Opinion: Its time for a well informed response on Diversity

Conference is almost upon us once again, and glancing my eye over the agenda I am pleased to see a motion based on Baroness Sal Brinton’s report on party diversity.

You may remember this came up at the last conference. The speech I made at Liverpool was my maiden at a federal conference; the amendment I co-sponsored helped pave the way for the motion on improving diversity we will debate this coming Saturday.

It was also one of the most depressing experiences I’ve witnessed as a party member. Friends who supported the amendment were treated appallingly by supporters of the motion. I was personally accused of attempting to ‘bus in’ voters, stonewalling, orchestrating a vote against and ripping the heart out of party diversity, and pulling up the ladder beneath me.

I can’t tell you, as a man of mixed race, and the first black chair of the Youth Party, how hurtful, absurd and disingenuous such claims are.

This party has a problem with diversity. We are a very middle class, very white and very male party and until that changes quick fixes can only bring temporary, fake, cosmetic change, and no guarantee of it at that.

I believe that passionately, and I will make no apologies for stating and winning that argument.

We cannot afford to bat this issue around like a whipped piñata – it’s time for a well-informed motion on Diversity. This is that motion and I welcome Baroness Brinton’s report and the motion being put to conference, and it will have my support.

The direction we need to travel in is much more in accordance with this motion. The answer to improving our diversity is to engage ourselves in a much stronger way with communities, be they ethnic or LGBT, and specifically identify, recruit and encourage Women, BAME, LGBT and Disabled people to become party members, help them engage and make a difference in their local communities and national politics, finally encouraging and supporting them to become candidates at all levels.

A leadership program, entry based on individual competencies not on general attributes, will enable us to give additional training, support and funding to candidates who excel making them more competitive at selection and during elections. Diversity Champions who can lead diversity training and recruitment at the local level will help us to increase the diversity of our party at grass roots. An emphasis and realisation that this is a problem which the entire party machine must be engaged in – not just special interest groups – is fundamental.

We need to see a greater diversity in our party. The fact of the matter is that EMLD’s motion in Liverpool was a bad motion and took the wrong approach. Non-BAME diversity was an afterthought, all Black shortlists, automatic short listing, quotas and preferential treatment based purely on skin colour is wrong and it should have no place in any party which calls itself Liberal.

The message is this: We need to see more Female, Disabled, Gay and Ethnic Minority Councillors, Assembly members and Parliamentarians – not as an end in itself – but as a means to better represent the wishes of the people.

Securing that ever better representation is not the responsibility of a commission, or an executive, or a diversity group; It is a responsibility for everyone who is involved in politics and calls themselves a Liberal Democrat.

I ask you to give this motion your personal support this weekend, and to actively support the process of improving our representation of the people day by day, lest the ambition of a richer and more diverse party remain just that.

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13 Comments

  • I mostly agree with what you say Martin, I’m just disappointed that we have *another* “diversity” motion going to conference which once again fails to mention LGBT.

  • Robbie Simpson 9th Mar '11 - 1:45pm

    I can agree wholeheartedly with most of this motion – the lack of diversity amongst our parliamentarians is shocking, and this positive action is very welcome.

    But this motion would effectively introduce automatic shortlisting via the Leadership Programme – and I would never expect or want to receive special treatment over other candidates just because I’m dyslexic.

  • We need to see more Female, Disabled, Gay and Ethnic Minority Councillors, Assembly members and Parliamentarians – not as an end in itself – but as a means to better represent the wishes of the people.

    The way to represent the wishes of the people in Parliament, is to express the wishes of the people in Parliament.

    If I hire an advocate, I care about whether they do their job, not whether they share my sex, creed, colour or sexual orientation.

    There may be perfectly good reasons to rig things against straight white males, but that is not one of them.

  • @ Chris Ward – yes, particularly given that as a party the Lib Dems are now probably “about right” in number of gay men MPs as a proportion of the MPs for being representative of wider society, and there seems to be a notion that this is the same as doing well on all four LGBT strands. Though even with regard to gay men, the numbers we are talking about are so small that there it could be statistical chance rather than a sign of everything being hunky-dory.

