Opinion: Is diversity worth paying for?

Ming Campbell hosted a reception on Tuesday night for female Westminster researchers, encouraging them to consider becoming approved candidates.

This is surely welcome, but Ming’s moves in this area are all too rare for a leader who stated during his campaign for election that:

“It is clear that a positive and dynamic campaign is needed within the party to actively seek out potential women candidates, and support and encourage them through approval and selection.”

Does one reception in 18 months count as dynamic?

Whatever happened to this campaign? Well, for some time now the party has had a Campaign for Gender Balance. It has achieved a lot, getting scores of women through the approval process and helping them get selected for winnable seats, but it has always been encumbered by a lack of funds. In the last year, this grant has been cut still further. Now, with the campaign’s organiser leaving, the project is once again under threat as the party’s Federal Finance and Administration Committee (FFAC) has to formally approve the appointment of a new member of staff.

Last time the Campaign was in this position, the FFAC took eight months to approve it, despite this being at the key post general election period where the most progress in terms of finding getting strong female candidates in place could have been made.

Once again, compare the reality with Ming’s commitment during his leadership election:

“I believe that we must tackle the problem of under-representation, and the way to do so is with positive action. That action needs to be resourced, and I am personally committed to that. Detailed budget-setting is done by the party’s finance committee, but if funds cannot be found from existing budgets, I will personally lead fundraising efforts to make sure this essential activity is funded.”

When is the fundraising due to start, Ming? You’ve had 18 months.

There is something very wrong with a party where the strategy agreed by its full conference is subject to the whims of a few faceless bureaucrats in a finance committee each time a member of staff quits. (I write as a former faceless bureaucrat myself.)

The objection appears to be that the party should not spend its money on “administrators”. Of course, what counts as an administrator and what counts as a campaigner is in the eye of the beholder. And the importance of admin work can be overestimated. As someone who has spent the last few months trying to revive the Reflecting Britain website and turn it into a training and development tool in my spare time, I can earnestly testify to this.

The real question for me is this: what is the party’s strategy for getting more women and people from other under-represented groups selected in winnable seats?

This is important because all the evidence we have is that this is a supply side problem: all things being equal, there is no evidence to suggest that women or BME candidates do worse than white male candidates. Even the Greater London Assembly candidate selection debacle indicated that the candidates who did the best ran the best selection campaigns. Our problem is that women and minority ethnicities are under-represented in our list of approved candidates.

Aside from the Campaign for Gender Balance, which the party has never adequately supported, there is nothing. The Ethnic Minority Election Task Force has fizzled on occasion, but hasn’t even got off the ground in the four years since it was set up.

The party’s much-vaunted Diversity Fund is explicitly prevented from funding this type of development work: the money from it can only be spent in target seats which have already selected women or BME candidates (whether this amounts to a bribe or not is another matter). Even the most fervent supporter of the Diversity Fund will acknowledge that we have no way of knowing if this hugely expensive experiment will be a success or failure until after the next General Election. The more cynical among us suspect that every pound coming from the Diversity Fund to support a woman or BME candidate is a pound that otherwise would simply have come from the party’s Campaign Fund and that because of the opaqueness of our target seat accounts, it will be a simple matter to notch up every successful female candidate as a ‘gain’ for the Diversity Fund regardless of what support they actually got.

We appear to have three options:
– do nothing except mouth pieties and hope it will sort itself out,
– adopt positive discrimination measures, or
– invest in campaigns like the CGB.

While the party as a whole has consistently supported the latter, the party centrally has always rejected it and the rest of the party has been broadly content to allow them to make the final decision. We are thus in effect left with the former option, which itself has a high political cost as we look increasingly less reflective of the UK population even compared to the Conservatives.

Or maybe we should revisit the middle option – positive discrimination – once again? Personally, I’ve always opposed it, but I share the passion that its supporters have for making the party look more representative. At least they recognise that the problem cannot be solved with warm words.

Those of us who support pro-active measures such as mentoring, training and development have comprehensively failed to galvanise support within the party, even if we have nominally won every debate on the conference floor. It is pointless winning these debates if the party doesn’t insist its collective will is respected. Maybe it is time the all-women shortlist – and all-black shortlist – brigade had their chance.

What do you think?

* James Graham blogs at Quaequam Blog!

