Women and minority candidates are good enough to be MPs already – it’s the party that needs the diversity motion

I understand why people dislike targeted shortlists. I don’t like them, in principle. To me, liberalism is all about giving people the greatest personal choice, and in an ideal world I wouldn’t support them, which is what I said on the stage at autumn conference in 2014.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, and that’s why I’m supporting the diversity motion at this Spring Conference.

The classic arguments just don’t hang together any more. People say we need a level playing field. We do need it, but right now we don’t have it – and our diverse approved candidate list proves that’s not because underrepresented groups refuse to put themselves up for selection.

People think it will lead to tokenism, and god knows I don’t want to be treated as the token woman. I know I’m not a token, I know if I ran to be an MP it would be because I felt I was good enough to do it whoever I was up against, and I trust that any local party that had gone to the effort of selecting me would too, which is what really matters.

But I know plenty of people who treat me like I’m a token for being young and a woman in the Lib Dems even without targets. They do it because young women in the Lib Dems are so uncommon (at least compared to young men) that we’re the proverbial unicorns – get a young woman in your event photo and you’ve hit the diversity jackpot. Why don’t young women join the party that fought for fair parental leave and equal pay audits? Well, we know our lack of diversity drives away voters and potential members.

So why aren’t people getting selected if it’s not through their own choice? Even though the Lib Dem’s problem isn’t (usually) overt sexism, racism, homophobia or ablism we all have unconscious biases. If selectors aren’t used to having women on a shortlist, they won’t notice when there isn’t one, and a list where women make up 50% of the list or more stands out as a weird anomaly – even though all-male lists happen quite often.

Why do I think the diversity motion will fix that problem? Because all the evidence suggests the short, sharp shock of targets like these changes attitudes, and that those changes are irreversible. Like the introduction of many more women to the UK parliament in 1997, or to parliaments in Sweden, Norway and Denmark under party targets, this policy has the potential to fundamentally alter not just the way the party talks about diversity, but the way it acts. All the evidence suggests after a few years of targets nobody will be asking if women could win a selection on “merit”: it will be an accepted fact. Once that shift has happened, we can get rid of the targets.

Other diversity efforts have been great for helping us find and support women candidates, but they haven’t had the drastic effect this motion could on attitudes party-wide. We’ve been mentoring and supporting women candidates since the party was founded but it hasn’t made a huge difference. In fact, diversity initiatives like mentoring are ideal for people who don’t think the party needs to change: they get to pay lip service to diversity by voting for it, send the people involved off and let them get on with it, and you only have to hear about it once a year in a conference report. These great initiatives will continue if the motion passes, but it is the targets in this motion that will really get everyone engaged in changing how we do things.

So no, the motion isn’t perfect, but then neither is the world we live in or the party we represent. This Spring conference, please vote to give us a real chance to change that.

* Alice Thomas is a member of the Federal Board and leads the FB Disciplinary Sub-Group. She is a solicitor based in Southwark who joined the Lib Dems in her hometown of Bromley & Chislehurst in 2006, just in time for her first by-election and has been campaigning ever since.

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  • Paul Holmes 7th Mar '16 - 1:37pm

    Alice -you ask “why people [women] are not getting selected”. But that is completely untrue.

    For the 2001, 2005 and 2015 elections (I have not seen the figures for 2010) the fact is that we selected women across the board in ratio to the levels in which they applied. No evidence whatsoever of bias against selecting women.

    For 2015, in our Target Seats we selected women in higher ratios than their numbers on the Approved Candidates list and for the 11 seats where MP’s were standing down we selected women at twice the level of their numbers on the Approved Candidates List. So the evidence there is that we -voluntarily, without illiberal shortlists – discriminated in favour of women NOT against them.

  • simon mcgrath 7th Mar '16 - 1:46pm

    “after a few years of targets nobody will be asking if women could win a selection on “merit”: it will be an accepted fact.”
    Does anyone ask that at the moment? if they do the obvious rejoinder is that women do win selections on merit as Paul has said.

  • Alice Thomas 7th Mar '16 - 1:53pm

    Paul – when I say people I mean all underepresented groups the motion addresses (which include BAME, LGBTQ+ and disabled people as well as women).

