The counter bias proposed in the All Women Shortlist motion will not in itself be enough to achieve balance

Spring Conference Agenda 2016The membership of the Liberal Democrats is almost 50% male and 50% female (I say almost because we have a number of members who are non-binary (they do not define as male or female) and I will say up front that when I refer to “all women shortlists” this does not mean I am excluding these non-binary candidates, I want and would strongly encourage them to seek selection.

The Liberal Democrats also instinctively seek parity between men and women (it is noticeable that not one man felt he could do a better job than the excellent women candidates who stood for election as Party President in 2014.  This was not out of some arranged plot visited upon us from Lib Dem HQ, it was simply a conclusion that we all reached of our own volition.

Why then can we not achieve gender balance in our parliamentary candidates by the same gut instinct?  Well actually we want to but there is disagreement as to how we go about it.

For the last 29 years we have been working on the principle that if we can just get enough good women candidates on the approved list then in our meritocratic party we will achieve parity without any difficulty.  This approach has failed, though not as popular myth would have it because of the massive seat losses in 2015 because as Mark Pack points out elsewhere at no number of seats held do men not considerably outnumber women.

Institutional bias is not a conscious bias, it is simply a bias built into a society in favour of one group against another.  In the Liberal Democrats there is an institutional bias in favour of wealthy white middle class male candidates.  It is not how we think or how we want to be but it exists in the mechanisms we employ to recruit, approve and select our candidates.

When the level of preferential training and recruitment that we have provided have failed after 29 years to even dent that institutional bias we need to take affirmative action to tackle it.

The biggest and clearest manifestation of that bias is in the balance between men and women candidates, but the reality is that there is an equally strong bias against black and ethnic minority candidates, candidates living with disabilities, and most significantly working class candidates.

The motion proposed to spring conference creates a mechanism for us to be able to address that bias by deciding that we can select seats from a pool of candidates disadvantaged by that bias, but by itself it really is a weak measure.

It will not work unless we pair seats of similar winnability (new word there) and record how the initiative is progressing at each stage so that we can ensure that our candidates in each tranche of seats reflects the nation we seek to represent.

* Chair of Manchester Gorton Liberal Democrats, a member of the NW Regional Executive and the English Council and Vice President of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Feb '16 - 4:01pm

    My word, this is what I have been yearning for !

  • I don’t think we have factored in the bias amongst the voters, which tends to undermine the campaigns of female, BAME and disabled candidates. So even if we put up 50% women in our target seats it is unlikely that 50% of those elected will be women – and the same is true, proportionally, for the other characteristics.

    I think we need to aim to have, say, 60% women in target seats in order to counter the prejudice in the electorate.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Feb '16 - 5:17pm

    If we aim to have 60% of women in target seats then what about women who prefer only working part-time? We can’t iron out the wishes of stay-at-home mothers and force equality of outcome regardless.

    Some will say “job-shares are the future”, but I don’t want part-timers running everything. What about ministers? Can’t be an MP, a minister and have a jobshare all at once (although I have previously proposed splitting the roles of MPs and ministers entirely via a senate).

    The question needs to be asked: how much of gender-roles are down to oppression and how much is down to choice?

  • Yet another article talking up this proposal, which will do nothing to improve Liberal Democracy except waste yet more time on mindless bureaucracy when we need to focus on saving ourselves. Better deckchairs for women and any other disadvantaged groups on a sinking ship will get us nowhere. When will some die-hards learn that the most underrepresented group in parliament is not women, not LGBT, not disabled but is, Lib Dems?

    We spent five years following a leader who led our movement to the brink of oblivion. Now most of those on LDV want to finish the job by focussing on their personal hobby-horse rather than on reinforcing the value of Liberal Democracy in the minds of the people of this country.

    To quote many supermarkets “When it’s gone it’s gone,” and in 2020 all eight may well be gone if this mass insanity continues.

  • Mary: we certainly shouldn’t be blind to the danger you pose. The good news on the other side of the balance is that the evidence (including peer-reviewed research) is that having a more diverse sets of candidates either helps or is neutral when it comes to quality of candidates and winning votes. See and

  • Daisy Cooper 18th Feb '16 - 7:12pm

    Thanks for the piece Iain. It’s such a relief that someone has put this in writing! There are actually quite a number of members who have told me that the “Electing diverse MPs” motion doesn’t go far enough for them in lots of different ways and your suggestion certainly makes the limited use of AWS which is being suggested look timid! Nonetheless I hope you’ll consider supporting the motion, even if it doesn’t go far enough for you. It’s great to see some innovative thinking on this issue – thanks again for the piece.