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22 Comments

  • Chris Rennard 12th Jul '07 - 11:47am

    James and I have differed in the past about the best routes to promote diversity. Not everyone as committed as he is would share his analysis or views. But the best way to promote diversity in our party in the next 7 days is by helping in Ealing Southall. All that he and others can do to continue helping this campaign is appreciated.

    Chris Rennard

  • rochdale cowboy 12th Jul '07 - 1:16pm

    Chris – have you had a bet on this by-election?

  • I agree with letterman. If we want to bring real diversity into our party, surely we need more women and ethnic minority candidates with experience of the ‘real world’ – i.e. outside Westminster.
    Chris’s reply is a little disappointing. Yes, there’s a by-election going on, but there will always be major distractions. This needs to be addressed now so that we have candidates in place for the next election. Sadly, no-one in Cowley St seems to be addressing that.

  • Chris Rennard 12th Jul '07 - 1:55pm

    James – Thank you I will see you here when I am not in Sedgefield. I agree by-elections are not the answer to everything – but it is how we got Sandra Gidley, Sarah Teather and Parmjit Singh Gill elected !
    Mike – not really fair about Cowley St. After long debate and consultation (as reported to Conference) we are curently seeking to appoint a Diversity Officer at Cowley St.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 12th Jul '07 - 2:36pm

    As another faceless bureaucrat, I have to say that I share James’s disappointment. Yes, Ming has had much to do in his fifteen or so months as leader, and yes, it isn’t the only priority.

    Having said that, it was something that he made an unmistakable commitment to, and whilst the diversity fund will hopefully make a difference, the big problem is indeed getting women and BME members to the stage of applying for approval. Once they are approved, they are as eager to compete for promising seats as any other segment of society.

    Ironically, comparatively small investments of time and money spent earlier in the piece would almost certainly reap rich dividends, a bit like local campaigning, as I understand it.

    Unfortunately for both the noble Lord Chris and Ming, the fact that the diversity fund is shrouded in mystery is an open invitation to be cynical, noting the quite understandable limitations on what data can be made public. Frankly, given that such bodies as English Candidates Committee have doubts, it would be surprising if those further removed from the process were wholly unsuspicious of the motivation of the leadership.

    On Mike’s point, I’d say that he’s only halfway there when he suggests a need for women and ethnic minority candidates with experience of the ‘real world’. I would either withdraw the last element (we need more, full stop) or broaden it to simply say that we need more candidates with experience of the ‘real world’.

    There is, however, an argument that says that this should not just be left to the Federal or English Parties. Regional Parties could also have a role, were they to take the initiative. And as most of you reading this piece will have better access to your Regional leadership that to the English or Federal equivalents, why not start there?

  • Amy Kitcher 12th Jul '07 - 3:04pm

    James – what a great piece on a major issue facing the party.

    From my own experiences here in Wales I was unhappy with the number of women prospective candidates we had come forward for May’s elections.

    In the end we fielded 11 women and 29 men on the constituency ballot and 13 women and 20 men on the various regional ballots (actually the higest of any party)

    However, only 4 of those 13 women on the regional ballot were ‘real’ candidates. The other 9 were merely added on the the bottom of the lists to ensure there was some semblance of gender balance. Only 1 woman made it to the top of a regional list.

    Labour, on the other hand, managed to select 24 women candidates on their constituency ballot. The Tories 10 and Plaid 9.

    A large part of the difference can be explained by Labour’s policy of twinning constituency seats: pairing up seats to ensure that a woman and a man were selected in each set of equally winnable seats.

    Plaid Cymru uses a form of positive descrimination to ensure that a woman candidate has the top position on all its party regional lists.

    The Electoral Reform Society recently said of the Lib Dems in Wales: “When the party’s fortunes in the last election are examined, a pattern emerges which suggests female Lib Dem candidates have a higher hill to climb than male Lib Dem candidates. The average swing needed by a woman standing for the Lib Dems is 23% while the average swing needed by male candidates is 16%.”

    The Party as a whole, including Wales and Scotland and Cowley Street need to address this problem practically and not just with rhetoric. Actions, and in this case, money, speak louder than words. What example was Ming setting with his recent reshuffle?

    The more we encourage under-represented groups to come forward, be they BME, women or the disabled, the richer our Party will be as a result.