  • Jonathan Hunt 9th Mar '11 - 11:52pm

    This motion may well help BME members of the party get the kind of training, mentoring and encouragement they have not had in the past. It ought to bring about a degree of party unity on the issue. That, after all, is the point of it.

    But it will do nothing to ensure that a black or ethnic minority MP is elected for our party at the next election, or even the one after it.

    It may well be that a BME candidate is elected by twist of by-electoral fate, as Parmjit Singh Gill was seven years ago in Leicester South. Indeed, it could be Parmjit again in a few weeks time if the party puts any effort and resources into the upcoming by-election there.

    But to believe that measures primarily intended to pacify the party’s deluded diversity dinosaurs would ever lead to black MPs is snake oil selling at its extreme.

    I am strongly in favour of positive action, which is legal and practised by thousands of employers that are enlighted enough to realise their organisations are suffering by failing to use the knowledge and talents of all their people, especially those from ethnic minorities.

    But this report and motion only taps the surface of what is allowed, ignoring such legal powers as being able to take measures that reverses previous discrimination. Incidentally, the Liverpool motion did not include any positive discrimination measures, which would, of course, be illegal.

    Until we do show BME communities (which should rise to about one-eigth of the population when the census is counted) that we do include the represent the people, they will fail to join us and thus we will not have the quantity or quality of membership to provide the candidates and voters.

    The only way out of this Catch 22 situation is measures that will short-circuit the huge amount of discriminatory thinking that sadly exists in our party. It includes those who say “we must not discriminate in favour of blacks”. I am sure their ancestors also opposed Wilberforce by saying “we must not discriminate in favour of slaves” or told Lord Shaftesbury that “we must not discriminate in favour of small children forced to go up chimneys or down mines”.

    Perhaps one day all members will be persuaded to channel their strong anti-racist feelings into meaningful help and support for victims of racism, both of the obvious direct BNP-type and the more indirect, insidious kind that sadly prevails.

  • Simon McGrath 10th Mar '11 - 5:47am

    @jonathan hunt ‘The only way out of this Catch 22 situation is measures that will short-circuit the huge amount of discriminatory thinking that sadly exists in our party.’
    Can you give some examples of this discriminatory thinking?

  • If we really think about this, much of the possible outcome depend largely on Local Parties and their attitudes to Diversity. Whilst they may pay lip service to Diversity as a concept, exactly how many LPs select a LGBT member, disabled person (wheelchair-users in particular) or BME person to stand as their PPC or PSPC. Precious few I can tell you. Many LPs (not all) are made up of white, middle class members who seem to find it impossible to look outside of their own social bracket!

    Take a look at the current line-up in our Government and in Westminster. How many people of the BME communities can you see? How many disabled people or wheelchair-users can you see? How many LGBT members are there? How many women are there? The figures speak for themselves.

    Come on Lib Dems – if we are a Party of Diversity – let’s “put our money where our mouths are”!

    I hope that we can move forward on this. It’s about time and the time is NOW!

  • P.S. – if our Government is supposed to be representative of all the people of this country, how come that there are 15-19 millionaires, all white males, in the Cabinet!

    Says it all don’t you think?!

  • Martin Shapland 10th Mar '11 - 11:01am

    Dear @Rebekah

    I agree, we need to increase diversity at all levels of the party particularly at the local party level – which is why I am strongly in favour of local and regional diversity champions whose job it will be to go out, engage and recruit underrepresented groups.

    @Jonathan Hunt

    Can’t say I agree with your thinking, or the concept that I would have discriminated in favour of slave owners – sorry!

    @ad – yes I don’t mind who represents me either – as long as they are competent – but it doesn’t hurt to bring in different perspectives into parliament, especially when MP’s come from a very limited social group at present.

    @Chris Ward

    I agree with you, and trust the lack of comment on LGBT members is an oversight rather than an intention.

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