Opinion: Time to consider all-women shortlists?

I find myself changing my mind on the subject of all-women shortlists. I’ve always been somewhere between agnostic and sceptical on the basis that it’s fairer to have open candidacies in which the best person gets chosen. If the playing ground needs to be levelled, it is best to do it in training and support rather than fixing the rules for appointments. I based this partly on my now shaken belief that, whatever happens in the other parties, the Lib Dems are nice, our hearts are in the right place, so self evidently good choices will be made.

But three things have shaken that belief. Firstly the Rennard affair, and not just the issue itself but the number of people vigorously defending the status quo; secondly, the endemic sexism still visible in society at large, catalogued in visceral detail at Everyday Sexism; and thirdly, the two separate reports published recently on the shape of the elite in our society – still overwhelmingly male. Patriarchy remains alive and in rude good health, in the party as well as in society at large. The playing field remains permanently tilted against women (as well as against BAME people), and the only way in which we can be fair about that situation is to tilt it back. And niceness won’t cut it. All women shortlisting seems a crude tool but I know of no better one at the moment.

A question remains as to whether it will actually do the job I want it to do – make things fair. I have no truck with those who say it is illiberal to discriminate in such a way. We discriminate if we do nothing, because we acquiesce in a system that discriminates within the party every day against women and minorities of every kind. The point has been made that we had quite a few good women candidates in 2010 and they did not get elected. (That raises a wider debate about candidates without means: those who cannot afford to leave their jobs, campaign full time, and contribute to their own funding.) Evidence from both Labour and Conservatives suggests that their short lists are successful in safe seats, a phenomenon unknown to the Lib Dems. Also that white middle class men are being supplanted by white middle class women. Personally, I think that’s a result, but some deem it insufficient.

The Leadership Programme seems to have been doing good things. I question whether it is enough, though. It will be hard to judge by results in 2015 because we will be up against the wall then in every sense. I think it should be expanded – it looks to me as if it is doing what any good organisation would do with all its managers, but it is only doing it for a few. I blame nobody in particular for this: I accept that resources are limited.

If we do not adopt AWS, what are we going to do? We need a much more vigorous and all embracing programme than we have had to date to promote and enable women, ethnic and other minorities – in fact, everybody who is not, like me, white, male, middle class, able-bodied and straight. I have teaching and organising skills: I will happily participate in such a programme if a better one than I can think of can be adopted.

* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at http://acomfortableplace.blogspot.co.uk. He curates Liberal Quotes on Facebook

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  • paul barker 4th Sep '14 - 2:49pm

    I agree 100 %. AWS worked for Labour, it only stopped working when they , largely, stopped doing it. It could transform our Party for the better.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Sep '14 - 3:05pm

    ” Firstly the Rennard affair, and not just the issue itself but the number of people vigorously defending the status quo”
    Can you give some more info on this? -I havent seen anyone in the Party defending the status quo – I think there is a universal acknowledgement that it was badly handled originally and our procedures need to change.

  • David Cooper 4th Sep '14 - 3:16pm

    Disagree totally.

    If we are serious about inequality, we should create shortlists of candidates who did not benefit from private school education. Or even better, non Oxbridge shortlists- those guys really dominate politics. Frankly I can’t get excited about public schoolboys like Clegg being replaced by products of Cheltenham Ladies College and Roedean.

  • David Evans 4th Sep '14 - 3:34pm

    We don’t need AWS, just Nick Clegg. We went into the Euro Elections with 12 MEPs (7 Men, 5 Women) and came out with 1 woman, a net swing to the women of +3.

  • I get worried by the way that the topic of diversity often gets reduced to a one dimensional male/female discussion. The House of Commons needs enough MPs from a wide range of backgrounds and expertise to be able to develop an informed view on all of the range of topics that it is called upon to address.
    Engineering, science and economics are professions with inadequate representation among MPs (that is, MPs who have recently practiced in these fields). The background with the greatest over-representation in the Commons is MPs with a degree in politics – which is a far greater statistical imbalance than between the sexes.
    Perhaps the Libs should have “no candidates with a politics degree” shortlists.

  • All women shortlists is discrimination against men – bit it. Have Rob Parsons never heard of the discrimination act which amongst things bans discrimination against anyone on the grounds of gender…….what next? All anglo saxon short lists?

  • The problem as has been. Said many times is there are no safe libdem seats.

