during my time on English Candidates Committee, we never failed to consider the impact of proposed changes on diversity, as EMLD Chair Issan Ghazni would, I hope, confirm (he sat in our meetings when he was the Party’s Diversity Officer). The problem is that those blessed with self-confidence are always likely to perform better, all other things being equal. Worse still, that is equally true when it comes to the public, over whom we have no control.

    I don’t know how we solve that, but agree that we need to make the Party look more like the communities it hopes to serve if we are to become what we could be.

  • Lester has been the only member to consistently point out Lib Dems under-representation of different ethnicities and I find that troubling in itself. I used to think this is what the party was best at, but here’s someone on a mission to try to get others from a similar background to join and there seems to be little support or help, which is what Pauline Pierce said when she pulled out of the presidential race.

  • @Lester Holloway I think you’re getting confused between the LGA Lib Dem Group and ALDC which are two separate things (although we do of course work closely together).

    Anood has been on the ALDC Management Committee for the last two years. As far as I’m aware Duwayne and Rabi (and I think you) haven’t stood. Although I think it is fair to say that we rarely have any BAME candidates putting their names forward.

  • Nonconformistradical 11th Oct '14 - 4:27pm

    @Lester Holloway

    “@Nonconformistradical, I suspect there hasn’t been an attempt to map the spread of our wider party membership comparing this with the ethnicity of the local population and numbers of BAME members – this sounds like a large research project”

    You suspect?

    You assert that “The message it sent Britain was that we are not a party that reflects modern multicultural society, and therefore probably don’t care much for it.”

    Given you started by lamenting the lack of BAME people at conference, don’t you have some responsibility to (a) establish what the real problem is – local party membership v local ethnicity or local party conference representation v local party membership or a bit of both (or some totally different problem) and (b) having established what the problem is, quantify it at least roughly?

    So why don’t you do a pilot project on a few areas – say a few London boroughs? You can find stats on ethnicity on the ONS website – try http://www.nomisweb.co.uk/census/2011/ks201ew – and then get in touch with the relevant local parties to establish some figures on ethnicity among their membership.

    I’m not saying I necessarily disagree with you. I’m really saying that you’ll look a whole lot more authoritative if you have some numbers to back up your assertion. Preferably obtained without recourse to that rag from which you quoted in your reply to my earlier posting.

  • Shirley Campbell 12th Oct '14 - 7:32pm

    Oh my, I must be getting old because I do not notice whether a person is BEME, which, for the uninitiated, means black, Asian and minority ethnic. Such labels are meaningless and I prefer the late Martin Luther King’s contention that and I quote: “It is the quality of a man’s soul and not the colour of his skin ….”

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Oct '14 - 9:15pm

    @Lester Holloway
    “If anything this project is something our diversity unit should be doing, not myself personally.”

    Sorry – you need to either do it yourself or agitate for the diversity unit to do it.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Oct '14 - 9:19pm

    @Shirley Campbell
    I tend to agree with you and I would refer people to the late John Arlott, the cricket commentator and at least once Liberal Party candidate for Westminster who described himself as ‘human’ on an immigration form when visitng apartheid-era South Africa.

    Personally I don’t think it matters whether someone is black, white, brown or sky-blue pink – they’re still HUMAN

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