Opinion: The last chance saloon on diversity?

Liberal Democrat Voice at Conference

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I went to conference expecting something entirely different, perhaps influenced by the daily articles and news reports, that this conference was going to be like no other. That there was much unrest, and even anger amongst the Party’s ranks. Instead I found myself amongst many Lib Dem party members and friends who were upbeat and positive.

I didn’t speak to anyone – nor as far as I can gather did the media – who was vehemently opposed to the Coalition Government. Yes, this conference was like no other. It was the largest conference we’ve ever had, and our Leader is Deputy Prime Minister.

We had many good debates. The debate that perhaps left me depressed, was the continuing inertia on EMLDs motion on Diversity. Tackling the lack of black & minority ethnic elected representatives. Institutional apathy as someone called it.

Nick Clegg told a fringe event that EMLD’s motion was the ‘last chance saloon’ and that he fully supported it. So did Vince Cable who chairs the Diversity Engagement Group (DEG) So did Lynne Featherstone, our Minister for Equalities. Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem MP who has made a real difference in his own constituency, and who the only MP who spoke positively, called on delegates to vote for change. It fell on deaf ears.

On the day, a number of delegates in the Hall preferred to vote for an amendment that basically told us we must do more of the same. In other words, stick to the status quo.

The debate on this has been raging elsewhere on Lib Dem Voice. I have made my contributions to try and tackle some of the myths and what seems to be to be real fears from many members. No party of government can be all-white.

Operation Black Vote Director, Simon Woolley’s concluded that the debate was ‘depressing’. Simon has been a big supporter of our efforts as a Party to attract and become more representative. He has been a critical friend.

So I came away from Liverpool greatly lifted by the positive message from Nick Clegg, and the positive mood of party members, but disappointed that in our efforts to even attempt to catch up with the other main parties – we are nothing like the radical party of our predecessors. Thankfully, there are many in the Party, supported by the Leadership who will not go away and will redouble our efforts for greater diversity and plurality within the Liberal Democrats.

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21 Comments

  • Colin Green 24th Sep '10 - 3:50pm

    It doesn’t matter how wrong it is that some groups of society are under represented in the ranks of elected officials – and it is wrong. Rigging the final selection process does not solve the problem. If I my liken it do a deep wound, a sticking plaster may stop the bleeding but the wound will keep opening unless the wound is treated properly.

    If it can be shown that there are sufficient minority members applying to be candidates but not being selected, then the selection panels need to be trained. If however the problem is that too few minority candidates are putting themselves forward, or that those who do haven’t yet got enough experience then rigging the selection process is the wrong thing to do.

    To solve this problem, we as a party need to identify which stage or stages of the process are going wrong and correct those. Then you will have balance. Rigging the system will only entrench the imbalance.

    I suspect the problem lies in the number of people of minority backgrounds who think they can be a candidate, can be selected and can win. It is the responsibility of the local parties to engage their members and of the wider party to promote the wide range of superb training courses run by the party to those under represented groups.

    Discrimination, no matter how positive the spin, is never the cure.

  • Sorry, but don’t we just want the “best” people as MPs, MSPs, AMs, Cllrs, etc? In the past, we had the same arguments about women candidates; from that came the gender equality group led by Jo Swinson, and an improvement in the number of women candidates in target seats in May. If it worked for them, then why not try something similar here?

    Discrimination, be it for reasons of gender, race, sexual orientation, or the colour of your hair, is never “positive”; it should always be avoided. The writer makes the comment that “no government should be all white” – but you need to say where you draw the line? For example, there are no Welsh MPs in the Cabinet – should there be a quota for this? In the last Labour cabinet, Scotland was over-represented – proportionate to the number of MPs from Scotland there should only be 2 – so should Labour have developed a scheme to ensure that more English MPs were brought in?

    Don’t get me wrong, I want to see a better mix within our party, both of race, gender and UK location (I could go on about how it’s virtually impossible for someone outside the Home Counties to serve on any of the Federal Party committees because of their London-centric nature, but that’s a debate for another day.) But I want to see it by our party promoting people purely on merit, and not because we need to fill a quota.

