Opinion: “Too male and too pale” – Why shortlists and the Leadership Programme are not the answer

The problem of our Parliamentary Party being “too male and too pale” was brought up again at conference and I couldn’t help leaving with the feeling that we are edging towards another fight over whether we should introduce more proactive methods to help combat the chronic under representation of women and ethnic minorities among our MPs.

I was most struck when Paddy Ashdown, during the Guardian debate, seemed to shift from his previously held position and advocate the introduction of shortlists or “zipping” if the current leadership programme failed to make any significant impact.

I am completely opposed to the introduction of shortlists but I fear that many in the Party, like Paddy, will renew the push for them if the leadership programme does not have the desired results.

While the Candidate Leadership Programme seems like a good idea, giving candidates from underrepresented groups the support and training they need to go on and, hopefully, become MPs, I believe it is destined to failure for the same reasons that shortlists are not the answer.

They both ignore the real problem.

Shortlists in particular are a quick-fix, tinkering round the edges, top-down attempt to create the façade that we are a party that is representative of the whole country. The truth is we aren’t. A quick look around the conference hall and most fringe meetings would have demonstrated what the real problem is, not just that our Parliamentary Party is “too male and too pale” but that the Party as a whole is “too male and too pale”.

Which is why I am pessimistic about the leadership programme. It’s all very well offering training and support for female and BAME candidates but if we don’t have enough in the first place, then it’s not going to change anything.

If we want more PPCs and, in turn more MPs, who are female or from ethnic minorities then we need more people from these groups as activists and members. This is a grassroots issue. The focus of the party needs to be from the bottom up not the top down. We need to dedicate our time and energy to diversifying our party at a local level, making a concerted effort to attract new people from a wider range of society instead of trying to shoe-horn in a few token MPs so we can all feel better about ourselves.

We need to knock on doors in areas we don’t usually canvass in; we need to find issues that resonate with different communities and show them we are fighting for things that concern them and we need to take the message of what we’re already doing and demonstrate that we’re a Party they can be part of.

If we truly want to make our Party diverse and representative then we have to move away from any thoughts of taking the easy, quick (not to mention illiberal) option, accept it will be hard work and get on with it. A Party that is diverse at a grassroots level will deliver us a diverse Parliamentary Party.

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  • I do agree with you in the sentiment but while the party as a whole is too pale and too middle-class, there’s no shortage of women. Looking on the conference floor, it is pretty much gender balanced.

    So in the case of BAME, yes, the lists or leadership program won’t fix the issue, as we need far more MEMBERS from BAME to be able to properly select more BAME candidates.

    But for the gender balance, those can help (I hope the leadership program does the trick as I don’t like the idea of positive discrimination at all. As a woman, I find it patronising. Zipping is the least bad but doesn’t work for single-seats anyway).

    There are also other issues that penalise those under-represented groups statistically more, should they want to run for office: the time and money involved.
    Taking 3 weeks (or even 3 months) off to campaign is not an option for people on normal wages and long hours are adversely affecting women (the guys might be getting better at helping with children but it is still the women that do most)

  • The basic thrust of this piece is quite correct. There may, however, be some point in having a Leadership initiative in parallel for the purpose of pump-priming, accelerating, mentoring (choose management word to your taste).

    Yours (male, pale, middle-class and middle-aged), Ed

  • Jennie Treen 1st Oct '11 - 12:25pm

    I agree so much that this is more a grassroots issue than anything else, but I feel like the leadership programme might help the grassroots issue in the long run. If we have a diverse range of candidates from underrepresented groups elected, then we will be able to prove to the grassroots that we do, actually, represent them. Then we’ll increase the grassroots pool, have more diverse candidates, and increase diversity in our elected representatives. So on and so on.

  • Of course if the electorate had voted the way we wanted to then the gender in-balance in out MPs would not of been so great. We lost several women MPs and failed to win several target seats with women candidates despite out best effort, most lost to Tories who can chuck huge amounts of money into seats.

