Opinion: Why I’m supporting all women shortlists

three_women_standing_togetherAs the dust begins to settle from the Rennard affair we must now reflect on how our party can stand up to liberal values when it comes to gender equality. It is welcome that, following a review of the procedures of the case, the party now no longer needs a criminal burden of proof in internal disputes of this kind. We can, and should, be proud of the fact that we have changed protocol in light of the failures that have occurred; not every party is so open and willing to change when things go wrong. However more still needs to be done on the wider issue of how we improve the engagement of women in the party.

I joined the Liberal Democrats for many reasons. One reason was its unashamedly liberal and inclusive approach to the fabric of our society, not least in its championing of LGBT rights, its embracing of a multi-faith and multi-cultural Britain that make up this nation’s modern identity and its internationalist philosophy that places the human and environmental rights of all at the heart of how we see the world. We are Liberal (with a capital L) and with liberty for all comes representation for all.

A move towards all-women shortlists (or as Sal Brinton reported this week, the equal selection of male and female candidates followed by our sister group, D66, in The Netherlands) does two things. First it shows the electorate that we take gender equality seriously. There is a risk that the public, fuelled by our political opponents, will develop a view that we have stone age ideals about the treatment of women. We need to make publically pro-active change if we are to combat this view.

However, more importantly, we must move towards all women shortlists because it is the right thing to do. We are the party that supports under-represented people of our community, nation and world and that should also apply to the way this party operates. The notion that we shouldn’t positively discriminate is understandable, and arguably people should be selected on merit alone. But this position fails to recognise the fact we have the lowest proportion of MPs that are women and something needs to be done. Women in the party should be encouraged to stand and take part; promoting all-women shortlists will help encourage people to engage with the party. How we go about initiating all-women shortlists is open to debate. It would certainly not be unreasonable to expect 50% of target seats to be fought by women; with local parties encouraged to opt into using all women shortlists to reach this goal.

Liberal Democrats have done so much in promoting equality. It is time we applied these ideals to ourselves.

* Alasdair Hill is a Lib Dem member and secondary school biology teacher based in North London.

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  • Joshua Dixon 26th Aug '14 - 2:34pm

    Brilliant piece, Alasdair and I 100% support you in this. People will, no doubt, speak about merit but I refuse to believe that the current crop of men in Parliament are all there on “merit” alone. We simply don’t live in a meritocracy and until we break down the barriers that women face we need to take any action we can to address the huge gender representation problem the party has. Its uncomfortable and undemocratic, but who ever said taking down the patriarchy would be an easy job ;)?

  • Why is it only the women who have to be selected on merit?

  • Stephen Harte 26th Aug '14 - 2:45pm

    I think I agree with virtually all of the reasons to oppose all women short lists. The fact that I support all women short lists is an indication of the fact that we (as a nation as well as a party) are in an emergency situation. We need to start making use of all of our talent and ensuring that our represenative democracy is indeed representative. I would hope that such a move was not for ever but it would have to be for long enough not to be needed anymore. in my lifetime, Scotland has only elected 5 women liberals to either of the three Parliaments to which we elect folk.

    I can think (off the top of my head) of several women in the Scottish Party who will be excellent MSPs, MPs, MEPs and whose talent we need in the frontline of politics.

    Scottish Labour made a push to get more women MSPs elected when the Scottish Parliament was first elected and they were successful in terms of numbers. I am not sure though (and this goes beyond gender) the 129 MSPs represented Scotland’s brightest and best. Thought must be had to why we don’t always get the best people of eitehr gender putting themselves forward for election.

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Aug '14 - 2:50pm

    A lack of much comment on this article from me is not because I am indifferent, but because the Lib Dems need to get on with governing the country and focusing on the next election, not start naval gazing about deeply divisive internal ideas.

  • Joshua Dixon 26th Aug '14 - 3:05pm

    Eddie, believe it or not, not every Lib Dem member has the luxury of “governing the country”. So many of us with the time we do have would like to go about fixing the mess we’re in.

  • I’m also signed up to this as I can’t see how we will get any serious gender equality in our parliamentary candidates any other way. If we could take a vote I’d happily support; but I think we’d get bogged down in an extensive debate beforehand and I think that debate would distract us at the moment.

