What is at stake: A photo of a young boy and the US President

Obama hand

Clark Reynolds, 3 years old, greeted by President Obama, Feb 18 2016 at the White House. (Pete Souza/Washington Post)

We have been struggling with the representation issue for years. Our party leaders strongly believe in broadening the look and feel of our MPs. Our members instinctively seek parity between men, women and other backgrounds: a desire to open up opportunity should be in our blood. But we aren’t quite sure how to achieve that and so far, as Josh Dixon sets out, our success has not been much to write home about. The Elect Diverse MPs motion to be debated at Spring Conference gives us a critical chance to retake the initiative.

Today, we even have to accept that the Tories have stolen a march on us. Since 1997 only 11% of Liberal Democrat MPs have been female, versus 21% of current Tory MPs (Labour 43%, SNP 36%). And, while we have never elected an ethnic minority MP, the Tories now have 17 non-white MPs. Neither have we done enough to bring in white male MPs from less privileged backgrounds – those who might find it harder to get into politics due to lack of access to networks or friends already in there. So, during the York debate, we must focus on how to solve socio-economic barriers whatever the ethnicity.

A recent photo of a little boy looking up at Barack Obama brings home what is at stake. Role models are crucial, and without them we won’t even get to the starting blocks on improving representation. Henry Foulds, a prospective LD councillor, gives a moving account of the need for role models for young disabled people. I instinctively feel that this must be true for others, not least our female and LGBT+ people.

In York, we need to strike between a rock and a hard place. Any positive discrimination, even if limited, will feel bad. But we have looked too male, too pale and too privileged, for too many years – and to not take the initiative now would be so sad.

Indeed, Labour took initiative in 1997 and made history. It was the new look of their MPs that sticks in my mind, more than their victory. It felt like we had become a new country: 101 female Labour MPs elected, doubling the total number of women MPs from 60 to 120 in one fell swoop at the ballot box. It turns out they used all-women shortlists in 50% of their most winnable seats. They bit a tough bullet and, whatever our view on their policies, they changed the face of Westminster and gave young women people to look up to.

The York motion next month asks us to recommend a whole package of measures that will put us on the front foot in this fight. It feels good that the positive discrimination element is limited and less imposing than Labour’s approach. For example, all-women shortlists would be mandated in roughly a quarter of our ~40 most winnable seats (>25% vote share in 2015), leaving ~30 such seats open to all candidates.

And yet, any positive discrimination will feel tough. To ask a guy not to stand in his local party would be heart-wrenching, given he will have been giving all his energy to the cause. Such action can only be temporary, as the motion recommends. And it is critical that members whose opportunities are reduced by the measures are given support to stand in other areas – I hope we charge the PCA and the Candidate’s office with ensuring this.

But when we think about the opportunity – to bring through leaders who look like, and are able to inspire, all different types of people across the country – I really hope we seize the moment. We need to get our own house in order, and send a message to every family in the UK: that you can find a home in our party, one that breaks down barriers to enable you to be your best, and that we truly value our different backgrounds.

* Jonan Boto is a new Lib Dem member enjoying getting involved in campaigns and hoping to get involved as a PPC over the next couple of years. Motivated by helping people get a stake in the game, so that we can build and shape the UK’s future.

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18 Comments

  • Zack Polanski 24th Feb '16 - 10:39am

    Well said, that man.

  • David Faggiani 24th Feb '16 - 1:00pm

    Agreed. My local party is debating this issue (and other issues potentially arising) tonight at an Executive meeting, should be an interesting prequel to Spring Conference!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Feb '16 - 1:21pm

    Jonan
    With people with the intelligent,measured and heartfelt approach you express here, joining our party, making a difference is what you are doing whatever happens with the motions at conference !

    This is a subject that polarises.I am in the middle on the issue of structured positive discrimination.My own tendency is an inbuilt positive discrimination practised voluntarily , whenever we see candidates of obviously equal merit, whether generally in a professional situation or specifically in a political context.In our party it has traditionally been the women in it who are the most convincing arguing against All Women Shortlists.

    The motions at conference are moderate.Radicalism is needed , not on shortlists , but on creating, or at least encouraging , a culture ,that encourages and nurtures all , as individuals ,whatever their gender or ehnicity, orientation or disability, yet aware that all of these aspects, make up who we all are.

    We must not forget Barack Obama got there because he was and is someone so able and impressive, not because of mechanisms.And in a country more polarised on this , far more , than our own is.I genuinely believe the fight for representation is best served, too, by a fairer voting system.We should not give up on that either.

    I am not able to go to the Spring conference, but shall follow closely.You give us greater cause for a debate and outcome that unites.

  • Thank you guys. Very motivating to be involved and hear others’ thoughts. Lorenzo – I am with you that we need to build a culture with equal representation and opportunity (both in any party and in the UK as a whole). First step for me is to send a signal and get role models up there! Then we need to get on with the policy action that will open up opportunity in a more fundamental and long-term way.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Feb '16 - 11:48pm

    Jonan

    Thank you , yes I agree with you , we need role models and people to empathise with , remember, Jonan it is hard for any of us to get elected as Liberal Democrats, more than ever, but it is from now , and in that very situation , the attempt , and the journey is even more necessary.

    Keep at it , friend !

