Opinion: No to All-Men Shortlists‏

At our 2001 party conference I donned a shocking pink t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I am not a token woman” and spoke in opposition to all-women shortlists.

Eight years on, I am still opposed to the use of single gender shortlists, but I wonder if I was then taking aim at the wrong target.

Research done by the party in advance of Nick Clegg’s recent appearance before the Speaker’s Conference showed, as I argued back in 2001, no evidence that our party discriminates against women in candidate selections.

Far from it: analysis of 237 selections shows that two thirds of the time where a woman is on the shortlist, a woman is selected.

However the most worrying figure for me, was that of these 237 selections, only 90 had a woman on the shortlist. 147 all-men shortlists were nodded through, giving our members no choice to select a woman. It’s not just in “unwinnable” seats either. Norwich South, St Albans…

At the recent Speaker’s Conference hearing with party leaders, Nick rightly made several mentions of our rule requiring at least one man and one woman on each shortlist. But it is empty rhetoric if it is not enforced. I’m not saying that in special circumstances we shouldn’t allow the rule to be waived – where a popular, incumbent PPC has come within a few hundred votes of winning it is not surprising that no challengers emerge even after two advertisements.

It should not, however, be standard practice, as it now clearly is. When 147 seats are ending up with all-men shortlists, it’s a pretty clear sign of a problem. The solution is not to sit back and do nothing. In approaching the Regional Candidates Chair to waive the gender balance rule the local parties say: “There are no women candidates” or “We’ve advertised twice and emailed every approved woman on the list”. These are not good enough excuses. Finding candidates – men and women – is not something local parties can outsource to the federal party. If local parties know in advance that the rule won’t be waived, they will have a clear incentive to ensure women apply – and that means getting women to become candidates in the first place. The experience in our party, and others, is that women often need extra encouragement or nudging.

The Campaign for Gender Balance has an excellent record in supporting women to become approved, and helping women get selected in winnable seats. 40% of our target seat candidates are women. 67% of candidates in held seats where the MP is standing down are women.

This cannot though be solely a centralised initiative. Local parties must actively engage in the search for and encouragement of our next tranche of women candidates.

If we enforce our own rule to have both genders on every shortlist, I believe we can prove that it is possible to achieve gender balance without resorting to positive discrimination.

We need to campaign now to get all parts of the party to agree that after the election, in the new round of selections, this rule will have meaning. Local parties will have to ensure women apply if they want to proceed with selection. That means winning arguments in the English, Scottish and Welsh Candidates Committees, and possibly at Conference.

“Say No to All-Men Shortlists” – I can see the t-shirts now 😉 Who’s with me?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorna Spenceley 9th Nov '09 - 11:36am

    Good for you for raising the issue again, Jo. Though I do wonder whether such a move would simply mean more women on the approved list getting more of the calls that many of us have experienced at some stage, which say in essence “We’ve got a selection coming up and Head Office tell us we need a woman on the list. Will you be our token woman?”.

    Where is the problem occurring in the chain? Is it the balance on the list of approved candidates? Or that fewer of the women on the list are actively applying for seats? Or that local parties are putting fewer of those women on their shortlists? Without a diagnosis, it’s hard to prescribe an effective remedy.

    (posting in a personal capacity, obviously)

  • Martin Land 9th Nov '09 - 11:50am

    I’m quite happy to work and encourage women PPCs to come through. As I said on a previous post, I have some very good potential PPCs at the moment, whom I’m working with and ensuring that they have a strong future potential. If I can only stop the GBTF from leaping on them, encouraging them to stand long before they are ready or have the experience they need. One of them was approached only six weeks after being elected as a Councillor and a few months after joining the party! This is just absurd.

    Those of us who are ‘testicularly challenged’ would like to see a much more structured and logical approach than that described above. A much better candidate selection system where approving people as councillors was seen as the first step on the ladder to – potentially – becoming an MP would be a start. This type of open ended system would be far less intimidating and would see far more women coming through, as well as candidates from ethnic minorities.

