Opinion: Step forward true liberals

Males

True liberalism is hard. Sometimes we don’t understand this. Lacking an urgent, reformist edge, we let others define us. Our milder critics used to style us sandal-wearing fruitarians who knitted their own CND badges. Hostile tabloids called us dangerous deviants.

Oddly, we were comforted by these perceptions. Underlying them was a sense that Liberals are relaxed and open to all-comers. But this vision of our tolerant Party has two problems.  Tolerance can degenerate into shoulder-shrugging passivity and turning a blind eye. And we’re not that open anyway.

We’re a Party of ageing, white males. Just like we used to be.

Of course, when we were the natural party of government in Victorian times, a party could be reformist and be dominated by ageing males. But only just. The Whig Establishment didn’t guarantee our radicalism. What stopped us being a political rationalisation of their interests was partly our status as a refuge for non-Establishment figures, like Bright. But it was mostly because of the urgency of one venerable white male: the People’s William, a Peelite Tory who later got up Queen Victoria’s nose, the Anglican who disestablished the Church of Ireland, the great parliamentarian who became the focal point for popular agitation.

But Gladstone was unique and of his time. Later, our Party’s male grandees were bamboozled on female suffrage and lost the mantle of radicalism in the Twentieth Century. That should teach us how difficult it usually is to promote the future without matching the diversity of the present. It’s difficult to promote liberal values without living by them.

Some regard the Coalition as an opportunity for us to reposition ourselves as an Establishment Party. Well, mission accomplished. People don’t see amusing oddballs now. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Rennard case, the public view back-slapping male peers as evidence of the Establishment closing ranks. And there’s little to counterbalance that image. Our parliamentary party is disgracefully monochrome in gender and race, a club whose entry criteria seem to be whiteness, masculinity and limited talent.

Our liberalism must be bold. We want to abolish the House of Lords, not look comfortable there. We’re the party of the individual, so we should be wary of all looking the same. Oh, and we should never invade another’s personal space, irrespective of the sexual harassment dimension, because we’ve read Mill and know our liberty mustn’t restrict another’s. Fighting to extend freedom is a never-ending task. It is a task for insurgents, not the Establishment.

It’s time to act. Jo Swinson , Lynn Featherstone and Jenny Willott: I’m looking at you. Time to come out of the shadows and lead. I’m looking at you too, female, ethnic minority and young candidates. And I’m looking at you, constituency parties. You’re now obliged to select the most diverse group of candidates imaginable. Too hard? Liberalism is hard. You don’t have to be a liberal. You can be a lazy-minded defender of the status quo instead. What we call a conservative.

Or you can get on with it.

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49 Comments

  • Yup, cos it’s totally up to the women to seize power, whatever the personal cost to them, not to the men to give it up.
    *rolleyes*
    And you were doing SO well till that final paragraph…

  • Partly the OWMness of the party is down to structural issues in society, I grant. But partly its down to them wanting it more. Other groups in society just don’t have the time, energy, money or singlemindedness.

  • It’s time to act. Jo Swinson , Lynn Featherstone and Jenny Willott: I’m looking at you. Time to come out of the shadows and lead.

    Linda Jack and Paddy Ashdown both talking sense on Daily Politics , just asTony Greaves was on Newsnight.

    But whilst we are asking new women to step forward it is time to invite Jenny Tonge back. It is no good women stepping forward, local parties selecting them, working their socks off to get them elected, to the local council, to parliament etc as we did with Jenny Tonge, It is no good doing all that if the leader then ejects them because they speak their mind and tell the truth.

  • And that latter point is often key – its reflected in the people who run anything. Those with a more balanced outlook are not obsessive (weird?) Enough to pursue one thing to the exclusion of all others.