    We unlike Lab & Cons don’t really have any safe seats so we can’t shoe horn in people to meet quotas, hence all women short lists like Lab wont work for the Lib Dems.

    What I do like about the leadership program is it will encourage people to come forward who might not of bothered in the past and should keep them mediated throughout their candidacy when in the past they may have dropped out. But their chance of winning in general remains the same as if a pale male was the candidate. Now if we had a PR election system things would be different…….

  • SFolliot – On reflection I agree, my post was probably more relevant in the case of BAMEs than women. As has been pointed out we do have lots of good female candidates and a much healthier balance among the membership base.

    I have no problem with the leadership programme, as mentioned above by various people it has a useful role to play. I am just concerned that some people are putting too much faith in it and using it as an excuse to ignore the real problem of a lack of diversity at grassroots level. I’m also concerned that if it fails to deliver the outcome of a more diverse Parliamentary Party, people will use it as a reason to push for shortlists etc.

    Kavya Kaushik – Couldn’t agree more!

  • I equally do not agree with you. I think you have actually shown that you have not knocked on a great deal of doors in the way that you suggest, as there is a great deal of scepticism outside of “election years” (where we have had time to set out our message beyond the Lib Dem core vote) that we can do anything. The last time the party and predecessors elected a BAME MP at a General Election was 119 years ago. If that wasn’t enough time to knock on generations of doors and constantly…. Sure, if Archie Sinclair had been more successful in sustaining the Liberals, Pratap Chitnis might have beaten Jonathan Sayeed to be the first non-white MP of the modern era. If the SDP had done better, Shami Chakrabarti would (with any justice) be with us in the House.

    But when push comes to shove we consider diversity to be a non-issue. As if everyone is so gloriously equal that winning seats is more important than effective representation! We’ve had visible successes constrained by resources and sheer maths. But to convince someone that we give a flying hoot about their opinion or point of view is extremely difficult when you find it hard to back it up.

    Showing people that we are willing to invest significantly in candidates’ time and experience as candidates is a huge boon to an under-resourced and under-represented party, and a great sell for people to get involved on the doorstep. If it doesn’t work, then frankly we should pack in completely in some respects.

  • Simon McGrath 2nd Oct '11 - 7:51am

    @Robson can you tell us your evidence for your statement “But when push comes to shove we consider diversity to be a non-issue”

    Can I also point out that discrimination grounds of race or sex is against the party constitution?

  • Matthew Harris 2nd Oct '11 - 9:51am

    Let’s not degrade this debate by using stupid, mildly perjorative phrases like ‘male and pale’. Do we not young white men from disadvantaged backgrounds to be among our candidates? They too are ‘male and pale’: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/matthew-harris/why-we-need-more-white-ox_b_894432.html

    It is important to have more women and BME MPs, although a lot of BME voters of my acquaintance care about this far less than political activists do.

    The problem is that the best and most able people are not entering politics. We need to be head-hunting them, including women and BME people.

    The percentage of BME people on our Approved List is already higher than the percentage of BME people in the general population.

  • Whenever this topic has come up in discussion, some of us try to highlight the issue of our party not doing much, nor encouraging more people from lower income groups to come forward in representative roles. Looking round the Conference floor, and even, I have to say in local branches, one of our main problems is lack of social diversity, not lack of gender, or even ethnic diversity. The trouble arises that most don’t then want to discuss the problem any more, or regard it as in the “too difficult” pile! And, yes, we need to doorstep widely, in lower income areas as well as in higher income areas. It also might have the useful by-product of re-educating the party about the bad points of neoliberalism, the corrosive effects of cuts etc, which is badly needed.