    Differentiating between candidates approved to stand purely for their local non- target seat and those approved to stand for a target seat would be another.

    Finally, if you really want to do this properly how simply getting rid of shortlists? I’ve never heard of more than a dozen candidates coming through for any seat, so why do we need shortlists at all? And if, say, there was more than 6 why not have an initial postal ballot to reduce the number? Then a hustings for the last six?

    Or surely it’s not beyond Liberal Democrats to come up with some convoluted PR system to do the job!

  • Lorna Spenceley 9th Nov '09 - 12:03pm

    Martin, I’m not at all sure that approval as a council candidate should be seen as ‘the first step on the ladder to – potentially – becoming an MP’. The two aren’t necessarily the same thing at all. There are many people who would make excellent MPs who have no interest in becoming a councillor; and equally, many people whose ambition is to represent their local communities on local authorities with no interest in the House of Commons. Let’s not demote (and demotivate?) our councillors by suggesting that they are only apprentice parliamentarians!

  • “The first time I met jo was when she attended the first LDYS Activate weekend. This weekeknd I was again helping to train Liberal Youth activists and there was some very talented young women there.”

    I don’t know about the latest LY event but my memory is that the first Activate cost “the party” about £80-100 per attendee in hard cash (ie not including staff time but venue hire, food, travel etc).

    That gives some idea of the scale of investment required to genuinely provide “training and support”. Organising a few training sessions at conference is no where near enough (This isn’t aimed at the people commenting above who know this too well but sometimes people seem to think it is a cheap option)

  • The problem with that Jennie is that people have been saying “it’s very complex and we need to know what the real causes are” for several years. Indeed it was one of the reasons All WOmen Shortlists were defeated at the conference Jo refers to as part of the motion asked for an audit of various bits of information.

    Whilst its not used as a reason by any of the people on this thread the “we need to know all the facts before making a decision” is the sort of rationale SIr Humphrey uses before suggesting the matter be referred to “an inter-departmental sub-committee with wide ranging terms of reference to look at the matter on an holisitic basis”

    My view has always been that whatever strategy adopted the best way of ensuring a more diverse Parliamentary Party is to elect more of them. We have had, since 1997 the parliamentary party has gone from 3/47 women to 9/63 – so the net gains since 97 have been 6/16 and on the figures Jo quotes above that is likely to continue. That the figures are so low is really down to the “drag” factor of the the 97 intake. Certainly if 2/3rds of the seats where the sitting MP stands down select women candidates the change rate will be much higher than suggested elsewhere.

  • Lorna Spenceley 9th Nov '09 - 2:24pm

    To quote another Sir Humphrey-ism, though, Neil, we’ve got to avoid a response which basically says “Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it”.

    I likened this earlier to prescribing a remedy in response to a diagnosis. Let’s shift metaphors, and think of it more as a value chain. The process at its plainest is something like Application to List -> Approval (or not) -> Application to Seat(s) -> Shortlisting -> Selection. At which point(s) along this value chain are we losing women and what they can bring to the party? Are they under-represented from the outset ie fewer than desirable putting themselves forward for approval? Is it those pesky local parties not shortlisting them despite the fact that they’re applying for good seats in droves? Is it somewhere in the middle of the chain? At one, or multiple, points? Knowing where the failures are occurring is vital in knowing where to intervene to put things right.

    If we can’t provide basic statistics as a party to answer these questions, then no wonder we’re still in a muddle. And asking for them isn’t an excuse for inaction, it’s a necessary basis for decision-making about the way forward. They may well be kept routinely for performance monitoring purposes (I hope they are); if so, they need to be produced as evidence to support whatever proposals for action come forward, I’d have thought.

