What the 2015 Sex and Power report has to say about the Liberal Democrats

The 2015 Sex and Power report published by the Counting Women In coalition came out this week. It looks in detail at the number of women candidates put forward by each party and the number of MPs elected.

It’s not fun to read if you’re a Liberal Democrat for obvious reasons. It’s not just that we have an all white middle aged male party in the Commons, it’s that we’re not making nearly enough progress to redress the imbalance. The proportion of women in our target seats should be much higher than 50/50 if we are serious about improving gender balance.

What’s particularly galling is a graph that shows that our number of women MPs elected peaked in 1987 and we’ve been going yo-yoing ever since at a much lower level.

Lib Dem graph from Sex and Power Report 2015

This is what the report had to say about us:

2015 was not a good election for Liberal Democrat women; all those who stood lost, including all the incumbent women MPs. Thus the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Group in the House of Commons now has no women members.

The Liberal Democrats fielded a total of 630 candidates in England, Scotland and Wales, of whom 166 (26.3 percent) were women. The Party does not run candidates in Northern Ireland. Following convention, it also did not contest the Speaker’s seat, and there was no Liberal Democrat candidate in Gower.

The Liberal Democrats do not use any form of positive action for their Westminster parliamentary selections, and have, throughout their history, had low levels of women MPs. In 1987, prior to the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats, the two parties had five women MPs between them; in 1992 the new Party had just 2 women (out of a total of 20 MPs). The record high of 16 percent in 2005 represents 10 women (out of 62 MPs).

Following the fall in 2010 to 7 women, the Liberal Democrats took steps to encourage the selection of more women candidates, but did not revoke the 2001 conference decision not to use positive action in the form of AWS. A Leadership Academy was established to try to increase and support the numbers of women coming forwards, and there was indeed the biggest increase in the percentage of women candidates since 1992. However, none of the seven Liberal Democrat women MPs elected in 2010 had a majority of more than 7,000, and in an election in which even relatively large Liberal Democrat majorities were vulnerable – Vince Cable, for instance, lost a majority of over 12,000 in Twickenham – they were not able to survive. As a result, for the first time since 1983 there are no Liberal or Liberal Democrat women in the House of Commons.

Although the Party is often viewed as being anti-positive action per se, this is not entirely the case. Zipping systems44 are used for European and devolved elections, where the electoral systems make taking such action easier and a little less contentious.

However, even prior to the 2010 election the Liberal Democrats had indicated, in evidence to the Speaker’s Conference, that they could reconsider their opposition to positive action, but although the debate continued during the course of the Parliament no conclusion was reached. The recently elected new Liberal Democrat leader has already indicated that he favours AWS and zipping mechanisms.

The Liberal Democrats did replace retiring MPs with higher numbers of female candidates. 11 of the 56 Liberal Democrat MPs chose to stand down at the 2015 election – 9 men and 2 women. They were replaced as candidates by 5 men and 6 women. In the one seat with a majority of over 10,000 the replacement candidate was male, but men and women were pretty evenly distributed through the list. None of the 11 replacement candidates were elected.

In the 27 ‘target’ seats in which the Liberal Democrats needed a three percent swing or less to win, the party fielded 11 women and 16 men. None were elected.

We are going to have to seriously up our game if we don’t want next year’s report to be just as grim reading. The members in North East Scotland spectacularly failed to reselect our outstanding Justice Spokesperson Alison McInnes at the top of the list and, given our current poll ratings, it would be a challenge to elect two in that region. The party’s abysmal record on gender balance has prompted Scottish Leader Willie Rennie to call for specific measures, including zipping and all women shortlists and he’ll take the proposals developed by his working group to Spring Conference next year. That doesn’t help us for this coming election, though.

