Opinion: “I don’t like them, you don’t like them… We have to have them”

This Saturday, Conference has the opportunity to show that Liberal Democrats are genuinely committed to achieving gender balance in our own distinctively liberal and democratic way.

Conference will debate an amendment which Jo Shaw and I have put forward to Mark Pack and Paul Tyler’s Lords reform motion. Our amendment builds on the approach taken by our party in the late 1990s, when one-off zipping was used to deliver a gender-balanced cohort of Lib Dem MEPs in the first PR elections to the European Parliament.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need these kinds of measures. But with just 12% women in our House of Commons parliamentary group, Liberal Democrats urgently need a gender game-changer at Westminster. The conundrum under first-past-the-post has always been how to achieve that without riding roughshod over our party’s philosophy and local candidate selection procedures. Multi-member proportional representation constituencies help us out of that rut. We can make progress on gender balance without resorting to divisive mechanisms which exclude men. We can ensure the best men – as well as the best women – get elected.

Our amendment also calls for piloting of “modern flexible working practices”. “Piloting” means just that – small scale temporary innovation to explore what works and what doesn’t.  Like zipping, flexible working boosts women’s participation without excluding men. Indeed, there may be plenty of male – as well as female – QCs, academics, surgeons, and assorted high flyers who see flexible political working as the ideal way to maintain a professional foothold whilst serving in a reformed second chamber. Westminster benefits from legislators with a hinterland outside politics, and flexibility liberally and democratically empowers people to serve in public life without sacrificing every other aspect of their lives. (Anyone sceptical about how this might work in practice is warmly invited to attend a fringe I’ve organised with Lynne Featherstone – Sunday, 6.15 – Jury’s Inn).

The third and fourth limbs of our amendment relate to appointments. Our preference is for a 100% elected house but, if an appointed element is retained, we would like to see much greater transparency in how appointments are made. Peers are first and foremost revisers of legislation – their appointment should reflect this, rather than appearing to reward extraneous factors such as wealth, status and being part of the political in-crowd. A recent Radio 4 programme highlighted an alarming number of peers who have not spoken in a single debate since their introduction – this cannot be acceptable. Finally, we want to ensure that any further interim appointments take account of the fact that incumbents seeking election will have a significant advantage over new candidates. We therefore call for interim appointments to mitigate, rather than perpetuate, the existing gender imbalance in our parliamentary group – at least 50% of further interim appointments (if there are any) should be female.  The success of recent appointments such as Claire Tyler (who had little profile in the party before her appointment) shows that when we are proactive about looking for high quality women we have no trouble finding them.

One of the most senior women in global politics, Christine Lagarde, recently admitted to having changed her mind about the need for equality guarantees: “I don’t like them, you don’t like them… We have to have them”.  Jo and I have reluctantly made the same journey. In the spectrum of options ranging from All-Women Shortlists to status quo, temporary measures which do not exclude men seem to us a workable, if not likeable, compromise. We hope Conference agrees.

Dinti Batstone is a member of the FPC and Vice-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance.

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14 Comments

  • I hope the flexible practices pilot goes well and is passed without problem. I struggle to find reasons why we haven’t proposed the same thing for the Commons either!

  • It is an interesting trial, will details of any presentation be posted here (or somewhere) for those who aren’t attending?

    Has any proper research ever been done on why women do not go into politics? I ask as over the years I’ve worked with and for many females in both the Forces and private companies. Many of these women were superb at what they did, I know that at least one ex-boss of mine eventually attained Air Rank (for those unfamiliar with RAF terms – think General). I also know that a few of the civilian managers are slowly moving up the ladder in various locations. Both sets had something in common, they worked in posts where family friendly hours were not always possible, also the Forces are often considered to be a macho invironment.

    Added to that, the Forces also now allow women to serve even if they have children, but the condition is that the needs of the Forces must always come first and it is up to them to find care for their children in the event of them being deployed. I left before this change came into effect, but I have done a tour with US Forces where this started some time back and it didn’t seem to deter people.

    The reason I mention all of this is that that the usual reasons you here about the lack of women in the HoC is that it is a macho environment and not family friendly. However in other walks of life this is not considered a barrier, so surely there must be other reasons?

