The Liberal Democrats have a diversity problem

liberalyouth2015I will say it again: the Liberal Democrats have a diversity problem. We are “too male and too pale” – and too straight, and too able-bodied. But All-Women Shortlists are not the only solution to this, and this is why Liberal Youth Youth (backed by our own policy, as passed at our Youth Conference) are proposing an amendment against them. We are under no illusions about the state of our party. Like those that proposed the motion in the first place, we want to be better.

However, we believe that All-Women Shortlists do not tackle the root of our diversity problem. They throw all our energy at papering over the cracks, without pausing to wonder why women aren’t putting themselves forward. We, as a party, are full of absolutely incredible women.  Are we seriously suggesting that the only reason we don’t have 650 female Parliamentary Candidates is because they won’t compete with men for a selection, or that our party is so unbearably sexist that they’ll only vote for a woman if they’re given no other choice?

In addition to this, All-Women Shortlists completely ignores intersectionality. We are fully aware that only All-Women Shortlists and All-Disabled Shortlists are allowed due to the equality act. But the diversity problems in our party aren’t just because our MPs all use the same pronoun. Without confronting the reasons that underrepresented people aren’t standing, All-Women Shortlists is only going to benefit white, middle class, heterosexual women – so, the same women that are already thinking about running for election. There is no way that a BAME man doesn’t face some of the same barriers that women do, and different ones altogether, and our party’s record on race is dire.

We want to extend and build on the leadership programme. This encouraged a wide variety of diverse candidates – but it also supported them. One of the reasons women in particular don’t run for elected office is because of a lack of confidence; flinging them into the deep end is hardly going to encourage them to consider running! We believe that, had the 2015 election not been so awful for us, the leadership programme would have gone some way to helping with our diversity problem.

We want to encourage local parties to reserve spaces on their selections for members of all underrepresented groups, not just women. As this is not a specific shortlist, this is not against the Equality Act, and we believe it will encourage parties to reach out to communities for a diverse range of candidates of all underrepresented groups.

We are throwing our weight behind unconscious bias training, as suggested in the General Election review. Not every diverse candidate meets with outright bigotry; it’s more likely to be a small drip drip of problems. We all have biases, and we all need to change our ways. Making our party open to its mistakes can only be a good thing, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us.

We want to tackle our diversity problem at its roots. We want the party to look at why people from underrepresented groups are not putting themselves forward. We want to challenge ourselves to be better. This will not be easy, but if we wanted easy, we wouldn’t be Liberal Democrats.


* Jezz Palmer is a Lib Dem member and activist from Gloucester, and former recipient of the Liberal Hero award.

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  • David Evershed 10th Mar '16 - 11:53am

    Well said Jez.

    I just question your assertion that local members on selection committes have an unconcious bias against women or other underrepresented groups.

    From the articles published on Lib Dem Voice in favour of banning men from selection, the evidence is that there is a bias against white males.

  • Love you *hug*

  • Charlie Kingsbury 10th Mar '16 - 12:15pm

    Absolutely killer arguments detailing the logic behind LY’s position, Jezz! Thank you so much for writing this.

  • From the Northern Echo:

    “For every £1 spent on improvements to roads, railways, flood defences and high speed broadband in the North-East, £25 is ploughed into London, a new IPPR North report shows.

    London gets ten times the amount spent in Yorkshire, and more than all of the other English regions combined.”

    (I don’t want to delay my post by providing a link but the story will show up in google).

    Given the above, a party that, for example, would be happy for a London-based woman to take over Sheffield Hallam but not a Yorkshireman is too out of touch with the real problems of the country to be relevant anymore.

  • David Allen 10th Mar '16 - 1:01pm

    Well said!

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 10th Mar '16 - 2:27pm

    Jezz, you and I are pretty close in what we think about the culture in the party that is so hostile to so many from under-represented groups. I absolutely agree on intersectionality, too. I’m really pleased that the Women 50/50 campaign in Scotland has intersectionality at its heart.

    Unconscious bias training is being rolled out and must go out further. The GE Review recommended the continuation of the Leadership Programme so that’s in the pipeline too. I think it’s essential to have fix the party rather than fix the women/under-represented groups solutions – to be honest, there is enough conscious bias around, too. The changes in culture won’t happen overnight so I don’t think we can wait till it does before we start selecting a diverse range of candidates without any sort of intervention. In fact, taking temporary measures to ensure that diversity will also help the cultural change. I accept that the Labour Party, despite AWS, is still a pretty toxically sexist place to be, but the Labour women have come in and changed the political agenda. Who talked about childcare 20 years ago? Women in politics. Who talks about childcare now? It’s mainstream – all politicians know how important it is.

    Where we disagree is on the question of All Women Shortlists. I actually think that they are necessary because the other stuff on its own doesn’t work. The LY amendment does not guarantee selections of candidates from any under-represented groups and therefore weakens the motion. By combining an all women shortlist with the ability to reserve places for other under-represented groups, we will have a diverse range of candidates.

    The studies that have been done on this show that it’s not just white, middle class women who benefit from AWS. That might have been true in the early days, but it certainly isn’t now. BAME candidates are now more likely to be selected in AWS than open seats.