    (once again, in a personal capacity)

  • Lorna Spenceley 9th Nov '09 - 2:26pm

    (Bemused at the product placement – advert for “Conservative Member? Want to take a more active and engaging role in the party? http://www.conwayfor.org.uk/JoinToday” underneath the comments section).

  • Thanks for a great article Jo, i have to admit id never heard of the ” 1 of each ” rule. I cant see why we need wait another 5 years to apply the rules, lots of constituencies are still to select candidates. My local party chose from an all men shortlist a couple of weeks ago, if i had known we were actually breaking party rules i might have made more of a fuss.

  • Lorna Spenceley 9th Nov '09 - 3:14pm

    In that case, Neil (and thank you for agreeing with me about the ‘chain’), assuming your understanding is right, why is the step being proposed to deal with the last part of the chain – ‘you must have a woman shortlisted before you can select’ – when the first part is the bit we need to try to sort out?

  • Lester Holloway 9th Nov '09 - 3:38pm

    It’s a great shame that there is not more common cause between those that want more women MPs and those that want BME under-representation addressed.

    The fact that Jo Swinson doesn’t mention the absence of any Black MPs on the Liberal Democrat benches is regretable; not least because the two issues share a great deal in common.

    The recent Speakers Conference, which heard from all three party leaders, was originally set up specifically because Labour could not get agreement on all-Black shortlists; but the Speakers Conference in fact debated under-representation of many parts of society. In fact the majority of the discussion in this committee was on women.

    I have no problem with that. But I think it would certainly benefit everyone if we could have more unity between those arguing for change.

  • I agree with others that the first thing we need to do is get more women to apply to become approved. This applies as much to council seats as much as parliament.

    There is also the other side that needs addressing, the retention of PPCs needs also to be looked at, I have heard that the resignation rate is higher for women than men. I am guessing this might be true for all political parties and come back down to society expecting different things of Men & Women. Plus women & men expecting different things from themselves. But I am no expert, but there are members of CGB who are.

  • Lorna Spenceley 9th Nov '09 - 6:11pm

    As a woman in the East of England who was on the Euro list in 1999, I must say, Niklas, that I would never, ever, ever do it again. It’s all very well being ‘angry’, but if women don’t see the point in being on a Euro-list, they won’t put themselves through the hassle of applying and then knocking themselves senseless campaigning across such a vast area when the odds are so stacked against their being elected – they’re far too sensible.

    The party really needs to be clearer about what would motivate anyone (but especially women) about being in positions 2-to-end on a Euro list, and what those candidates are there to achieve other than futilely making up the numbers.

    Like you, I hope some good women applicants go for the Cambridge seat (though I am very sorry indeed that we are losing someone of David Howarth’s calibre and integrity).

  • David Allen 9th Nov '09 - 6:28pm

    The requirement to have a woman on the short list even when there are none within sight, along with other awkward hurdles, sends the message that the simplest way to proceed is to leave selection until election time. Then it can all be done in a mad rush, at a terrible time for the Party, but at least the hurdles can then be ignored!

    This is a perverse incentive to fail in our basic aims of getting our candidates selected properly and early.

    There just isn’t a good solution, as things stand. Either we gerrymander selection in favour of women, or we accept perpetual male domination. Two alternatives, both unacceptable. So let me propose a Third Way (!)

    We should propose to double the size of consituencies. Each constituency should then elect, in separate but parallel elections, one male and one female MP. So hey presto, an equal gender balance in the next Parliament, at a stroke. Then we really will have to find lots of serious female candidates – if we don’t want to let the other parties grab all the “female” seats!

    So we really wanted STV not FPTP? Yes, OK, it will not be a big problem to create an STV version of this idea.

    Enforced gender equality? Not at all. The parties will still be free to select a leader, and a cabinet, from all the elected MPs. If that results in a male dominated cabinet, or indeed a female dominated cabinet – so be it. All that we should “enforce” is that Parliament reflects the 50/50 gender balance of the nation as a whole.