  • Simon McGrath 14th Sep '11 - 9:47pm

    The party constitution is pretty clear on the subject of discrimination:
    “we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation”

    the proposals seems to be that the voters will not have a free choice of who to elect but will be forced to elect equal numbers of men and women.

    How on earth can this be democratic?

  • Karen Wilkinson 15th Sep '11 - 12:12am

    As a recently approved female candidate, I offer a comment to me from a woman the other day: “I think it’s great what you’re doing and I would love to help get you elected around here….but you’re in for a major battle, even with the LibDems. They’ll only support career politicos or professional high flyers who have as much in common with the average woman as men do. It’s simply not possible for a non-working mother to get anywhere in politics because, being out of the system, we think differently and have all the credibility of a dad at a teenagers disco, no matter what our profession before children. Anyway, have fun being patronised.”

    I do so love a challenge.

  • @ Karen Wilkinson

    An interesting comment 😀 – it made me wonder if being a politico was a major factor in the new intake so I looked at the first ten I found (it was a list by constituency so the names aren’t in alphabetical order). It would seem that there is a fair amount of truth in the statement:

    Guto Bebb – Self Employed
    Nash Pamela – Young Fabians, Intern (for MP) and parliamentary assistant
    Mills Nigel – Chartered accountant and tax advisor
    Paisley Jnr Ian – Father was a rather well known politician
    de Piero Gloria – worked in TV (mainly politically themes)
    Whiteford Eilidh – Mainly seems to have worked for MEPs/MSP then charities
    Dugher Michael – Used to work at No 10 but also was an advisor for various departments.
    Woodcock John – Aide to John Hutton (05 – 08) and special advisor to Gordon Brown
    Metcalfe Stephen – Family business and district councillor
    Ellison Jane – Worked for John Lewis Partnership

    As far as I can tell, only 3 of the 10 didn’t seem to have direct links to some sort of political job at some point and I would guess that the those 3 were high flyers(though the detail on the biographies can be sketchy). I could go through the whole list to check the rest, but even I’m not that sad (yet).

    Good luck on your challenge 😀

  • Bernard Salmon 15th Sep '11 - 10:40am

    Our amendment builds on the approach taken by our party in the late 1990s, when one-off zipping was used to deliver a gender-balanced cohort of Lib Dem MEPs in the first PR elections to the European Parliament.

    Not quite – zipping didn’t apply in Scotland, but we had the good sense to put Elspeth Attwooll at the top of our European list. Zipping thus resulted in five men and four women getting elected in England.

  • Karen Wilkinson 15th Sep '11 - 3:20pm

    @ chris_sh

    Thanks for being sad Chris! Perhaps the weighting towards politicos is a necessity, that national and global politics are so complex that one needs serious training to understand them. Nevertheless, good to have at least a few normal mortals to help give a different perspective, don’t you think? 🙂

    For me the biggest barriers are not Westminster working practices once elected but the scale of work, time and money involved in getting to that point.

  • paul barker 15th Sep '11 - 5:31pm

    Seems like an excellent solution to me. We already use Gender Quotas for our list to The London Assembly, with no problems as far as I know.

  • @Karen Wilkinson

    Them pesky normal mortals, coming here with their common sense ideas – would never have happened in my time 😉

    I suppose a certain number of politicos isn’t to bad, especially if they came through the council politics route. I’m not so convinced about the Uni – Intern – assistant – MP role though, after all aren’t the Civil Service there to provide continuity and expertise on this sort of thing, so why not get more normal folk in? (it seems that there is also a shortage of male non-politicos as well)

  • Simon McGrath 15th Sep '11 - 10:17pm

    @Paul – london has both race and gender quotas. both are discrimatory and break the constition ( and useless, of the top 4 on the gla list 3 are women, 1 from an ethnic minority)

  • Leekliberal 16th Sep '11 - 7:14pm

    More power to your elbows Jo and Dinti! – sadly most Lib Dem males won’t accept any change that seeks to make a real difference to gender unfairness. The women have waited for too long! No this is not a female rant. I am a male pensioner.

  • Dinti Batstone 16th Sep '11 - 9:29pm

    Thank you for all your comments – both supportive and sceptical – look forward to more tomorrow afternoon in Birmingham!

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