    Have a look at this study that busts some of the myths.

    I’m not supporting this motion because I want just to see more women MPs. I want to see more black, asian, lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, disabled people representing us in Parliament. Our whole organisation, our policy, or reaction to events will be so much better as a result. I really think that if the AWS bit comes out, it will rip the guts out of it and in 15 years’ time, we’ll be having the same debate all over again.

    That’s been my experience over the 33 years I have been involved in politics. I often wonder what would have happened if we had had AWS for the 97 election just like Labour. We more than doubled our number of MPs but we only elected one more woman. 41-3 is pretty grim. We should have elected at least 10 women then, but lost that opportunity. I wonder where we would be now if we had done that. I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have been with 8 white straight blokes.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th Mar '16 - 3:00pm


    I like the look of this motion , would be inclined to support it if I were able to get to the conference , but cannot.A lot of thought has gone into it.Congratulations to you and your colleagues in Liberal Youth

    One thing, the link motion transcript is written as 2015, expect you mean 2020, re candidates .

  • I am really pleased to see this article expressed by Liberal Youth member. As I have commented elsewhere, the priority for the party needs to be to reach out to and give a voice to younger voters. I believe that the younger generation of voters are very poorly represented in democracy and in the wider media; they are getting a very raw deal, with the possibility of a Brexit making their situation much worse.

    I would really hope that the leadership programme can support voices such as Jezz’s and promote their exposure and prominence as representative Liberal Democrat voices in the wider media.

  • Jayne Mansfield 10th Mar '16 - 3:48pm

    @ Jezz,
    Clearly this subject arouses strong passions, but as an outsider, I have a query. Why when mentioning the barriers and the way power structures intersect , do you move the discussion to the barriers facing disabled men?

    I am extremely sympathetic to the discrimination suffered by disabled men, but a disabled woman faces multiple forms of discrimination, including one of the most powerful structural forms of discrimination worldwide, that of gender discrimination.

    I have a practical objection to ‘whataboutery’ of any type, in that it usually leads to no change whatever, just more of the status quo.

    @ Richard S,
    I had no idea that Nick Clegg was a Yorkshireman.

  • @Jayne He’s not, he doesn’t live there and the same goes for plenty of the MPs representing northern seats, hence the problems we have.

    So when he retires does an all-woman shortlist make most sense or an all-Yorkshire shortlist?

  • Jayne Mansfield 10th Mar '16 - 4:18pm

    @ Richard S,
    I was being wicked , Richard.

    I just wondered why it is an issue that a metropolitan woman might become the next MP for Sheffield Hallam when it wasn’t , as far as I know, an issue when a metropolitan man became one.

  • Liberal Neil 10th Mar '16 - 5:19pm

    Hi @Jezz – great article – and I fully support the range of proposals for things the party needs to do to improve diversity across the board.

    Where I disagree with is when you assert: “They throw all our energy at papering over the cracks, without pausing to wonder why women aren’t putting themselves forward. ”

    It simply isn’t the case that the thinking behind the motion is that it will solve the problem and that we won’t need to do anything else. The proposals around the selection rules are very much one part of a much wider strategy. Some of the specific proposals in the Liberal Youth amendment are already happening.

    For me it’s not an either/or. We need the proposals in the motion, plus the ideas in the amendment and a load of other things as well.

  • Tony Dawson 10th Mar '16 - 5:28pm

    ,i>”Are we seriously suggesting that….female Parliamentary Candidates is because they won’t compete with men for a selection”

    The evidence appears to support this postulate to a reasonable extent or, to be more exact, that women presently do not put themselves forward as ‘proper’ candidates to any where near the same extent as do men.

    I am always amused by those who decry this assertion as ‘shocking’ as though they believe it is not a particularly sensible thing for any human being to do to eschew parliamentary candidacy in a third (now fourth!) party and a FPTP voting system. It is unfortunate that, despite all sorts of societal pressures, women in the UK, especially those with young children, are still generally more sensible and considerate to their families than are men but I hold it to be true.

    “…., or that our party is so unbearably sexist that they’ll only vote for a woman if they’re given no other choice?”

    The evidence of the past general election’s selections is completely against this suggestion. The reasons for every single one of the present Lib Dem MPs holding their seats have nothing at all to do with their gender. The reason why the next most successful candidates (including MPs) lost their seats is nothing to do with gender either.

  • Tony Dawson 10th Mar '16 - 5:30pm

    @Jayne Mansfield:

    “I just wondered why it is an issue that a metropolitan woman might become the next MP for Sheffield Hallam when it wasn’t , as far as I know, an issue when a metropolitan man became one.”

    Of course it WAS an issue. A serious issue. But obviously not a big enough issue for enough people.

  • Tony Dawson 10th Mar '16 - 5:34pm

    Caron, are you REALLY serious about suggesting that this study has any relevance whatsoever to the situation of parliamentary candidates in a poorly-performing ex-third, now fourth party with a FPTP situation? It is still three weeks till April 1.