    Screams of pain from all those male MPs forced into premature redundancy? No doubt. The concession that might have to be made is that if (but only if) you are an existing male MP, you can call yourself an honorary female, and stand in a “female” seat. This would allow male domination to be phased out over a single generation of MPs. Probably a reasonable price to pay (always assuming the voters out there don’t decide to take against “honorary female” candidates, and go and vote for the real women who stand against them instead!)

    Crazy idea? Well, you might say so. But if you do say so, you had better explain how to get equality without gerrymandering under the present system!

  • Lorna Spenceley 9th Nov '09 - 6:43pm

    But, David, your proposal would only enforce equality between men and women. What about ethnic diversity or age or other factors? STV leaves it open to the voters – not behind-the-scenes fixers – to determine what they want in their representatives.

  • “Either we gerrymander selection in favour of women, or we accept perpetual male domination.”

    The latter would seem not to be the case looking at the figures quoted above.

  • Ruth Bright 9th Nov '09 - 9:34pm

    Well done Jo. Yes indeed, an end to all-men shortlists. When I stood down as PPC in East Hampshire in 2007 I was heartbroken that the local party was allowed to proceed with a shortlist of five men. If I had had the remotest sign that I would have had some understanding about juggling my candidacy with my expanding family I would have carried on myself!

    Neil, I am a huge fan, but it really is NOT just about the supply of female PPCs it is also about support to them as the years go by? The final straw for me was going to a ‘Moving Forward’ meeting and having to breastfeed my baby in the toilet between sessions so as not to scandalise the superannuated councillors all round me!

  • David Allen 9th Nov '09 - 11:22pm


    Yes, my proposal would only achieve gender equality. It wouldn’t solve climate change, it wouldn’t pay off the National Debt. It would also avoid tackling ethnic diversity or age issues, because it would make no sense at all to reserve x% of Parliamentary seats for (say) the under-thirties, and it would be quite crazy to suggest race-based elections. By contrast, it seems perfectly reasonable to reserve 50% of the seats for each sex. Just because my proposal only solves one major problem at a time is no reason to chuck it in the bin!

    Yes, STV if you believe in it lets the voter choose between individual candidates. As things stand, just bringing in STV will still mean most of these candidates will be male. STV could also be used to elect (say) 5 men and in a parallel contest, 5 women for each 10-MP constituency.


    Yes, women are slowly gaining ground under the present system. I shouldn’t have said “perpetual” male domination. At the present rate, we should reach equality within a millenium or two. If we’re happy with that…..

  • I think Martin is on the right track. The approval process is long winded and under resourced. Having said that it is simultaneously the wrong sort of bureaucracy and local parties are left to drift without PPC’s for years.

    With so few members, there is never going to be enough PPC’s to go round. Let’s say 1 member in 50 wants to be an MP. That’s about 2 for every local party, yet we have a selection procedure based on short-listing from your dozen applicants, when only 2 or 3 apply.

    Sorry Jo, but the excuses are valid. There aren’t many women on the approved list, they don’t apply for seats (and why should they?) and local parties (half a dozen people in most cases) aren’t going to suddenly start working miracles.

    I’ve known former Council leaders and long serving councillors fail the PPC approval process yet met plenty of approved PPC’s I won’t vote for to be on the Council.

    I suggest:

    1) Scrap the approval process except for the top 100 seats.

    2) Bring in follow up training/support instead of approval

    Bring in a tight selection timetable, aiming to have most PPC’s in place by December 2012.

  • david thorpe 10th Nov '09 - 3:30pm

    great post jo…there should be no rubbish people shortlists..and thats all…women would win far mnore elections in that circumstance than they do now

  • I researched this topic a couple of years back for my dissertation. Apart from the elephant in the room (it’s the children thing…. a whole demographic missing) I can confirm a couple of things – yes, women do get selected in roughly the proportions that they appear on the approved list. Same for the Conservatives (am obsessive reader of ConHome). And, as far as Lib Dems are concerned, many of the talented, ambitious women are already in power. They run councils. They control large budgets. And they get to go home at night, sleep in their own beds and bully the offspring about the homework. Do we seriously expect them to give up all that for the life of a LibDem backbencher? Don’t know what the answer is, except for the Holy Grail of fixing the electoral system.