  • Stephen Howse 26th Aug '14 - 3:27pm

    Let’s wait and see how the Leadership Programme performs before we decide that ‘something else must be done’ on this. One initiative at a time.

    I am, as ever, deeply unconvinced by this both on principle in terms of its efficacy given that unlike Labour and the Tories, we do not have the luxury of 150 safe seats to parachute women into to give our numbers a better balance. Zipping worked for European selections because those elections are run on a list system, whereas under FPTP only one candidate can win. We could select 100 women for our top 100 targets but if only 5 of them win and 35 men cling on the numbers still look poor despite our efforts (and all the infighting such an extreme effort would trigger!).

    Short of forcing male MPs to stand down in order that a woman can stand in their stead – which will go down like a cup of cold sick with the MPs themselves and will engineer much bad feeling towards the women chosen – all we can do is ensure that when seats come up for selection, women are being given a fair crack of the whip at being selected for them. The Leadership Programme does that and appears to be doing it pretty well going by the number of women on it that’ve been selected in target and held seats.

    Me? I just want Lib Dem MPs to get elected and, for the next 9 or so months, that has to be the focus. We could get 10 MPs returned and 3 of them could be women – brilliant in terms of hitting a diversity target, less brilliant in terms of actually getting liberal policies implemented. So wait and see how we do in 2015, wait and see how many women are elected thanks to the Leadership Programme (or no thanks to, in some cases!), then review and if you think there’s a cause for more drastic action, that will be the time to push for it.

  • David Evershed 26th Aug '14 - 3:37pm

    The way to increase the number of successful women PPC candidates is to improve the training of, and support for, potential women candidates. This is already being done within the party.

    Stopping men from applying is the worst of all worlds. It may prevent the best candidate (a male) from being selected and if the best candidate is a woman bur selected from an all women short list, people will think she has only been selected because she is a woman and not on merit.

    In my experience in business, the last thing women managers wanted was any positive discrimination because it would demean them.

  • William Barter 26th Aug '14 - 3:46pm

    It is so important to have this debate: I completely agree with Alasdair and the top comment by Joshua.

  • Simon McGrath 26th Aug '14 - 3:49pm

    Presumably we will have to change the Party Constitution first ” Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation”

  • David Allen 26th Aug '14 - 4:15pm

    I’ll start by trotting out one more time what I think is a brilliant idea….

    Every constituency should henceforth double in size and be represented by two MPs elected in two simultaneous parallel elections – One exclusively for male candidates, the other exclusively for female candidates. Hey presto, sexual equality without the unfairness, gerrymandering, or positive discrimination which all-female shortlists must entail.

    STV etc versions of this principle, also feasible. Minor tidying concessions to allow sitting MPs temporary exemptions to the gender rules, delaying full equality for five or ten years, optional if needed to get this measure voted through. And you’re done.

    Well, I still think it’s a brilliant idea. But:

    As Stephen Harte says, our party has an emergency. All-female shortlists, now, might just be enough to persuade some of the public that we don’t treat women as a joke. Amongst other emergencies, this is one we must respond to.

  • lynne featherstone 26th Aug '14 - 4:26pm

    I have always supported some form of mechanism (all-women shortlists are but one example) to enable more equal outcomes. The Party always voted against. Articles like this used to bring a torrent of abuse about how illiberal it would be to do anything other then mentor and train. Maybe at last change is in the air! With the continuing lack of women at MP level in our Party perhaps we have reached a point where members will be more willing to consider a mechanism. Too late for 2015 – but hopefully thereafter.

  • I do wonder how many women actually *want* to be MPs. I wonder if its a career that tends to be more interesting to men, in the same way that there are more female translators or more male computer programmers . I’m all for breaking down the white, male, middle class norm of politics but perhaps the bigger problem is politics is simply not an attractive career option to women and that’s what we need to address. Why this is the case is another question…

  • Paul Halliday 26th Aug '14 - 6:20pm

    I have always struggled with the concept of positive discrmination, as it seems to me still to be discrimination. I’ll admit though that it’s easy for me to say that as a white male.