  • Kevin O'Connor 12th Jul '07 - 3:50pm

    Amy makes a number of excellent points about the recent Welsh Assembly elections, though as her agent I feel I should point out one she has modestly omitted. As the Lib Dem candidate in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney Amy achieved the biggest swing for any candidate standing for any political party in any constituency in Wales.

    I think a big part of the problem we are discussing here is that it is often considered outside of the context of the way the Lib Dems work – especially in terms of campaigning. Too much is made of bringing in women and minority candidates in at top levels or in promoting seats with such candidates through the target scheme. Aside from whether or not these are successful, they miss the point.

    As James said, “Our problem is that women and minority ethnicities are under-represented in our list of approved candidates.” This will not be addressed by bribing or otherwise cajoling constituencies to select these candidates.

    We need to look to the root problem. Why do we seem to have a bias towards white males at all levels, which seems to get worse as you progress up the members > activist > councillor > approved candidate > MP pyramid?

    (If anyone has stats to suggest otherwise, please tell me I’m wrong – I hope I am)

    I think these are the issues we need to address and we need to address them by looking at whether our practices deter women and minorities from moving up the pyramid.

    This will take a lot of hard work and a lot of time and, of course, a lot of money. But yes, it absolutely has to be worth it,

  • Mark

    But why would capable , ambitious BME and women potential candidates rush to get on the Approved List when they know they are likely only to end up as fodder for the party in no hope seats?

    For three consecutive general elections we boasted that we fielded the largest number of BME candidates. I presume the Party approved them only because they were judged good enough to become MPs!

    Yet not one of them has subsequently gone on to be selected in a winnable seat – and it looks like it wont happen in the next general election either

    And so far I have not seen any sign that of the Diversity Fund being used for the purposes for which we were told it was being set up –

    BUT

    I agree with Lord Rennard – we can return to this subject with a vengenace after the 19th.

    For now — let us use all our energies in the Ealing Southall by election

    It is important that Nigel does well – for all sorts of reasons !!!

  • James Graham 14th Jul '07 - 11:43am

    Rabi,

    I hear what you’re saying, but the problem is not merely numbers of approved candidates, but how well prepared they are for what they are letting themselves in for and what they do about it. That is a capacity building and training issue. All successful candidates (i.e. MPs) either work extraordinarily hard or are extraordinarily lucky, and you can’t do anything about the latter.

    This is further complicated by the fact that a lot of the skills, self-confidence, determination and social network support that successful candidates need get hard wired into, say, a public school, Oxbridge educated minority. That’s why they do well – not just in politics but in so many other fields as well. Yet many of these people will have never gone on something called a “capacity building course” and so superficially it appears that we have a level playing field when of course we do not.

    A lot of the frustrated approved candidates I’ve come across – whether they are women, BME or white and middle aged – seem to think that everything is plain sailing once you’ve got approved candidate status. We have to be honest with people: that’s just the start of the process. But we also then need to be able to give them the tools to take it further. The problem is not, in my view, that party members are prejudiced against BME candidates, as you seem to imply, but that they don’t sufficiently appreciate what we need to do to redress the imbalance which is ingrained in society.

  • Yasmin Zalzala 9th Aug '07 - 3:28pm

    I was an ethnic minority female candidate for the Liberal Democrats.

    Chris Rennard, Rabi Martin and many other prominent Lib Dems were part of the faulty, unequal, big joke selection and objections appeal that replaced me with a white man.

    All I wanted was justice.

    All I got after I complained that the chair of the constituency was telling me to move on and leave the way clear for a white man as my political future was finished in the constituency, (he claimed that 3 Manchester councilors agreed with him and he was relaying a message on their behalf), was a fair process that did not include ‘her race is a liability I am a white man vote for me I have a better chance of winning on council estates’.

    All I got was a big joke to say the least.

    Oh and did I tell you, nobody distanced themselves from the chair’s comments. He continued as a officer for nearly 2 years until he interfered in a selection process in a ward and the member involved was upset.

    He then became membership secretary! And to the best of my knowledge, still is.

    What a farce

  • Yasmin Zalzala 12th Aug '07 - 2:29am

    So Lord Rennard or Cllr Rabi Martin did not offer any comment about my last contribution?

    May be they are on holiday?

  • 19.I thought you were kicked out because you were crap.

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