    AWS undermines quality female candidates, more open primaries would be more effective. The only argument I have heard against is that they are too expensive.

    Better to have more Female MPs than more Female PPCs and no change in MPs.

    I do take your point that the Renard afair has thrown this in to focus, but AWS would be counter productive.

  • How can all women shortlists reflect the local realities? I could agree that a constituency could restrict outside candidates to women only, but such a decision would have to be at a local level. Surely the reality is that there are people at a local level who have been working for years to build up support that is often based on dedicated personal achievement. Such individuals need to have priority over whatever gender they happen to be.

    Besides, this discussion has an air of abstraction from reality. How many new seats do we think we are in the running for? Isn’t the practical reality to concentrate on doing all we can to retain the women that are already MPs?

  • It will be interesting to see whether the seemingly voluntarily AWS for party president will effect any real change in the party and the participation of women in it.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Sep '14 - 4:33pm

    Whichever editor(s) think(s) now is the right time to have regular divisive debates over all women short-lists needs speaking to.


  • David Evans 4th Sep '14 - 5:41pm

    Rob, I think Eddie is referring to the deckchairs on the Titanic syndrome. We can debate the under representation of women for ever, but until we stop and agree to work to sort out the under representation of Liberal Democrats in parliament and the catastrophe that will hit us in eight months unless we do something about it, it will all be academic in 15 years time.

  • David Evans 4th Sep '14 - 6:11pm

    Rob, I think you are massively underestimating the scale of the problem we face in May. There is a chance we will come out of it with a bigger proportion of our MPs as women, but there is an even bigger chance we will lose more than half of them in doing so. We don’t have time to do both. We barely have time to change the leader of the band.

  • David Evans 4th Sep '14 - 7:09pm

    No Rob. It’s because Nick broke the pledge; introduced secret courts; engaged in a top down reorganisation of the NHS, allowed the bedroom tax etc. etc. and when his feet of clay were finally totally exposed in the European elections, none of those in the parliamentary party, man or woman stood up to be counted. Well a couple tried, as for the rest …

  • David Evershed 4th Sep '14 - 7:10pm

    Lib Dem values are that candidates should be selected on merit not their gender or ethnic group.

    Women selected from restricted lists will not be perceived as being selected on merit even if they would have been the best candidate had it been an open list.

    Last month’s survey by You Gov showed 56% against AWS lists, 28% in favour and 16% don’t know.

    Amongst women 51% were against AWS lists, 30% in favour and 20% DK.

    Source: http://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/08/28/across-the-board-opposition-all-women-shortlists/

    So its contrary to liberal values and it’s a vote loser.

    However, I agree with the current Leadership programme to get women up to speed as potentail candidates.

  • Dave Leicester 4th Sep '14 - 7:37pm

    I really do not believe that AWS’s are being looked at as a positive move.

    As has also been spoken about recently, do we look at having all BME shortlists too? How about having a BME one legged LGBT candidate stand in each constituency to tick as many boxes as possible !

    Surely AWS’s are against liberal principles. I know there will be cries of ‘thats easy for you to say as a man’, but I would be equally as against this if we were discussing all male shortlists.

    Even our preamble to the constitution states ‘ We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full.’

    There is no clause saying that this does not apply to men if we are in an ‘emergency situation’

    I do not mind seeing women filling the shortlist if they are there by ability but not because we are trying to rig the numbers to make ourselves look good. At the very worst I would not mind seeing a 50/50 split enforced onto the shortlist but totally disagree with anything more than this.

    As we have already increased the women in our target seats before and failed to increase the proportion of female MP’s selected, where would the next move take us? Legislating that a percentage of the electorate have to vote for a woman?

  • Rob

    “Psi – I can’t say I disagree with you. AWS has distinct weaknesses. The issue is what can we find that will do better, and do better for all the non-privileged folks, not just women.”

    That is why my preference is for open primaries. It would have to be coupled with more support (financially too) for female candidates. All of this will be expensive which is the really hard question. AWS will be window dressing in the absence of safe seats. The sooner we face up to the real solutions and challenges to delivering them all this talk about AWS is a distraction.

    I don’t know the details of the Renard case but imagine how much less likely it would be for female candidates to feel pressured if by being selected for a top 100 seat they automatically qualified for extra support from the centre. Again cost issues.