  • I’m sorry to be slow on the uptake but please could someone explain to me in words of one syllable why we can’t have AWS *and* unconscious bias training *and* an anti-sexism culture *and* a raft of other measures? Culture change does not happen on its own. Seriously why didn’t LY suggest the addition of the trainibg and other measures in addition rather than instead of AWS?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 10th Mar '16 - 6:24pm

    Tony, we will be fighting at least 49 seats that we held until May last year. We should be aiming to stand candidates from under-represented groups in as many of them as possible.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 10th Mar '16 - 7:08pm

    It seems sad that in the many posts and comments, very little has been said about the lack of MPs with disabilities. I do not know of ANY Lib Dem MP who has had a serious disability. Other parties are not doing much better, but there have been a few MPs, such as Jack Ashley and David Blunket, who have demonstrated that a serious disability need not in any way prevent someone from from being a highly successful member of Parliament. Yet disabled people continue to be the most seriously under-represented group. We need to look at whether disabled people are encountering actual discrimination in the selection process, or whether disabled people are not putting themselves forward as candidates, believing they would have no chance of being selected.

  • Ian Swales, former Lib Dem MP for Redcar (brought up by a single parent on a northern council estate – aka pale, male, stale) :
    “There’s two things you see going on, the cult of youth and also the sort of political correctness.
    “I think to be honest one of the mistakes all the parties make is that the imbalances are not to do with the usual equality issues, they’re actually more to do with what kind of experiences have people got? What kind of backgrounds do we have here?
    “For example only 10 per cent of MPs have any background at all in engineering or science. I think that causes problems. There are very few people who have actually run anything.
    “Those imbalances are far more important than do we have the right quota of a particular gender.

    Daily Telegraph 06 Feb 2015

  • I’ve always voted for the best candidate for any position. I particularly remember Viv Rayner who we had as PPC for Westbury in 1992. Would have made a brilliant MP. But if we were told we could only select a female candidate, that would be contrary to my support for equality and the best person being selected. I contend that the best person does get the job, regardless of their sex. I could not support positive discrimination.

  • Well said!

    I can’t believe a, so called, Liberal Democrat party is condoning discrimination. It is neither liberal, nor democratic.

    We have a leader pushing this outrageous motion, which basically says that women cannot succeed unless men are banned. What an insult. Do women in the party really feel that way? If they do, then they have no business being candidates in the first place.

    The problem lies in recruitment and training. the party is trying to treat a symptom and not the cause. It’s a sticking plaster, and a damn right offensive one at that.

    It’s not insulting to just women though – BAME and disabled shortlists? Smacks of tokenism! But these are also just as discriminatory. When you are at conference look around the hall. How many BAME and Disabled members do you see? Far and few between – where does the party expect to find people for these shortlists?

    They should be concentrating on recruitment and training, not discrimination.

    If the party votes to support this on Sunday I will be walking out – just watch me! And I’m not the only one. So there’s one less future female candidate for them! How ironic!

  • Peter Watson 11th Mar '16 - 10:14am

    @Tracy “We have a leader pushing this outrageous motion, which basically says that women cannot succeed unless men are banned. What an insult.”
    Or possibly worse than that, you have a white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied leader implying that the only way for people who aren’t like that to get on in the Lib Dems is with an all-something shortlist.

  • @Peter. Indeed.

    This motion is purely a vehicle to get AWS through. Everything else in it is just tokenism. It’s certain people pushing their own agenda again.

  • I challenged Tim on this issue, with my own views and a link to this page. No defense of his blind support for this motion, just this:

    “I’ve read the piece. We are going to have to agree to disagree on this.”

  • I think what the writer is saying is worthy …. BUT ……… what i do resent is the assertion that somebody like me, white, male, older, straight, able bodied cannot within my thinking reprersent ALL people. Fot the last two General Elections i campaigned tirelessly for Lynne Featherstone, i have many friends who are Gay, Bi, from all races, religions, and not able bodied. I hold very strong views on womens issues, FGM, equality etc.
    The Haringey Lib Dem Party is an object lesson on NOT being side tracked by political correctness consisting of all of the above DIFFERENT people, all of whom do their own thing on MERIT

  • Since writing my comments above, i have read the excellent E-mail ‘letter of the Lords’ that i receive ever week ( a very good read! ) every week it shows the many. many Lib Dem women Peers who speak on our behalf, read it!!

  • Simon Banks 16th Mar '16 - 9:07am

    Jezz has some good points here, but they don’t really make a case against the motion which was passed at York and which I supported, with uncertainty and reluctance voting against the amendment.

    Positive discrimination should be a last resort when all else has failed. The question for me was whether that was the case here.

    The motion’s proposals on AWS were pretty mild – in all likelihood two parliamentary seats currently occupied by male Liberal Democrats – if they decide to stand down – and one seat per region. There were lots of points in it about addressing inequality at other levels. For me the weakness was that it said hardly anything about membership recruitment. We can hardly get many more BAME candidates if we have very few BAME members, despite doing relatively well among some groups of BAME voters; and our membership surge after the general election was disproportionately male and white.

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