  • Lorna Spenceley 10th Nov '09 - 4:33pm

    That’s a very useful posting, Serena. Given the information you’ve supplied, it does leave me wondering more than ever whether we’re addressing the wrong part of the ‘value chain’.

  • Alix, most of my stuff on this is anecdotal, cos when I input my data I foolishly simply entered the birthdates of approved candidates as just dates instead of coding them properly. Always meant to recode but ran out of time. Anyway, if anyone would like to see the research please get in touch. I promised to make it available but went and got ill instead so never got around to it.

  • Ruth Bright 11th Nov '09 - 5:10pm

    Apologies to all for getting sidetracked onto this – but no rantersparadise why should I use a milking machine for an hour and bottle the produce in order to spare other people’s blushes?! The World Health Organisation says women should breastfeed for two years both for the sake of their health and their children. I suppose I could have stayed indoors for twenty-four months but somehow it didn’t appeal.

    The party can’t have it both ways – there is no provision for PPCs to have maternity leave so people can’t be too disgusted if post-natal PPCs (blimey that’s a rare breed!) need to take their babies to conferences and meetings, at least for the first few months.

  • @rantersparadise
    Then you need to sterilise bottles, get them warmed up, have them leak in your bag, clean the bottles afterwards. All a bit pointless when nature provides a handy container that does all that.

  • Ruth Bright 11th Nov '09 - 7:12pm

    I am not sure whether Dr Liz Evans (former Chair of WLD) has had her full research on women candidates/activists published yet. When it is it will be a useful resource.

  • Lorna Spenceley 12th Nov '09 - 7:43am

    Once again, Neale, this makes the assumption that the problem is at the selection end of the value chain. There’s little hard evidence to support any conclusion, it appears – but most of the anecdotal information suggests that once they get to selection stage women have as good a chance as men of being successful, and that “women do get selected in roughly the proportions that they appear on the approved list” (SerenaH). The challenge appears therefore to be not the attitude of local party selection committees, but getting more good women onto the approved list and encouraging them to apply for seats – and it seems to me that that’s the end of the value chain we should be seeking to understand better. I’d forgotten about Liz Evans’ research, and like Ruth I hope that will be a useful source of information.

    BTW, still reeling in shock at rantersparadise’s comment about not liking seeing women breastfeeding their babies (and at Ruth’s Moving Forward event experience)!

  • Terry Gilbert 13th Nov '09 - 7:02pm

    Jo mentioned Norwich South above, with which I was involved as a member of the Selection Committee. The problem with that decision – where the only female candidate dropped out on the day of the interviews, and the Regional Returning Officer secured the English RO’s permission to allow the contest to go ahead – is that it sets a precedent. It would be perfectly possible for a male candidate with a suitably qualified female ally to engineer such a situation in future. Indeed, it may well have already happened, for all I know.
    There is little point in having gender rules if they are easily circumvented.

2 Trackbacks

  • By The LDV Friday Five (ish): 13/11/09 on Fri 13th November 2009 at 7:01 pm.

    […] Opinion: No to All-Men Shortlists (54) by Jo Swinson MP 2. Cambridge MP David Howarth to stand down (14) by The Voice 3. Lib Dem peer […]

  • By A bad spell for Gordon Brown – Scottish Roundup on Sun 15th November 2009 at 4:58 pm.

    […] anecdotal evidence that at least one polling clerk may contribute  to the ego massaging! And MP Jo Swinson confirms her opposition to all-women shortlists, but is equally critical of the all-men equivalents. Continuing with the […]

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