  • Dave Leicester 4th Sep '14 - 8:09pm

    @Rob Parsons

    If the electorate are voting for and returning white, middle class, able bodied men more frequently than any other type of candidate (even when given alternatives which were rejected) would you say the voter is illiberal?

    The voter votes for what the voter wants and I can only imagine that would be the best candidate for their constituency.

    I am in total agreement that internally we should be doing everything we can to help women progress through the party with any practical help necessary but I can not agree with any type of discrimination whether that is negative or positive.

  • David Allen 4th Sep '14 - 8:14pm

    Yes, indeed being pale male and stale counts against us, and so does the fact that we never properly acknowledge where we have gone wrong. That applies (as Rob Parsons points out) to our half-hearted response to the R*nnard affair, and it applies (as David Evans points out) to Nick Clegg’s wider history of failure and failure to acknowledge the fact.

    Whatever you think of AWS, they aren’t directly relevant to tackling the aftermath of R*nnard. What we need in that respect is a much better response from the Party.

    We should look at Rotherham, where one thing which is NOT happening is a great long-running argument about whether alleged offenders should apologise for crimes or misdemeanours. Instead, all attention is focused on responsible professionals and managers. The charge is that the managers have failed in positions of responsibility, and let down a section of society whose interests they have neglected. A similar charge applies to this Party’s managers.

    Of course the R*nnard allegations are contested and unproven, and on any interpretation are of a quite different order from the events in Rotherham. Nevertheless, in one sense the similarities between Rotherham and R*nnard are more important than the differences. That sense is that it is management which must be held to account.

    Once the words “broadly credible” were used in an official report on the allegations, inaction was no longer a valid option. I don’t want to comment on how the Party then dealt with R*nnard. Instead, I think we should shift the focus back to where it should be – on the position of women in the Lib Dems, on the performance of the Party in that respect, and on power in the Party.

    Any ambitious young woman, contemplating starting a political career, might think that almost any other party would be more sympathetic. That is a problem.

    Numerous people have uttered remarks expressing regret or suggesting helpful structural changes. However, these have largely been drowned out by controversy over the question of pinning down an apology from R*nnard. What we really need is a loud, clear, unequivocal apology from the Party for its own managerial failure to take proper care of its members. If that can only be done by putting it into the Leader’s speech to Conference, then that’s what should be done.

    At the same time, we must show that our Party management will be completely reformed. Apology and reform go together. We will not convincingly make a case for internal reform, and make sure it happens, unless we also make it clear we know how badly it is needed.

    On management, the analogy with Rotherham breaks down. Rotherham at least had a clear hierarchy of people in rap-taking positions. Who was R*nnard responsible to? Ah, well, that’s the trouble, he was a bit like Rasputin or Richelieu, an eminence grise, a law unto himself…

    And that’s what won’t do. It is also a wider issue. An all-powerful supremo in candidate selection could equally misuse power by quietly discriminating in a host of possible different ways – against one political wing, or on racial or religious grounds, above all against anyone who will not do the bidding of the supremo. For an eminence grise, control by Machiavellian means is standard practice. We must not allow another eminence grise.

    This Party, though now stolidly “centrist” on so many issues, still claims to lead on democratic reform and the safeguarding of individual rights against powerful institutional interests. Physician, heal thyself.

    Institutional reform often fails – think press, police, prisons. It fails when “Never again” later gives way to “It’s different now”. It fails when a reform agenda is adopted half-heartedly and its opponents temporarily pay it lip service. It fails when the clearest outcome – in our case, the reinstatement of R*nnard – signals weakness. It can succeed only if the loudest voice is a whole-hearted commitment to reform. That must begin with an apology, from the Party, by its Leader.

  • David Cooper 4th Sep '14 - 8:21pm

    Dear Rob Parsons,
    You are not sure what I disagree with… let me explain

    Would you have a special treatment for the disabled? For women? For certain racial groups per Andy Ali? For the state educated? For religions? For those with learning difficulties? For the overweight? For the physically unattractive? The poor? For certain professions per Simon Pike? And on and on…

    The successful applicants would be open to charges of tokenism. Ticking boxes rather than exercising intelligent judgement may fit your idea of being ‘liberal’. But as David Evans states, we also need to be effective, and selecting good candidates is hard enough as it is.

  • David Allen

    “We should look at Rotherham, where one thing which is NOT happening is a great long-running argument about whether alleged offenders should apologise for crimes or misdemeanours. Instead, all attention is focused on responsible professionals and managers. The charge is that the managers have failed in positions of responsibility, and let down a section of society whose interests they have neglected. A similar charge applies to this Party’s managers.”