  • I have come to this late but would point out the following. We have 7 women MPs. That is 12 % or thereabouts and is less even than the paltry average among all parties in the HoC which is around 20%. We have no women members of our Cabinet team. The number of women approved as PPCs is around 250 with the number of approved PPCs being around 1000. So we do not have equality in the pool of potential candidates. We have men in the top positions across the party, with the notable exception of Kirsty Williams in Wales.

    The point of the Leadership Programme is not to guarantee anyone a seat. Target seats will be required to shortlist two candidates from the LP (should they apply). It will then be up to the members to pick their preferred candidate.

    There is no room for complacency on this issue. If we want to attract the grassroots activists, members, council candidates people have referred to above – which I agree is incredibly important – we need to show that we understand the different communities in the UK. One of the most powerful ways of showing that is by looking like the society we say we want to represent.

    Women comprise 51% of the population. For those of us who are advancing in years quicker than we might wish, it is extraordinarily depressing and demotivating that more progress is not being made on this issue, in the Liberal Democrats, in the other parties and across society. Why are my skills and aptitudes and those of 30 million like me less valued? Put simply it is a waste of skills, resources, and talent we can ill afford.

    We need to get to grips with this now, and the Leadership Programme is a good start.

  • I agree – there are far too many well-heeled, white, 40-something males (predominantly Christian) with not many other Faith groups represented.
    I have been shouting this for years too.

    We need to recruit more “ordinary” people, not just the rich, well-heeled middle and upper classes living in very high “des res” areas in expensive £500,000 + houses! These are the people who tend to be “courted” by the membership recruiters in the Local Parties!

    I blame some Local Parties for this decline in suitable candidates – there is a very nasty attitude in some places where “ordinary” people and people who are less well off or who live in social housing are only considered for the jobs of “foot soldiers” for delivering leaflets and doing the backroom office jobs. OK, we couldn’t run a campaign without the foot soldiers and backroom “boys & girls”, but they should not be limited to those roles! The people who tend to be selected by Local Parties tend to be the people who are “someone” or a “somebody” (financially and academically suitable) – they seem to be the only ones who are considered worthy of consideration for Local Councils and for Parliamentary selection for Westminster or for the Scottish Parliament.

    In short, the Local Parties have become very inward looking, snobby cliques & “inner circles” (in many cases) they need to come out of their little comfort zones and look at real people struggling with the real day-to-day business of surviving in the current climate. These are the people who need to be in government because the see life at the sharp end!!!

    It has long been the case that the only people who can be selected are the ones who can afford to put money into it!

    There are some exceptions but, in the majority of cases, “if your face doesn’t fit! in the Local Party, you may as well forget it!

    An instance of this “selectiveness” has recently come to my attention – social events are an example – I have been told that, for a forthcoming social event, “the invitation was only sent out to certain people” in the Local Party, despite it being a supposedly “open” social event. How Liberal and Democratic is that?!!!

  • Julian heather 3rd Oct '11 - 3:29pm

    Really frustrating is the fact that of the 16 Lib Dem-held Parliamentary seats that we lost in May 2010, no less than 8 had female candidates. Getting those 8 female PPCs elected would have significantly altered the make up of the Parliamentary Party. I agree with Paddy, that if the Leadership programme doesn’t deliver the desired outcomes, we have to look at some form of positve discrimination/action. Zipping for the Euros got us an equal gender balance for Euro MPs. It works. BME representation is more difficult. However, whoever it was who talked about the lack of BME members and activists at grassroot levels clearly didn’t bother to come and help in the Peckham (Southwark Council) byelection or the two Lewisham Council byelections, all held post May 2010, where in each case we had superb female BME candidates. And as for potential candidates with disabilities, we had some excellent speakers at Conference who would very much fit the bill. Finally, when it comes to LGBT candidates, we are probably more than over-represented, albeit with youngish white gay males !

  • Rebecca Taylor 1st Dec '11 - 12:01pm

    Your article seems to see this as an either-or issue: either we support increasing the diversity of the Parliamentary Party, or of the grassroots local parties. How about doing both?

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