  • Paul Connolly 21st Jan '14 - 12:46pm

    Jenny, I agree with you about the need for male relinquishing of power. My first draft of this section was in fact far ruder about the males in question. The point I’m trying to make is here is (what I hope is) an opportunity. The inadequacies of the largely male leadership have been exposed by this affair. The three women I name may thus have that rarest of things: a chance to take a significant lead, knowing that in doing so they will have the full backing of many across the party. And if they’re thwarted by men in high places, well it’s our party, we choose our candidates and leaders…

  • paul barker 21st Jan '14 - 1:29pm

    I think you are confusing two quite different things – looking like a Party of Government & becoming part of The Establishment(s) like Labour/Tories. If we had joined The Establishment(s) then Labour & The Media wouldnt be attacking us quite so hard.
    You are right that we should seize the opportunity to put in more Women/BME candidates & to remind everyone that we are here to bury The Lords not join them.

  • Steve Comer 21st Jan '14 - 1:29pm

    I didn’t read the last paragraph the way Jennie did, I thought it was intended as a positive comment.
    The problem in this issue is that nearly all the Lib Dem voices we’re hearing are white males. We were told that “none of our women MP’s were available” to go on Woman’s Hour today, which created a free fire zone for Cathy from Channel 4 News, and the sanctimonious Caroline Lucas MP to attack us.

    …oh and I agree with John Tilley on Jenny Tonge.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Jan '14 - 1:30pm

    Paul, thanks for the article, but I think it is important that diversity is about real diversity and not just diversity for the cameras. As I have said in the past: at the moment we have the privileged in parliament sticking it to the poor outside.

    I am not a voice of the left, I just don’t want poor men being discriminated against because apparently they wouldn’t make parliament more diverse. I really don’t think people like Osborne would be so gung ho about benefit cuts if he had family members on them. There are people who are working, paying taxes, bringing up kids on their own and yes surviving on benefits too, but it seems that parliament still thinks it is acceptable to tax these people to help someone buy a £600,000 house. This sort of behaviour creates real anger.

    I know I’ve given a bit of a lecture on the plight of working class men, I just don’t think a lot of political activists are concerned enough about discrimination against this group. People can hit me back about my lack of concern for groups, but if we are going to play the positive discrimination game then we can’t miss out a major underrepresented and suffering demographic.

    Regards

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Jan '14 - 1:50pm

    My central point is that poor candidates and others such as those who have struggled with mental health are being discriminated against because their diversity doesn’t stand out on camera and I don’t think that is acceptable.

  • The problem with asking women and ethnic minorities to come forward is that this group typically represent marginal seats so are unlikely ever to have long term careers in parliament. All women or all BME shortlists for safe seats would help. Why not do that?

  • Paul Pettinger 21st Jan '14 - 2:53pm

    I think this piece highlights some ugly truths, especially that we have been failed by two generations in the Party – one in the Lords and one in the Commons. We need to a new leader before the general election.

  • What safe seats, g? The only seats which become safe- ish in the Lib Dems are those occupied either by the Leader, or somebody charismatic. When they are no longer there, they return at various speeds to marginal, or non-held status. Sometimes 9eg Clement Freud or Richard Wainwright’s seats almost to unwinnable status.

  • I absolutely agree with Eddie Sammon on this. It is arguable that a woman from a private school background makes less difference to Lib Dem MP diversity (what is it? 40% from independent schools? Compared with 7% in the population? And we wonder why all the clinging to neoliberal economics!) than someone from a relatively low income group, woman or man.

  • Tony Greaves 21st Jan '14 - 5:36pm

    We have no safe seats. This is the fundamental problem in getting any quick fix to diversity problems, and we have not yet found a way round it.

    We are no here to “bury” the Lords, we are here to reform the Upper House by (inter alia) electing all or most of it.
    Is anyone suggesting we should not take up places in the existing half reformed (mainly elected) House? Don’t be daft.

    Tony

  • David Evans 21st Jan '14 - 5:53pm

    “Our parliamentary party is disgracefully monochrome in gender and race, a club whose entry criteria seem to be whiteness, masculinity and limited talent.”