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Feb '16 - 12:27am

    Ironically, an All Women Shortlist would have blocked Obama from standing, so we need to be careful in this area and it is why I prefer diversity shortlists.

  • Ruth Bright 25th Feb '16 - 8:09am

    It is not true that we have never had a BAME MP elected.

  • Eddie AWS might have blocked Barack but it might also have given us Michelle as POTUS. And it might have given us Hilary instead of Bill. Who is to say either of these scenarios would have been better or worse?

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Feb '16 - 10:02am

    But Phyliss, there is also a fairness issue: ethnic minority men are discriminated against anyway and AWSs increase it at least in some areas (where they are implemented). This is why I prefer diversity shortlists with some conditions. There is an inherent danger and unfairness in saying we are just going to throw all the CVs away that are men.

    Some say we’ve been throwing women’s CVs in the bin for years, but this ensures many are going to get thrown into the bin due to no fault of their own and based on some idea that ethnic minority men can just be represented by white men or black women and it isn’t the discrimination that is most important but the “representation”.

    Why should white women be prioritised over ethnic minority men? The motion needs seriously amending and if not then defeated.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Feb '16 - 2:36pm

    Eddie
    Well said, I believe to not have, say a potential Maajid Nawaz victory ,to gain a slightly more likely, say Julia Goldsmith victory, makes no sense. I know whose presence in the house of commons would be more radical, if that is a priority. And I say that , liking them both.

    What does make sense is that without shortlists both these excellent candidates were selected by party members in very different areas, and what is noticeable is they both lost , more to do with our FPTP, electoral system I would say !

    However, as someone genuinely in favour of doing far more about diversity, I am open to ideas,but the notion of someone like Maajid not being able to be considered for an area is anathema to me.What is being proposed seems to make that a possibility.One of the aspects of the motion before spring conference is stating , when any of the current mps retire or stand down, only women should replace them.So a white middle class able bodied woman in the house of commons instead of a BAME candidate or , say ,a disabled white one, is apparently better?!

    Phyllis

    Is going with open selection, with an inbuilt lack of any prejudice that should be the hallmark of a Liberal Democrat , not proven to work in your analogy?Surely you do not think the election of the literally , “boy from nowhere,” Barack Obama, less radical a step than it shall be to elect the establisment politician , Hillary Clinton?!Again, I say that as someone strongly rooting for her rather than Sanders.Your analogy does not really work, re Michelle Obama, she did not stand !

    We need diversity.We must do more.Lets not say doing anything is better than doing nothing , if what we do throws out the baby with the bath water.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Feb '16 - 2:38pm

    P.S.
    apologies to Julia Goldsworthy , had moprhed her with Zac Goldsmith in my spelling above ! Perish that thought !

  • Eddie ” ethnic minority men are discriminated against anyway”

    How can you say that when Barack, a black man, beat Hilary Clinton, a white woman, to become the Democrat candidate and then the President? Why are Michelle and Hilary playing second fiddle to their menfolk?

  • Lorenzo ” Your analogy does not really work, re Michelle Obama, she did not stand !”

    Just as Hilary did not stand in the past but Bill did. Just as Yvette Cooper did not stand for Labour leader but Ed Balls did. Michelle seems a very capable and charismatic woman and I would not be surprised if we see her in politics in the future. But why is it that very ambitious and able women feel they have to give their menfolk the first crack at the top jobs?

  • Phyllis, with respect the electoral success of Obama doesn’t prove there is no discrimination against ethnic minority men, any more than the election of Margaret Thatcher proves that Britain was a sexism-free zone in 1979. It most definitely was not, and is still not, and probably never will be judging by the reaction in some quarters to the Lib Dems’ very modest diversity proposals.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Feb '16 - 6:14pm

    In 1997 Labour ” used all-women shortlists in 50% of their most winnable seats”. 1997 was a year in which Labour made so many gains that surprised even their then leader.
    According to an analysis in The Times of 25/2/2016 the effect of the upcoming boundary changes increases the Tory majority by 21 MPs. There may of course be other factors, as always, “Events dear boy, events.”

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Feb '16 - 2:01pm

    Well said Paul!

    I get perplexed when I see negativity read into supportiveness . And is it not possible that the men above, the politicians, were, and some of them still are , even more in to party politics than their wives?

    One thing that gets overlooked in the equality debate is this, as men and women are equal , yes ,does it mean they are the same , always ? Is it possible also, that , not just the lack of visible women in party politics , puts women off it as a profession?Is it , like sport, which it too often degenerates into for my liking ,too much oriented to overtly competitive game playing ?

    I have enthusiasm for more of everything that is right and good , in politics , party or otherwise , as in life itself .Yet I have no problem with more women being drawn to teaching.I relate to them , as I have taught professionally.Yes , we need more men there, too.And of course representation is different. Must we turn this into a rant against men, or against supportive partners male or female ?!

    And is it not possible to just be positive when a little boy looks up to a good man?!

  • Paul Walter

    I’m sure Michelle will chip in next time she visits LDV but you are rather missing the point, which was that AWS might give women the opportunities to go into politics which they might not have have otherwise. Many very capable women go into other professions.

    As for Messrs Thatcher and Castle, I’d need a ouija board to contact them. I suggest you don’t call Angela’s husband “Mr Merkel”

    http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-sauer-idUSBRE84F07420120516

    http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-sauer-idUSBRE84F07420120516

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