    Not wanting to get pulled of topic by your choice of example but the reason the debate focuses on the public bodies involved is because we can all agree the offenders should be tracked down and put in prison where dangerous criminals belong. The focus is on the public bodies as they are responsible for doing the tracking down, and they are clearly incapable of performing the task.

    The objective is clear, the debate is over achieving that.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Sep '14 - 9:31pm

    Rob, I’ve got an alternative solution: work towards getting the female PPCs elected. Results without quotas.

  • David Cooper 4th Sep '14 - 9:34pm

    Dear Rob Parsons

    The major injustices of the status quo are caused economic inequality between different social classes. By comparison sex inequality is rather mild: well-off young gentlemen tend to marry well-off young ladies. I am not going to start a debate here about how to reduce economic inequality (other than to advertise the work of Libdem ALTER, a group of which I am secretary). Measures that limit our effectiveness as a campaigning organization and replace judgement with ticking boxes are certainly not helpful.

  • David Evans 4th Sep '14 - 9:51pm

    Rob, You may wish to portray our MPs as pale, male and stale. I do not agree. They are however mainly rather upper middle class and nice. But none of it will count a single iota if Nick remains as leader as most of our new candidates will be toast, male or female. One factor in this case probably is that Nick is pale, male and stale – certainly when compared to almost a lot of our MPs.

  • Dave Leicester 4th Sep '14 - 10:15pm

    @ Rob Parsons

    ‘ The public doesn’t get a choice. If the public in any one place is thinking of voting LibDem it only gets the candidate we put forward ‘

    We have put forward plenty of female candidates in 2010 and again will in 2015. There is one reason they will not get elected next May and that is because the brand is toxic. AWS’s are not the answer and nothing short of a rebranding will change that.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Sep '14 - 3:15am

    Hi Rob, I have a broad plan for 2015 and beyond, but to keep on topic I just want to emphasise that reforms specifically related to the protection of women are immediate, whilst all-women shortlists are not.

    I’m not an expert on the topic so I think it is for Tim Farron and others to get back to us on the lawyer’s recommendations.


  • Stephen Howse 5th Sep '14 - 9:50am

    ‘As we have already increased the women in our target seats before and failed to increase the proportion of female MP’s selected, where would the next move take us? Legislating that a percentage of the electorate have to vote for a woman?’

    Worse than that, I’ve seen it suggested on here that we have two MPs per seat, one male and one female, voted for in separate ballots.

    ‘The problem as has been said many times is there are no safe libdem seats.’

    This is the #1 practical reason that AWS would be a bad idea for a party like the Lib Dems, on top of the philosophical reasons – I can’t believe that anyone who calls themselves liberal and who professes to believe in the values of individual freedom and equal worth that liberalism entails could support them.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Sep '14 - 10:54am

    The issue is not principally about women, it is about people who are principal carers for either children, people with disabilities, or frail elderly, 95 per cent of whom are women. How many Members of Parliament have we elected who are males with substantial personal caring responsibilities? I doubt whether there is a single one. So this minority are discriminated against far more than are single childless women.

    It intrigues me how many Lb Dems appear to be getting serious about this issue at precisely the time when they are being placed in a situation where anything which they propose or do on this matter will have no more effect on how many Lib Dem women get elected to anything than if there were a proposal to make all Lib Dem candidates wear purple T shirts.

    There is a far wider problem which such proposals do not address. Approximately 25 per cent of the population have personalities which are dominated, to a greater or lesser effect by narcissism. Representative politics attracts a disproportionate fraction of potential candidates from this group and, when it comes to becoming big fish in small pools, the proportion is even higher. Our Parliamentary Leadership have conspired to make the pool even smaller than it was previously. Narcissistic domination becomes a substantially-bigger problem in such situations.

    The problem for the Lib Dems is NOT to fiddle with its own procedures to make the male proportion of its present membership, who want to stand and lose as candidates , be replaced by more of the female proportion of its present membership,who want to stand and lose as candidates. It is to remove the collective head from the clouds and/or its own nether regions and get out there in the community to work in a true Liberal fashion to inspire and recruit a much higher percentage of members and activists who believe in community and taking power and distributing it widely within their communities. In particular to recruit non-narcissistic members and candidates of both genders who want to do things rather than be things and who can win, not just for themselves but for the communities of our nation.