  • I am sympathetic with the need for positive action to address past disadvantage which creates a break on progress towards equality. However, I believe that any such positive action needs to be proportionate and effective. I haven’t had a chance to read the motion or the amendment (though have got the gist from the comments of others) but I’m not sure how guaranteeing one BME place on the shortlist for “winnable” seats (as Lester describes above) will address the underlying problem.

    To my mind, the key is to look at what is actually preventing BME candidates from winning seats for the party and examine ways to address these problems. Has anyone done research as to what are the barriers preventing BME candidates from winning selections in these seats?

  • @lester – you are simply wrong when you say that what was proposed was ‘positive action’ not positive dicuismimation.
    The GLA rules in London whereby if there are no BAME people in the top 4 a white person is moved down is quite clearly discrimination on the grounds of race. It is also illegal.

  • The practical problem with rules for “winnable seats” only is that I doubt that either Burnley or Redcar would have been on the list of winnable seats 2+ years before the election when they were selecting. Ditto other seats in 2005 (probably Withington and Solihull) and 2001 (Ludlow)

    “Operation Black Vote Director, Simon Woolley’s concluded that the debate was ‘depressing’. Simon has been a big supporter of our efforts as a Party to attract and become more representative. He has been a critical friend.”

    If he’s been a big supporter of those efforts why does he say that continuing on that route is to “do nothing”?

    “the gender equality group led by Jo Swinson, and an improvement in the number of women candidates in target seats in May. If it worked for them, then why not try something similar here?”

    All bar one lost so I’m not sure you can totally describe that as having “worked for them”.

  • What is this nonsense about wanting “only the best” candidates for MPs, MEPs, AMs etc – are you implying that the best candidates are coincidentally all white, and almost all male? Surely not.

    So you would contend that the selection process is colourblind – then why is it that we only seem to have white MPs, MEPs, MSPs and AMs? Are non-whites just not good enough? Are they not capable of being “the best”?

    So all other methods of getting some ethnic balance have failed. Is it acceptable to you that we have no non-white politicians above the level of councillor? If you think it doesn’t matter that we are, above local level, an all-white party, then you obviously don’t care about representing modern Britain. You obviously think that non-whites aren’t good enough, which is why they don’t get selected.

    Liberal is not a by-word for doing nothing. If you want equality, you have to fight for it. You have to insist, you have to step on the toes of the establishment and the conservatives within our party.

  • Jo Christie-Smith 24th Sep '10 - 6:40pm

    I agree with Jon!

  • @ Lester – I commend you for fighting on matters of principle. It just strikes me how many of the vocal Lib Dems are willing to pursue “illiberal” means to achieve socially liberal and just ends – e.g. the acceptance that swingeing public sector cuts, which threaten to increase unemployment therefore decreasing tax revenue, are an extreme economic measure to deal with an extreme economic situation, but “there is no alternative”. Yet when it comes to kick-starting this all-white party to have some non-white faces in the hall of power, when the party is actually in government, we should stand back and let “nature” take its course – because being liberal means not interfering with anything.

    At the moment, white men have a much better chance than non-white men and women of any colour of becoming a Lib Dem MP, MSP, MEP or AM. What is wrong with trying to equalise those chances? We don’t call paid maternity leave sexist, so why is positive action to get Lib Dems to select more non-white candidates racist?

    I think you need to go back to the drawing board and organise a series of meetings with the high-up Lib Dems like Lynne, Simon, Nick et al. It is unacceptable that the Lib Dems, whose vocal online/conference-attending minority are prepared to tolerate diversity of political opinion and sexual orientation and social standing (witness the number of Doctor Who geeks and other nerds in the party) but not of colour, aren’t prepared to do things which they’re not completely comfortable with when it comes to equality.

  • Does anyone know how many BAME candidates (a) applied and (b) were shortlisted for selection in the seats where a Lib Dem MEP was standing down?

  • For Cambridge, where David Howarth stood down, there were no BME candidates who applied – see https://www.libdemvoice.org/cambridge-liberal-democrats-publish-shortlist-17193.html from this very site in December 2009:

    “The Cambridge shortlist has now been published and, contrary to some hopes and wild rumours, has neither a nationally known media star nor a BME candidate on it. But then no member of either group applied.”