    A look at target seats, and seats where MP’s are stepping down seems to show a good take up of women as candidates. This was the case last time and we were unlucky with some of the seats we lost that would have improved our standing. I wonder if the problem goes deaper though and that we should be looking at the number of women active at local party level. As I look around the country that seems to be an issue.

  • All women shortlist’s is discrimination it’s as simple as that.

  • If only those who get so worked up about explicit positive discrimination got equally worked up about implicit negative discrimination, it might not be necessary to even think about having all-women shortlists.

  • Joshua Dixon 26th Aug '14 - 8:55pm

    I am very much encouraged by Lynne Featherstone’s comment. I feel a change is coming!

    I think on the issue of “we need more training” for women, I feel this is a problematic approach. Yes, training is helpful and is to all PPCs/Candidates, but to suggest that the only barrier to women is that they are simply not as qualified/ready as men and need to be “trained” to get to their standards is both insulting and patronising to the incredible women I see work tirelessly in this party. Lets be bold. Lets smash the barriers!

  • A Social Liberal 26th Aug '14 - 11:38pm

    If we are committed to all women shortlists then why not have women PPCs in each constituency? Crazy, I agree – but only as crazy as all women shortlists.

    I am against pro discrimination whatever the minority – even the one with which I associate my self with (my post where I suggested all disabled shortlists was tongue in cheek). Thank you Colin Green – I will use your arguments in the future.

  • I strongly disagree with AWSes. Yes, we need more female candidates, but it wasn’t from lack of trying that in 2010 we only elected seven of them; after all, half of the candidates in target seats were women.

    AWSes haven’t really done so well for Labour either. Them standing 30% women in 2010 was impressive, but in open selections, they selected a lower proportion of MPs than the Tories (all three parties around 21%). The use of AWSes has also led to a sexist culture in Labour selection bodies where women who go for open selections rarely win because women are expected to only go for AWS seats (look at the Rotherham by-election selection, for example). I don’t want that to happen to our party.

  • Joshua Dixon 27th Aug '14 - 10:02am

    I’m intrigued by Sarah’s comments. Is it not the case that the sexist culture already exists? AWS isn’t a mechanism to combat sexism, combating sexism should be something we try to do anyway. Are there are other alternatives we can maybe take down the positive-discrimination route?

  • Gwyn WILLIAMS 27th Aug '14 - 12:15pm

    The other side of the selection of women candidates is the retention of women MPs. The Lib Dems and predecessor parties have had at least one woman MP standing in every General Election since 1983 . However we lost one female MP in every General Election until 2010, when we lost three. If we want to increase the number of women MPs we have to answer this problem of retention which is far harder than increasing the number of women candidates.

  • Gwyne Williams: Thank you for bringing the discussion back to earth. Whoever the candidates are they have to be elected. Sarah Noble makes the important point that half the target seats were represented by women. If so this is impressive, but we cannot escape the fact that they did not gain enough votes. We have to face the question whether the electorate has a bias against female candidates.

    In a difficult election in 2015, several female MPs re-elections will be under threat. The first priority therefore has to be to put in maximum effort to retain those we already have. Jo Swinson and Jenny Willott for example are young MPs whose loss would be a severe setback at a time when their presence is needed in a rebuilding Party.

    This discussion is predicated on an implicit assumption of gained seats, however the current indicators are that we should be thinking more in terms of seats we can retain.

  • Julian Tisi 27th Aug '14 - 2:06pm

    I’m genuinely torn on this. On the one hand, like Stephen Harte above I accept the reasons to oppose all women short lists but on the other hand we are in an emergency situation where we simply don’t have enough women in Parliament and on balance if AWS would help I’d be on balance in favour, until numbers were far more balanced.

    But I think there’s an elephant in the room. It was the electoral system that delivered us so few women in 2010, not any lack of AWS. As Stephen Howse points out, unlike Labour and the Tories, we do not have the luxury of 150 safe seats to parachute women into to give our numbers a better balance. At the last election (and I trust in 2015) a good many of our top target but not held seats were contested by women. With the lone exception of Tessa in Wells they all lost. Not their fault but the reality of the electoral system.