  • Stephen Howse 5th Sep '14 - 11:20am

    ‘Not discriminating in some way is not liberal either because it ensures that the playing field remains tilted in favour of white middle class etc men – how can that be liberal?’

    We are already doing something. We are giving people a more level playing field by offering training and reserved places on shortlists for target seats. I hope to God that it works so that the AWS argument can finally be put to bed.

  • David Cooper 5th Sep '14 - 11:58am

    Looking at the names in this thread, the argument on both sides seems to be dominated by men. Even worse, it is dominated by the literate, which seems rather illiberal. Worst of all, the participants appear to be alive, which could leave us open to the charge of illiberally discriminating against the dead, who are a large section of humanity and very under-represented in politics.
    Perhaps we could take steps to encourage the functionally illiterate to participate? And would be a mandatory ouija board at at candidate selections be of help?

  • Amazing and disparaging that there’s not a single woman commenting on this thread. It’s good to see that many people have changed their minds because it’s self-evident how desperate this situation is, we must make politics more representative of the population.

  • Ruth Bright 5th Sep '14 - 3:04pm

    Perhaps women aren’t posting because we are tired of all the stuff about how we need to be trained to “get us up to speed”. When I stood in the GE of 2005 I had been a member for 17 years and a councillor in a unitary authority for eight. I did not need to “get up to speed” my minimal hopes were for my maternity leave to be respected – oh and not to have my female colleagues groped or belittled.

  • Dave Leicester 5th Sep '14 - 5:30pm

    If we had a brand that was attractive to the electorate then we would get a lot more MP’s elected. We would also see a better proportion of all demographics elected as we do have all types of people standing as PPC’s.

    The biggest problem is that Lib Dems are now seen as just the same as Con/Lab . We know we are a different type of party but the public do now see that. They see a party that has enabled the Conservatives to make painful cuts to the most vulnerable. We know that Coalition was necessary and so were some of the cuts but people who see how this effects thier lives or the lives of their loved ones, they are not prepared to listen to a party that still boast about how well they have done.

    They also see a party that attacks UKIP at any opportunity and also their voters. People are voting for them because at the moment they are seen as something different, a party that will listen to them and act in their interests. Whether we think things will be different once they get power or not is immaterial, the fact is they feel let down by a system that we are perceived to facilitate.

    Respect and honesty to the electorate would be a great start and not alienating the people we would be hoping to get back to voting for us in the future would be helpful.

    I could also mention not making promises we couldn’t possibly keep but surely anyone would think that this is a no brainer.

    Maybe then, we could start getting MP’s selected that truly reflect the population.

    As a side, I think the biggest problem in UK politics is not the gender proportion but the proportion of wealthy/millionaire MP’s in relation to the population.

  • Stephen Howse 6th Sep '14 - 1:10am

    ‘Stephen, I wasn’t aware that we reserve places – do you have more information on that?’

    Candidate Leadership Programme. Covers not just women but other under-represented groups in the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party (i.e. anyone who isn’t a white, heterosexual male). Target seats have to shortlist at least one person on it.

  • Ruth Bright 6th Sep '14 - 9:34am

    Rob – AWS + begging, pleading and financing current female PPCs to help them continue.

  • Rob Pavement / community politics survived before Rennard, it can sure as hell survive after him!

  • Rob Any sensible constituency makes plans involving teams anyway – the situation we are currently in regarding the spread of black holes again, necessarily means that is harder now than 10 years ago. But Ruth and others (including you yourself ) allude to the finance issue – this is the heart of the problem really. “Under-represented groups”, which means almost anybody really, apart from those who are independently wealthy (very few), those who are retired, especially early retired, as I was when I stood, or employed by a very sympathetic employer – often the party itself, but could be a charity – struggle to keep their head above water. Some constituencies have raised substantial funds, and some who may have a building or other valuable asset, and I suppose, some who may have a big legacy left to them may be able to help. My experience, however, is that such constituencies are few and far between. Those who do have buildings are often struggling with debt. The idea of donations from “high net worth individuals” has been raised as a panacea in the party in the last few years – NOT a good idea, as it involves some sacrifice of independence and potentially democracy. The US Democrat concept from Dean and Obama, of mass small donation funding (?crowdsourcing?) has been mentioned, but I don’t think it is open to Lib Dems at present!

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