We know that radical improvements in gender balance can be made, and quickly. Labour’s all women shortlists transformed their parliamentary party and changed the political agenda up to a point. It was this week’s announcement from the SNP of their candidate lists that show that it can be done. They have selected 42% female candidates in constituencies and 45% on the list. Of the top 4 places in the 8 regions, more than half, 17 of the 32, are women. That’s a massive improvement from 2011 when just over a quarter of their candidates were women. If they can do it, with the right political will, so can we. The thing is, I’m not sure the party actually feels enough shame for the predicament in which we find ourselves.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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38 Comments

  • “we have an all white middle aged male party in the Commons”

    The observation about gender and ethnicity is fine but peoepl need to stop complaining about MPs being middle aged. Most voters don’t want an 18 year old (or if the franchise is extended to them) with very little life experience, occasionally a young candidate will shine (Kennedy and Swinson) so will be elected but most of the time voters want to know that their MP has a decent amount of experience and will respond accordingly.

    Failings on the other two fronts are clear for all to see, but leave the age issue.

  • * “or if the franchise is extended to them”

    should read:

    “or 16, if the franchise is extended to them”

  • I (and many other lib dem women) am massively against AWS – they do NOT solve any of the problems, they merely mask them, and they introduce new problems. Sexism is not solved by covering it up with positive discrimination, it is made worse.

    Yes the sex and power report is grim reading, but that’s because sexism is grim. Hiding it away and pretending we’ve solved it by using AWS does is like putting makeup on a festering sore – it might look better, for a while, but you’re doing nothing to cure the underlying problem.

  • Simon McGrath 16th Oct '15 - 11:12am

    I am not clear why you say ” we’re not making nearly enough progress to redress the imbalance.”

    The statistics you quote shows that for the 11 MPs who stood down we had 6 women and 5 men as PPCs and for those in target seats 11 men and 16 women. The list they use of target seats is also rather odd – did anyone really thing Derby North or Northampton North were places we had any chance of winning?

    There might be an argument for AWS if it could be shown that the Party routinely discriminates against women in choosing PPCs for good seats – but there isnt evidence that is the case from the statistics.

  • Joshua Dixon 16th Oct '15 - 11:19am

    Simon, it isn’t just about combating discrimination but it’s about tackling the barriers that women face. It really isn’t difficult to grasp.

  • Simon McGrath 16th Oct '15 - 11:24am

    Joshua – sorry not sure I follow your point. How does discriminating against men help tackle the barriers women face ?

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Oct '15 - 12:04pm

    Mandatory all women shortlists used to be a red line for me, but diversity shortlists never have been. I understand Jennie’s passion in a way. There is something about only dealing with one inequality that makes other groups feel overlooked.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Oct '15 - 12:08pm

    Psi 16th Oct ’15 – 11:05am Among the talented youth advised by Jo Grimond was the ‘Boy David’
    http://www.libdems.org.uk/david_steel. (MP, MSP and peer).
    Afteer the death of the widely popular David Penhaligon the by-election in Truro was won by Matthew Taylor.
    http://www.libdems.org.uk/matthew_taylor (delete ‘present government’ insert ‘coalition government’).His work against the ‘poll tax’ included being on the doorsteps in the Ribble Valley by-election.
    We currently have a large influx of talented new members, male and female, who should apply to HQ for approval as candidates in order to be available for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in May 2016 in England and Wales. The boundaries are known. The experience of party political campaigning will be useful at subsequrnt general elections. These people should be nurtured. They are our future.

  • AWS worked for Labour, it only stopped working when they stopped pushing it. Obviously its only a temporary solution but at my age, everything is a temporary solution, lets sort this while I am still alive.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Oct '15 - 12:23pm

    During the debate at Bournemouth conference on the Deputy Leadership one speaker said that when the Deputy Leader (of the MPs) became a Minister Tim Farron MP suggested that she should stand for Deputy Leader. This raises the question of whether a directly elected Deputy Leader of the whole party needs to be an MP when we already have a Leader, who this party requires to be an MP, and a President, who need not be an MP.
    If there is a report ready for York conference the election for deputy should preferably be after the May 2016 elections and any subsequent negotiations.