  • The problem with AWS, is that the advocates [of AWS ], and their presumption is that their AWS forced, chosen woman candidate will gel with the electorate in her constituency, and thus get the necessary votes ? That simply does not happen in the real world, and there is a myriad of evidence of that failure in thinking. What AWS aficionados fail to grasp is that, a genuine candidate trumps any and all,.. parachuted in [diversity], candidates.
    You ask for proof ? :
    Mhairi Black is …[a woman],..[Scottish],.. .[very young],.. [committed to her community],.. [an astoundingly driven individual ],… [ a vocal politician par excellence ]… [ and has a major future ahead of her ]. Seriously,.. What’s not to admire about this exceptionally talented woman politician, who frankly didn’t need AWS ?
    Mhairi Black.. is a woman politician of supreme quality who will thrive and become very influential, as much as did,..Shirley Williams, Margaret Thatcher, Nicola Sturgeon,.. Barbara Castle,… These exceptional women had/have quality,.. and did not need AWS..because frankly, …they were just purely and simply first-rate. Moreover, these women politicians, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, that AWS is a sop, and merely a sad signal of a weak and political paucity in contemporary thinking.
    Voters want excellence, but AWS instead offers them a diminished choice, and a narrowing of option which by definition can only hint towards political mediocrity.? By all means throw as many women and BAME folk,.. at this situation as you wish,.. but never,. *ever* question the democratic truth that voters are entitled to go for *the best*, for their community irrespective of your preferred diversity ‘machinations’.
    And frankly,.. from a voter perspective,..I think *the best* advocate for their community, is both reasonable, and not a lot to ask ?

  • Simon McGrath 18th Feb '16 - 9:56pm

    Iain -can you give us the evidence the our current system discriminates in favour of men? How do you explain a majority of candidates where MPs were standing down being women if that is the case ?

  • Simon McGrath
    If the Lib Dems had retained all of their seats in 2015 then 82% of Lib Dem MP’s would be men. The number of female Lib Dem MP’s would have increased from 7 to 10. This would represent exactly zero progress in 10 years. The success of a small number of women in getting selected in a tiny number of seats is a statistical blip in a record that has been utterly woeful overall. I see absolutely no reason why without AWS the party won’t simply repeat history and predominantly select male candidates for the next 20-30 winnable seats.

  • Peter Watson 18th Feb '16 - 11:26pm

    When it comes to forcing a constituency to select a Lib Dem candidate from a shortlist based upon one particular criterion, e.g. gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, etc., who will choose the constituency and who will choose the criterion?

  • Perhaps this is something to argue about when you have a chance of winning any seats, but at the moment you are in danger of losing every elected official you have as soon as they come up for re-election. The polls show you at wipe out levels in Wales – where you are miles behind UKIP who are 4th – and it’s not much better in Scotland. What a great time to have a motion – just before all the may elections – that divides the party and will cause such bad feeling whether it’s passed or not.

  • Zoe O'connell 19th Feb '16 - 8:05am

    Joe – Clarification is being sought on the non-binary point.

    I’m not a lawyer and the question is being asked of people who are, but the way the law is written says essentially “you can do what you like when it comes to sex and short lists”. This hopefully means we could make AWS be UGS (Underrepresented Gender Shortlists) in practice.

  • Mary Reid 18th Feb ’16 – 4:52pm……………….I don’t think we have factored in the bias amongst the voters, which tends to undermine the campaigns of female, BAME and disabled candidates. So even if we put up 50% women in our target seats it is unlikely that 50% of those elected will be women – and the same is true, proportionally, for the other characteristics…………..I think we need to aim to have, say, 60% women in target seats in order to counter the prejudice in the electorate………………

    Why not 100%; just to be sure?
    Sadly, post 201, the ‘prejudice” appears to be against LibDem candidates no matter what their gender…

  • The indigo – not a single one of the women you mention came up as a young woman through the ranks of the Liberal Democrats or its forerunner parties.

    Simon – there is direct discrimination. There is no right to maternity leave for PPCs for a start. Indirect discrimination happens all the time. I remember one member in my seat who called me ambitious. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. Who ever heard of a male PPC being criticised for being ambitious!

  • Lester Holloway 19th Feb '16 - 12:56pm

    My personal view is that the motion as proposed will make no difference in elected BAME MPs, and needs an amendment to make it worthwhile on race. If unamended I personally cannot support something for one day’s positive news headlines followed by years of non-progress before the next time we go around this circle with a new motion.

  • Thanks Zoe.

    Changing the subject, there seem to be two goals here which are not precisely aligned.