    What a profoundly disappointing thing to say. No party has done more to promote greater equality through enabling women, the disabled and racial minorities to progress to become candidate MPs through their own abilities. The Leadership programme demonstrates this in spades.

    Our problem sadly is in getting minorities elected. In 2010, when safe(ish) seats did exist, there were 7 seats where MPs stood down (plus a new, notional Lib Dem seat in St Austell). Four men were selected and four women. Of the men, three won and one lost. Of the four women, all failed to win the seat, including one where a majority of over 10,000 disappeared.

    There is no disgrace on this in our party, and I think no disgrace in the way local electors chose to vote. To write otherwise is as I put it before, “profoundly disappointing.”

  • @David Evans: The really disappointing thing is the fact, not the statement of the fact. You can argue about the way this came about all you like, but the end result is plain and no less disgraceful. And the problem is not just the parliamentary party; if reader voices on LDV are any indication, it’s a sign of a widespread failure to accept the validity of women’s voices and women’s points of view at an individual, not just a leadership level. This is not the only bastion of male resentment out there, of course; I have seen other such; but the only real difference is that here the views are expressed a little more elegantly, there are fewer blatant threats. The resulting message is the same, however: Men Only, Women Need Not Apply. It does not need to be said in so many words to be got across.

  • We have no safe seats. This is the fundamental problem in getting any quick fix to diversity problems, and we have not yet found a way round it.

    Some seats are winnable though, whereas others are not. Nobody would expect a Lib Dem to win Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath, but they’d stand a good chance at North East Fife in 2015. Why not ensure that, say 50%, of all candidates in winnable seats are female or BME? It would be a start, maybe get some momentum going for 2020? Why not ensure a similar percentage for all elected positions within the party?

  • Tim 13 “what is it? 40% from independent schools? Compared with 7% in the population? And we wonder why all the clinging to neoliberal economics!”

    Leaving aside the drawing of a causal link between neoliberal economics and independent educationwhere nonecan be shown, children don’t have any choice in where their parents send them to school.

    Surely it us a thing to be celebrated that we have in our ranks those who have chosen not to follow the well trodden path that you would ascribe to them?

  • And to follow on, 56 is hardly a statistically valid sample. It also ignores the same point made often by Russell group universities, thatthey take proportionate numbers of *suitably qualified* applicants. The issue being that AAA candidates do not follow a 7%/93% distribution.

  • Tabman, I assume you don’t dispute that our need is to bring in more “ordinary” candidates, if that is an acceptable description. I haven’t been involved in approvals since the Leadership cohort was brought in, but I have seen plenty of “ordinary” candidates approved, so I think that is a side issue. If the last paragraph of your post at 6.50 pm is meant to imply that independent school attendance shows in some way a breaking of bonds of conformity, I don’t think that is true, is it? It is generally accepted that one of the perceived advantages conferred is gaining well-connected networks, thus making it easier to get into well-paid employment? Or do you just dismiss that as bunk? Have you got any constructive suggestions for increasing the supply of “ordinary” candidates?

  • g Certainly in the last Parliament the ratio of women in winnables and held seats with MPs standing down was better than 40 – 60%. Not as good as 50-50 agreed but a great effort nevertheless. I am not sure now, although figures are regularly given on LDV. Ethnic minorities are more difficult to judge, as to some extent self-described.

  • Tim13 no, its more that if the independently educated conformed to stereotype they’d not join us

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Jan '14 - 9:48pm

    Thanks Tim, there’s a first for everything :P.

  • its more that if the independently educated conformed to stereotype they’d not join us

    I dunno, there’s a certain stereotype of the over-educated, cocksure, ‘I know the right answers, and if you can’t see it too you must be a dumb hick who can’t think for themselves’ type that Liberal Democrats of my acquaintance fit very well.