  • After the most catastrophic election result in our history, we still have the usual suspects banging on about the proportion of our MPs that are women rather than the real problem with the proportion of MPs that are Lib Dems. Ask the electorate “Did you stop voting Lib Dem because they didn’t have enough women candidates?” It wouldn’t even come in the top 20 reasons.

  • Peter Watson 16th Oct '15 - 1:09pm

    0 women out of 8 MPs could be considered an improvement on 7 out of 57.
    If men and women have an equal chance of becoming a Lib Dem MP (like tossing a coin), then 0 out of 8 is a more likely random outcome than 7 out of 57, i.e. less indicative that it is in fact not random and that a woman has less chance of becoming a Lib Dem MP than a man.
    So progress has been made. Or perhaps not. 😉

  • Two issues here regardless of the principle of AWS those who claim they would work for the LibDems are missing the point that what you need for them to work is “Safe” seats, the LibDems don’t have these. Instead having been selected from an AWS will actually be used against very capable female candidates at election time.

    So I would suggest there are two alternatives greater use of open Primaries where potential female candidates are assisted, thus giving them a boost in credibility rather than damage it.

    Change the way “target seats” are defined. Have the top 25 seats with women standing in the and the top 25 others standing. Sometimes a good female candidate may not be appropriate for what is currently defined a “target seat” but one slightly outside that group could be a good target if there was a strong candidate with sufficient support.

    The LibDems can’t copy the tactics of those who face a completely different situation to them.

    All this was covered a while back:
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-time-to-address-our-woman-problem-46530.html#comments

  • Glenn Andrews 16th Oct '15 - 2:12pm

    One way of attempting to redress the parliamentary imbalance in the short term would be for Liberal Democrats to consider women only candidates for any by-elections that happen during the course of this parliament.

  • David Evans 16th Oct '15 - 3:59pm

    Bearing in mind where by-elections might be, it could also be a good way of ensuring that our main chance of making an impact in the next five years would be zero. Edinburgh West, which our own Mike Crockhart held until 2015, when he was one of the few Lib Dems who increased his vote, but was swept away by the SNP tide. SNP MP already under a cloud of suspicion and has resigned the SNP whip. Our attempt to redress the gender balance – put up someone almost unknown. Brilliant!

    The question everyone who proposes AWS in target seats has to answer is “Are you a Lib Dem first or a feminist first?” I want more Lib Dem MPs, first, foremost and finally. If we could get 20 Sarah Teather’s to stand I would willingly have them in 20 of the next 25 by-elections. But not Edinburgh West or Cambridge if that came up.

  • Ruth Bright 16th Oct '15 - 7:13pm

    David Evans that is a red herring and you know it. Where there is a known deposed male ex-MP who wants to stand again no-one is suggesting AWS. But AWS is the obvious answer in target seats where a new candidate is needed.

    For those who oppose AWS. Fine. But what is your alternative strategy? I have been a member of this party between the ages of 18 and 48 and watched things go backwards. Call me impatient but I don’t really want to waste another 30 years of my life trying to help convince colleagues that we have a problem!

  • Tony Dawson 16th Oct '15 - 7:41pm

    “The proportion of women in our target seats should be much higher than 50/50 if we are serious about improving gender balance.”

    This might well be correct if we had proportional representation, even under FPTP if we were a popular brand with the prospect of substantial gains. Unfortunately, while successful teamwork in th constituencies concerned will be necessary for us to elect ANY MP at all, we are where we are, so any parliamentary the victories will be heavily reliant upon the charisma and masochism of individual candidates. You can with those people to be female, as will I. But nothing else you will do will help achieve that other than recruiting more exceptional women to the Party. We have scores of goodwomen candidates already and even more scores of good men candidates. Not one of them is likely to win a parliamentary seat at the next General Election. We need exceptional candidates. Some people think this exceptionality can be ‘trained’ into candidates. I do not and furthermore I think that those who do have little idea of the factors needed to do such training.