    One is to be fair to every individual going forward. This would see equal numbers of male and female candidates being selected for winnable seats and winning seats in the future – excluding incumbents.

    The other is correcting historical injustices and achieving visible parity by seeking to balance incumbents with additional women candidates in winnable seats. (The extreme version of this would demand that half our incumbents stand down to make way, but this has not been proposed.)

    I support the former goal and not the latter. The latter smacks of substitutionary atonement – making up for unfairness shown towards one person with boon given to somebody else. The only exception would be for women who were cheated out of selection for winnable seats in previous years who shouldn’t count against the quota. But it would be difficult to arrive at a fair measure and process for that.

  • AndrewR

    “If the Lib Dems had retained all of their seats in 2015 then 82% of Lib Dem MP’s would be men”

    The great counter factual approach, well I would point out that this would be a matter of the fact that MPs weren’t being forced to stand down to free up places but I think I’ll try following your approach.

    1) If 100% of candidates selected for non=LibDem seats had been female there would still no female LibDem in the commons.

    2) If we take the selection rate for female candidates (55%) for the seats from which an MP was standing down, and apply it to any new seats gained next time. If we assume we won back all the seats lost in 2015, 46% would be female, and if three current MPs retire and the win were to be back to the 2005 level there would be parity!

    But we have to deal with reality we are not looking at 2005 or even 2010 levels, and what is winnable will change possibly with new seats coming in and old seats dropping out and with such a low % of female candidates coming forward the rate won’t be that good across all the seats. The point is that we can play silly games with the numbers and show things are fine or things are terrible but neither will get us very far.

    There are clearly problems; the current situation will be very damaging if allowed to continue. However any solution must target where the problem originates not some blunt “grand show piece” approach that is really just signalling and not likely to achieve much.

  • Ruth Bright

    “there is direct discrimination”

    I agree, which is why it seems odd that there hasn’t been a simple statement of what some of these barriers are and what is being changed as I wouldn’t have thought that these changes would not be controversial, just basic fixes. It seems odd that there has been little said about these specific issues that could just all be resolved together.

  • Iain, hurray for your bold and brave statement about institutional bias but that is not the only problem because of the existence of unconscious bias within the minds of all of those involved in the selection process. When people select someone for a job they are known to look for people who are like them or like a successful predecessor and the decision about this is made in a few seconds of instantaneous appraisal. This is why it is so necessary to act consciously to improve the lot of those in a minority in the party.

  • Ronald Murray 20th Feb '16 - 11:41am

    My first thought is here we go again strange side issues. The party is fighting for its life post general election. Thinking of my forty plus years of membership we often had women members who would have been excellent elected representatives who point blank refused to stand.

    Following the Independance Referendum here in Scotland we should be concentrating on our Federal Uk policies a real solution to better representation than the the little Englander policies of the Conservatives and UKIP. With English votes for English laws, hijacking Westminster as an English Parliament with control over the other three.

    Lets concentrate on shaking off the coalition and offer true freedom and liberty not concentrate on fringe issues. I was brought up to treat everyone equally regardless of sex, colour, religion, nationality and sexual orientation. So open selection lists are the best way forward. Lets face it many constituencies are lucky to get more than one application. We have the right policies for Britain lets win and stop Britain being the whingers of the Eurpean Union. What will it be the old legalise cannabis line.

    Lets get out and win.

  • Jonathan Hunt 21st Feb '16 - 11:13pm

    Diversity in electing MPs is not just about selecting women, as the WLD would have us believe in their 130-line motion that takes 1,400 turgid words to argue for all-women short-lists.

    With the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic population approaching one-seventh of the population, the real disgrace is that so few were selected to fight winnable seats, and are now to be denied all-BaME lists .

    Indeed, should the genderisters be more accurately be called WWLDs, as few of the 50 per cent picked to fight held and winnable target seats were non-white?

    If the party is ever to start winning ethnic minority votes, we must actually do something other than mumble the same old platitudes about the importance of black voters, etc, and then only allow all-white women shortlisting.

    The Equality Act,2010, would allow all-Black short-lists, if all its provisions were fully accepted and implemented. My own local party in Camberwell &Peckham had an all-Black short-list in 2010, and attracted its highest-ever vote.

  • Margaret While 10th Mar '16 - 4:50pm

    With a massively diminished number of MPs, we should be concentrating on getting the best people on the lists and considering the needs of the voters, rather than the needs of the Party for parity. Voters want to trust their representative to know their needs, to know their area and to work hard for them. Putting the right person in place has to be paramount, regardless of gender, to ensure that we are able to build on what we have.

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