  • Robert Wootton 21st Jan '14 - 11:08pm

    If we want to be radical and want more women, ethnic minority and the low paid benefit dependent claimants to take an active part in fighting for a place as members of the government, local and central, then the barriers to entry need to be removed.

    The economic reality for most families is that two full time incomes are required to make ends meet. Not withstanding Parkinson’s law that “expenditure rises to meet the income”.

    Therefore I advocate that those elected to public office should be paid a full time wage, including town and parish councillors up to and including district, county councillors; not just MPs.

    However, I also advocate that they should be classed as a new form of sole trader/self employment; a Public Sole Trader. This means they would be required by law to publish annual audited accounts in the same way as PLCs are obliged to do.

    Of course, wage rates and allowable business expenses would need to be decided by parliament.

    My own viewpoint is that Parish councillors should be paid the minimum wage rate times 100 hours. This would be the bottom of the Pay Spine for elected individuals.
    I believe this would vastly increase the interest in politics and democracy and the supply of candidates.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Jan '14 - 11:20pm

    Robert, very good thinking. I’ve been against councillor pay cuts because otherwise politics will become the preserve of the rich and those who can afford to do lots of basically unpaid work. My big vision for society is also one of self-employment, rather than mutuals, public ownership or large corporations, so your Public Sole Trader idea is very attractive to me.

    I’m not an ideological zealot when it comes to self-employment, but I think we need more of it. For me it is about freedom and equality, basically the backbone of liberalism.

  • Certainly money and support is a good part of the issue as to why fewer people come into politics than the interested on here would like!

  • My own viewpoint is that Parish councillors should be paid the minimum wage rate times 100 hours.

    Only if you also allow an option on the ballot paper so people can vote to leave the position vacant and have the salary rebated into a reduction in council tax.

  • David Evershed 22nd Jan '14 - 2:18am

    Candidates should be selected on their merit not on gender or ethnicity.

    Electors deserve nothing less.

  • David Evans 22nd Jan '14 - 2:31am

    David-1. If your comment had any basis in fact it would be worth responding to. If you really believe that

    – the problem is not just the parliamentary party;

    – if reader voices on LDV are any indication, it’s a sign of a widespread failure to accept the validity of women’s voices and women’s points of view at an individual, not just a leadership level.

    – This is not the only bastion of male resentment out there, of course; I have seen other such; but the only real difference is that here the views are expressed a little more elegantly,

    – there are fewer blatant threats.

    – The resulting message is the same, however: Men Only, Women Need Not Apply. It does not need to be said in so many words to be got across.

    I would suggest you should set up a party with no other member than yourself and any male institutional conspiracy theorists choose to join it.

    You really are tilting at windmills.

  • Labour have an All Women Shortlist system. Why don’t they also have an ethnic minority shortlist or a sexuality shortlist too?

    Yes, they do achieve a high percentage of women in parliament, but at what cost? Their women MPs are mostly uninspiring. Harriet Harman is still angry with Labour men.

    Positive discrimination always leaves the question unanswered whether the women on Labour’s All Women Shortlist could have competed in an open selection. This is bad all round.

    Perhaps we should simply accept that women are on average less interested in politics than men. Then select candidates on merit pure and simple, rather than having special treatment for women, ethnic minorities, or sexuality etc.

    The other problem with the Labour AWS system is that it has the potential to lead to corruption, for example those deciding which seats should be AWS may do so to keep out a particular male candidate who the selection panel dislike.

    Those who propose following the Labour example need to be careful. Positive discrimination is still discrimination.

  • Quote: ‘Our parliamentary party is disgracefully monochrome in gender and race, a club whose entry criteria seem to be whiteness, masculinity and limited talent.’

    Is it simply that men are more interested in politics than women on the whole? Illustrated by the fact that of the so far 29 comments on here, only one is made by an obviously female name, 21 comments by an obviously male name, the rest may well be male, (g, Tabman)

    Perhaps men are just more obsessive than women, in whatever activity they do, not just politics. If so, the gender imbalance is nothing to worry about, just accept that it is human nature.