    “What’s particularly galling is a graph that shows that our number of women MPs elected peaked in 1987 and we’ve been going yo-yoing ever since at a much lower level.”

    Statistically all those figures on the graph are totally irrelevant and meaningless. They relate to a handful of constituencies in most years. Only in the past two general elections has it been possible, with a great deal of effort, to elect Lib Dem MPs who were not exceptional candidates or incumbents. These circumstances are unfortunalely unlikely to recur for at least a decade.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Oct '15 - 7:54pm

    David Evans 16th Oct ’15 – 3:59pm Maybe a Tory or Labour MP will become mayor of London, the bookies say so, but it is early days yet.

  • Just an odd historical thought……

    Interesting to see Helena Bonham-Carter, Asquith’s great granddaughter, playing a suffragette in the film of that name. A form of atonement for the PM who had a blind spot on the issue ? That three Liberal Home Secretaries, Herbert Gladstone, Winston Churchill and Reginald McKenna condoned forced feeding is a blot on our Party’s history, in what was otherwise a progressive enlightened government led by a civilised intellectual PM.

    “Shout, shout, up with your song!
    Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking”;

  • Update…

    If Zac Goldsmith becomes Mayor, I’d love to see Jenny Tonge renounce her peerage to have a go for Richmond again…. be a great cat amongst the pigeons but it sure would be entertaining !!

  • Enlight_bystand 17th Oct '15 - 7:51am

    David Raw – if Tonge were to do that, it wouldn’t be as the Lib Dem candidate (I’d hope). More likely (but still not wise) would be Baroness Kramer.

    Ruth- David Evans pointing out that we shouldn’t have a by election female candidate no matter what rule wasn’t a red herring, because Glenn had suggested exactly that (potentially by omission…)

  • ‘there was no Liberal Democrat candidate in Gower’

    What?? Mike Sheehan was the Lib Dem candidate.

  • Christine Headley 17th Oct '15 - 4:26pm

    Little noticed, we have had all-woman shortlists in a small number of seats since 1987, and it has been demonstrated that they do not work. The women concerned have been elected MPs – originally selected against all comers – but only a minority of them have chosen the time of their own retirement. Of the 15 LibDem women MPs since the party’s formation, only five have stood down voluntarily.
    We have had good women in target seats who have not been elected. We have had good women selected to take over from retiring MPs who have not been elected. We should only have all-women shortlists where the woman selected is *guaranteed* to get elected – and we don’t have any seats like this and, looking at 2015, it will be a generation before we do.
    All women shortlists are useless and a distraction. Without safe seats, they will not work.

  • Ruth Bright 17th Oct '15 - 4:41pm

    Of course it is hard for anything at all to work after the parlous result in May. It is a perfectly reasonable point to make that AWS can only be certain to work where there are safe seats. But, as usual, no-one here who is moaning about AWS has come up with any other ideas. Yet more training I suppose!

  • Ruth Bright

    I have suggested two options one I believe there is not enough money for (positive action with open primaries)

    The other is to change the definition of target seats to ensure money and effort from the centre follows the candidate not just the constituency. A good female candidate with a good fit for a constituency outside the target list may be a better hope than one dropped in to a seat that happens to be on the list.

    It would be compplained about by male candidates who would previously been on the target list but is better than AWS.

  • Christine Headley 17th Oct '15 - 10:30pm

    In order to achieve more female MPs, we all need to own the solution. While the individual constituencies are enthusiastic about their candidate and LDW are keen to support them, I wonder whether the rest of the party are going to put their backs into this success. I fear not. We all need to be recruiting women and getting them involved at all levels of the party. Some female regional chairs would be good, too.

    It is less than ten years since I went to the Parliamentary Candidates Association stall at conference with a query (I can’t remember what it was, as I didn’t want to be a candidate. I lost my nerve after the first time) and was walked over to the CGB stand. Too few women MPs is everyone’s problem.