    By comparison, the Conservatives had a shorlist that included 4 women, two from BME backgrounds; they ended up selecting the white male ex-adviser to David Willetts; Michael White has an interesting article about the selection process http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2009/dec/16/michael-white-tories-cambridge-candidate.

    The Labour candidate, for the record, was a middle-aged white man, from a Polish background – I can’t find anything about any other potential candidates.

  • Andrew Suffield 24th Sep '10 - 10:06pm

    So you would contend that the selection process is colourblind – then why is it that we only seem to have white MPs, MEPs, MSPs and AMs? Are non-whites just not good enough? Are they not capable of being “the best”?

    Well, it mostly appears to be because constituencies with large numbers of Lib Dem voters are in places where the population is mostly white.

    Since I’m feeling uncharitable tonight, I’ll point out that winning Lib Dem candidates usually do it as a result of a long campaign which they spent a lot of time and effort on, so the first non-white Lib Dem MP will probably be the one who stops talking about their skin and starts campaigning for 2015, today. If you start your campaign six months before the election, you probably won’t win it. It takes dedication and years, and the willingness to do it again when you fail.

    It is not and has never been about the selection panel. The panel will always pick the candidate who has put in that much advance work by the time they’re up for selection. If none of the candidates have done so, then it doesn’t much matter who they pick, because there’s very little chance of any of them winning. Winning Lib Dem MPs aren’t selected by anybody but themselves.

  • Meral, I understand your feelings, and am – in my mind – equally as passionate as you about tackling this problem head on. But I disagreed with your motion and your resultant statement that ‘we are nothing like the radical party of our predecessors’. We are still precisely that.

  • Jo Christie-Smith 25th Sep '10 - 7:50am

    I agree with you Henry, Asquith kicked equal representation for women into the long grass time and time again.

    I find jon’s observations very compelling – we are happy to step away from liberal ideology all the time for various policy beliefs and to be in power but when it comes to giving power away to other groups that are different from most of our members, or those who currently have power in the party, we climb back on the high horse of pure liberalism.

  • The whole issue of having to settle someone’s ethnic classification before a candidate selection can proceed seems simply and wholly wrong, to me

  • First a comment on the way discussion has gone on this. There still seem to be many people who are arguing from (a very old-fashioned position) of skin colour – surely the point is more about the “minority” issue here, ie should more candidates not fit in with majority political cultures? In terms of skin colour (and perhaps gender also), it is very difficult to influence electors who are determined they will discriminate – unfairly, if it were a straight job-selection decision. The downside of the secret ballot?!

    Tom Papworth has raised the issue of class – Liberal Democrats are absolutely awful at bringing in people from lower income backgrounds – the other parties are now bad, esp since Labour has moved away from being “union-dominated”, but we are terrible! I believe this partly lies behind the lack of people from other cultural bakgrounds than the well-off middle / upper classes.

    To mention an even more taboo subject – it is largely about money – and available time (which are linked). Somehow, we need to divorce the old “amateurism in politics” from being a PPC. It must attract some sort of salary. In the 19th Century people did not receive a set salary as MP, and those believers in equality fought for a salary to enable “ordinary” people to be elected. Perhaps we need a similar campaign for our candidates now? Having stood as a candidate (more than once) at the only time of my life I would have been able to manage it financially and time-wise, I can see how appallingly difficult it is, and how costly in many senses, without a great deal of positive reward if you remain unelected!

    Coming to the practicality of trying to allocate quotas, discriminate positively in any way (apart from the objections from principle already mentioned extensively here), how do we determine who is “BAME” – is it self-defined, as I suspect? As has often been said, Nick Clegg has a very sound case for being so defined. Or are we just back to skin colour, as is my worry?

    But summing up, unless there is some financial support, we are not going to increase the number of people (even those with non-white skins) applying for the winnable seats esp in areas of low non-white populations, of which we have many. Perhaps someone can tell us some figures for BAME applicants for urban winnable seats, which might give us a clue as to how likely it is that we start breaking our duck! Overall, however, it is a dreadful comment on how things are, that the Liberal Party at the back end of the 19th Century elected two MPs with Indian backgrounds, and 120 years later, with a much bigger BAME population we have none!

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