    A bit worried with the stereotype that men are useless however in the article ‘limited talent’.

  • Joe King – I am male. And whilst I knowvsome highly obsessive women, I think the populations overlap in a way similar to other gender traits. As I said further up the thread, males, especially those with the lack of familial commitments and with financial security, are on average more obsessive than females. Which will favour OWM.

  • Perhaps worth pointing out that when it comes to voter satisfaction with their constituency MP we do rather well.
    I think that should be kept firmly in mind when considering any potential changes.

  • Joe King, Tabman, just to confirm I am male, but also I don’t think that suitability for politics can be judged by willingness to comment on the internet, or by obsessiveness. Indeed, I think you are guilty of post-hoc rationalisation here to explain away the lack of women within politics, and particularly within elected Lib Dem politicians. Perhaps it really is something to do with a systematic bias against women?

    The best way of testing this would be to rigorously ensure equality of opportunity, which does mean adjusting things like working hours, rules on family commitments,etc to ensure these don’t favour men taking advantage (I’m sure inadvertently) of a culture that assumes it is fine for a man to be working all hours of a the day, but not women.

    If all other things are equal, and then it is found that women underperform, you might have stronger evidence to support your argument that women are ill-suited towards politics. Until then, perhaps you should be more open to experimentation and attempts to increase female representation.

  • G – where have I said that women are unsuited to politics? I’ve commented that they are less obsessive (a good thing in my book) and sensibly conclude that there’s more to life than leaflet delivery.

  • nvelope2003 22nd Jan '14 - 6:27pm

    Maybe it is time to start listening to people outside the group who post regularly on this site ?

  • The [Victorian] Whig Establishment didn’t guarantee our radicalism. What stopped us being a political rationalisation of their interests was partly our status as a refuge for non-Establishment figures, like Bright.

    So, if I read you rightly, there was a layer of diversity (like Bright) grafted onto the Whig establishment and that was largely what made 19th century liberalism such a potent force – a natural party of government.

    I’ll buy that but it makes me wonder. Nowadays it’s the Conservatives that constitute the most interesting ‘broad church’ party encompassing everything from right wing zealots to civil liberties campaigners to fairly soft centrists and, lurking in the shadows but calling most of the shots, the Gollums of finance. Until 1979 the Conservatives were sometimes called the ‘stupid party’ because they had no deep ideas of their own and simply reacted to Labour’s initiatives. You couldn’t say that of them now.

    In contrast to those Victorian Liberals the modern party is remarkably ‘monochrome’ as you say but again I wonder if the obvious M/F or minority (lack of) dimensions are the important ones. It’s a remarkably self-absorbed group that is mostly content to debate on terms set by others (the Tory mainstream on the economy, UKIP on Europe for instance). It generally stays within the safe tramlines this creates and doesn’t adopt radical policies even when these are widely supported by the membership and have a strong rationale – LVT being a case in point. Like the pre1979 Conservatives it has few interesting ideas – at least ones that it’s prepared to push for.

    It’s perhaps not obvious but I can’t help feeling that a party that was prepared to say the right thing on the big issues might find it easier to put together a broad church of support on the one hand and be more welcoming to the non-establishment figures that are the modern equivalent of Bright including even *gasp* women.