    So what do we do? Continue to argue for a change in the electoral system, certainly. But in addition to that, what?

    One option would be to introduce AWS in seats with sitting Lib Dem MPs who weren’t otherwise planning to retire. But the likely outcome – particularly in 2015 – would be we lose the seat altogether. A better option is to ensure that a good majority of held and MP retiring seats are contested by women. This appears to be happening, even without AWS.

  • Ruth Bright 27th Aug '14 - 2:41pm

    Martin – I’d be amazed if there is any electoral bias against women. In my eight years as a councillor and five years as a PPC I cannot remember a single sexist remark from a voter. The sexism in political parties (Labour and Conservative but chiefly my own) was another matter!

    Why not pay more attention to the retention of female PPCs? I was one of four female PPCs who stood down in quick succession (one it now appears for the reason Mary Reid mentions). Had anyone from Cowley Street (as it then was) shown the remotest interest in why I stood down they might have discovered that I would have gladly stayed had there been clear support for me taking maternity leave. The upshot was that they went ahead to re-select with an all male shortlist!

  • paul barker 27th Aug '14 - 2:57pm

    Just wanted to say I agree & to point out that All Men Shortlists are still happening, my own Constituency being an example.

  • @Martin @Ruth Bright
    When this last came up a few months back, I did some very rough analysis of the last election results and I found that the proportion of female candidates was almost exactly the same as the proportion of female elected MPs. So voters seem to be perfectly prepared to vote for women when they are given the opportunity to do so.

    I agree with those who are torn on this, since I don’t think there is anybody who likes the idea of AWS in principle. But to me it’s a simple case of pragmatism. AWS works. Nothing else, sadly, has been shown to work. Until somebody comes up with something else that does work, we have a choice between letting the current under-representation of women continue, or putting up with a little positive discrimination for a while in the hope that by increasing the visibility of women in Parliament, the culture will change sufficiently so that it isn’t needed any more. To me the second option is clearly the least bad one.

  • Cara Jenkinson 27th Aug '14 - 4:36pm

    It’s interesting that only 4 out of the 30 comments so far have been made by women! I have just been approved as a PPC and I do think it’s embarrassing that for a party whose core value is equality we have so few women MPs. There is no doubt that compared to other parties with many safe seats Lib Dem candidates have to work very hard to win. One of the main challenges for women candidates is squaring this with family/caring responsibilities as the reality is that we still do most of that. I think this is where the mentoring and training comes in ; understanding how other women have balanced their commitments, learning how to build a strong team so that you can share the load. But my view is that the time is right for AWS – as the current situation damages our credibility

  • I am strongly opposed to AWS in principle, as I believe they are discriminatory to men and patronising to women.

    But I do agree that we need change …
    But how will AWS help? We can’t just parachute people in, they have to get elected. We have many women standing already in target seats for 2015, and in seats where the MP is stepping down. But they won’t get elected. The problem is not that we aren’t selecting women, but rather that we aren’t getting women (or for that matter new men) elected.

    Anyway, why are women so special? All gay short list? All black? All disabled?
    Of course the very idea is ridiculous. But why is it ridiculous for these minorities but not for women?

  • @Lester Holloway – “We don’t have any MPs from an ethnic minority…”

    There is nothing stopping women from ethnic minorities standing for selection… Perhaps EMLDs need to look at the participation of women in their organisation to see if it properly represents their community and encourages participation from all…

  • Rabi Martins 28th Aug '14 - 12:26pm

    Good article – and points well made Positive Action to fill the gaps in representation is a must We have tried the “they will get there on their own merit ” philosophy for more than a decade It has made little impact Lib Dems are still the THIRD Party when it comes to diversity and representation in Parliamnt As Lestor Holloway points out above – we have NO BME MPs
    So how about an ALL BME Women shortlist – Now that really would be radical and send a strong message across the Party !

  • Dave Leicester 31st Aug '14 - 9:39pm

    I know I am a few days behind having just caught up with this but I really do not believe that AWS’s are being looked at as a positive move.

    As previously been asked, do we look at having all BME women shortlists? 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 MP’s selected, where would the next move take us, legislating that a percentage of the electorate have to vote for a woman?

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