    Selecting women isn’t necessarily the problem. Electing them is.

    (I like Psi’s idea. )

  • George Potter 17th Oct '15 - 11:50pm

    The key figure which should draw attention here is that less than 27% of our candidates overall were women.

    Blaming our problem on not being able to win seats is no excuse for not even being able to come up with a pool of candidates which accurately represents the diversity of the nation in the first place.

  • George Potter

    “less than 27% of our candidates overall were women.”

    Do you have equivilent data for top 50 top 100 etc? I’m concerned it may be worse.

  • George, I think you’ll find it is! (a reason for not finding the pool, that is). The main reasons Tories and Labour find (Many, Many) candidates, are 1 Because in many seats they are very likely to win, and 2 Allied to that, I am sure sources of money to support candidates, where they don’t have independent means, are found from donors / within the party itself. Broadly speaking we don’t have that facility in the Lib Dems, and we will even less for the foreseeable future.

    This is NOT a gender issue – although the proportion of men coming forward, I am sure in ALL parties is still rather lower for women. This is essentially a societal issue. By going for all women shortlists or similar, we will just reduce our candidates to a level (quite likely anyway) where we will not be able to stand in every seat.

  • Tony Dawson 18th Oct '15 - 9:28am

    Christine Headley

    “Selecting women isn’t necessarily the problem. Electing them is.”

    This position does not reflect reality. Electing ANYONE as a Lib Dem in the present situation (outside of one or two narrow defeats from 2015) is not just a problem. It is a mountain beyond anyone but the most exceptional ably-led tightly-knit local team. Where those exceptional local leaders will come from is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, we cannot predict their gender.

  • Christine Headley 18th Oct '15 - 12:00pm

    Tony Dawson – I agree with you. Once we have safe seats, we might revisit AWS, though I suspect that many of the people who get us there will be female, so we won’t need to.

    It is a waste of time and breath, if women MPs can’t decide the time of their own retirement (i.e. get beaten). I reckon a seat cannot be thought of as safe until it has been held for a generation (at least 25 years) by three LibDem MPs in succession. So we are more than short of them at the moment.

    If gender is the be-all and end-all, there’s doubtless a welcome in Sandi Toksvig’s party.

  • Laura Gordon 19th Oct '15 - 10:18am

    Worth pointing out that some of the male candidates selected in seats where MPs standing down were members of other minorities, e.g. Ibrahim Taguri in Brent, Gerald Vernon-Jackson in Portsmouth South. Shouldn’t be focusing on just women but on promoting a more diverse party more generally. To be honest I felt like our strategy last time worked pretty well in terms of putting women and minorities in winnable seats – and it’s not really the party’s fault that we didn’t win any of them!

    That said, I’m coming round to AWS, but only if it was planned a long way in advance and the rules were clear. Would hate to have a new Norman Lamb working his patch for years only to be told at the last minute that it’s an AWS. But I’d be open to it for held seats.

    I’d also be happier with a ‘diversity shortlist’ or something similar which allowed BAME or LGBT+ men as well as women – I’m not sure that middle class, white, straight women deserve special treatment compared to other underrepresented groups.

    Also, AWS = what about non-binary genders.

  • For those who support AWS I would ask the practical question, what is your response when the candidate from the main opposition party accuses the candidate of “only managed to get selected because they were on an All Women Short List” I’m thinking particularly in the more numerous winnable seats that face the Tories who don’t use AWS but have been fairly good at starting to turn the tide on Women and Minorities in new seats.

    I can imagine a female tory candidate stating that they were selected on merit but the LibDem only got there via an AWS. There will be excellent female candidates disadvantaged by attempts to help them. Putting something that incentivises constituencies to select female (and also minority) candidates is required, as is something that will encourage those candidates to have the confidence to put themselves forward knowing they will get the support required.

    But any action needs to be one that will not adversely affect those it is intended to help. Every action has to have a positive impact on their chances (hence why the more expensive approach of open primaries would help).

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