  • jedibeeftrix 22nd Jan '14 - 10:14pm

    @ James – “I’m concerned that our answer to the problem of restrictive access to the parliamentary arena is to impose new restrictions”

    This chimes with a criticism that I once leveled at labour, and now has been leveled at this party:

    “On Planet Lib Dem, the god of all things is called Algorithm. There is a process for everything; nothing should be left implied, or between the lines: all must be open, and out there, and transparent, and by the book. This is the Lib Dem religion, that a contract is possible, and perfectable, for every human interaction. It explains the air of bible studies fervour which Lib Dem ministers exhibit when they refer to the Coalition agreement, and it also explains why Nick Clegg couldn’t just “quiet word” away the bad smell of the embattled lord at the start of the week. His rule book wouldn’t let him.
    I’d add this fetish for algorithms to Damian’s list of six yesterday, to explain why the Lib Dems are such a dysfunctional organisation. Human interaction can’t be governed by process charts, because no rule book has ever been devised that could cover every example of such. I wonder if Lib Dems run HR departments of our mega-corporations: those departments seem to share this faith in the perfectability of humanity via compliance with check-lists of training.”

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/graemearcher/100255994/the-lord-rennard-scandal-is-just-a-reminder-that-the-lib-dem-party-is-broken/

  • The two major strands of Liberalism were the aristocrats who were critical of the centralisation of power under the Stuarts and then Hanoverians plus the Non- Conformist craftsmen who created the Industrial revolution.

    I do not see many craftsmen and industrialists in the party. Liberals have historically believed in a small state, this means few public sector employees, de-centralisation of power , liberty , free speech, free markets and free from trade tariffs, an absence of state patronage . Once there are large numbers of state employees , too often the state is run for their benefit- see Northcote Parkinson. BY the 18c , China was run for the benefit of the Mandarins .
    Only when the state is small can it be transparent and the employees and politicians held to account. Israel has 4, 00 civil servants in the M of D ,the UK has 23,000.

    Wilkes talked of Liberty and Beef. Let us once again be party of Liberty. We are free because we born British . We do not need piece of paper to say we are free.

  • “Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of
    want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.”

  • Sorry, Charlie you really can’t be allowed that very glib generalisation “Liberals have historically believed in a small state”. To be honest, few people had “a large state” to believe in in the 19th Century. What later became “the developed world” was going through an industrial revolution, which brought new social and other problems. All politicians had to work on ways to address this fact. Underpaid and underprivileged people were brought together by work, and had a new opportunity to air grievances, information and education were shared. Full franchise democracy, on a very gradual basis was one result, trades unions another. Regulation of work, housing, health another. Transport improvements esp the railways yet another. New local government structures another. Arguably, public education the biggest of all. Liberals played their full part in the development of all these trends – if that is what you mean by Liberals “believing in a small state”, then I suppose you could be right!!!

  • jbt – Virago, farrago??

  • Simon Banks 26th Jan '14 - 8:20pm

    Just a few points. Having just read a social history of the “between the wars” period, it seemed to me that on many issues Liberals were still more radical than Labour, but radical about things that didn’t energise people as much as Labour’s core issues, and Labour’s deep conservatism on many issues (including gender issues) was accepted as part of their need to be seen as respectable. Asquith’s position on female suffrage, though, was undoubtedly deeply damaging.

    It would be helpful to be specific about what we mean if we say it’s an ageing white male party. That’s certainly so of the House of Commons membership (not particularly old, though, in comparison to the other parties) though perhaps less so of the candidates in winnable seats as a whole, and I suspect it’s so of our body of councillors – again as with the other parties. The average age of councillors has been rising for some time and I suspect one reason may be the attitude of employers to political activism. But if we look at executive committees I suspect if anything the bias is the other way and there was more of a mix of people at the last conference than I’d expected. As for “ageing”, of course we are all ageing.

    Having dropped out of deep involvement for many years until recently, I can’t say this for sure, but I suspect the emphasis that developed on making parliamentary candidates more professional, while it had benefits, may have narrowed the pool and also led to not enough attention being given to candidates’ record of activism or at least ability to understand and empathise with activists. Maybe we need to look more at potential, and that could help with the extreme underrepresentation of women in our Commons group and of minority ethnic groups too.

  • Why not come up with some policies which will really make a difference to women and minorities (and everyone else for that matter), rather than attempting to make the party quite artificially ‘look’ just like the electorate?

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