    When I talk about those groups not being selected, I’m also talking about the difference between the numbers on the approved list and numbers standing for selection, as well as any unconscious bias in the selection itself. As I understand it the proportion of underrepresented candidates who put themselves forward for selection is lower than the proportion of each group on the approved candidate list. From my time helping CGB and LDW train and support women candidates, I believe that is the result of a number of factors, the most common of which to all underrepresented groups are (i) not thinking they will be entering a culture that values their input, (ii) not thinking they’ll have a chance of winning (because they will only be selected in seats that are not winnable) and (iii) not being encouraged to put (or even being actively discouraged from putting) themselves forward by their local parties. Those things are evidence of unconscious biases and perceptions created by the dominance of white men in particular in Westminster politics, and targets would go a long way to correcting them.

  • Helen Tedcastle 7th Mar '16 - 2:11pm

    @ Alice Thomas

    ‘…when I say people I mean all underepresented groups the motion addresses (which include BAME, LGBTQ+ and disabled people as well as women).’

    You have missed out some categories of ‘under-represented’ groups in the Lib Dems though.

    What about people from working class or severely disadvantaged backgrounds?

    The Lib Dems is an overwhelmingly middle class party with higher than average members with degrees from top universities. Is this representative of the population?


    Personally, I am not interested in politically correct top-down impositions of categories which do not address real structural, economic inequalities in the party but also British society. if only we could stick at that core issue and not get side-tracked into obsessing endlessly about minority identity issues and AWS.

  • Paul Holmes 7th Mar '16 - 2:46pm

    Alice, I have not seen anyone disagree with all the points about seeking out, recruiting and selecting more people from under represented groups. The only objections I recall seeing are over the AWS proposals which are purely about banning one gender (Disabled, LGBT and BAME included) from seeking selection in some of our most winnable seats.

    As for putting people off joining and/or seeking to be candidates, I can think of nothing more likely to do it than near daily LD Voice articles claiming, against the actual factual evidence, that women are being discriminated against when selections take place by one member, one vote, secret ballots.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Mar '16 - 3:39pm

    I am glad that Alice thinks that (Lib Dem?) women and minority candidates are good enough to be MPs already. I just love the ‘good enough to be’ language!

    There are lots of people who on a strict ‘level playing field’ basis are ‘good enough’ to be an MP. It doesn’t take brilliance to be as good as Michael Fabricant or Oonagh McDonald. The difference is that most of these Lib Dem candidates, of whatever gender, sexuality, race, age or disability are never going to be offered a level playing field. Quite a few of them could not campaign their way out of a brown paper bag and the rest can indeed campaign but not well enough to ever win anything. If we are to win another dozen seats in the present electoral environment and hold ‘held’ seats with non-incumbents then we need candidates who are, frankly, petty close to being miracle workers. Positive discrimination measures are not going to bring us any miracle workers and could well keep some such out of contention. I do think there are far too many people in this Party who are either content to be worthy failures or who do not realise what has really happened to our electoral prospects during the past six years.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Mar '16 - 4:01pm

    I favour diversity shortlists with a get-out clause if the semi-imposed candidate isn’t good enough. Men are no better than women as candidates, but the probability is if you ban people for applying for a job for no reason to do with their ability then the best candidate, possibly the only one with a chance of winning, might have been blocked.

    Even if I get into the Lib Dem mindset and think how much all women shortlists mean to some important people, I still think passing the motion without any amendments to address concerns will negatively affect morale.

    There’s a big problem with saying to potentially an ethnic minority working class man: please step aside for our (wealthy, white) woman and I don’t think this idea is going to pass the test of time.

  • Joshua Dixon 7th Mar '16 - 4:19pm

    Helen – I think Alice is using the ‘under represented groups’ term as defined by the Equality Act 2010.

  • Helen Tedcastle 7th Mar '16 - 5:10pm

    Joshua Dixon – I think you’ll find that geographical economic inequality is a growing problem and one which affects human beings regardless of their identity or gender or disability.

    Poverty respects no one and it is a traditional Liberal fight to combat it. Fighting poverty is one of the key planks of the preamble.

    If we heard as much about that on LDV as we hear about identity issues then we might stand a chance of being taken seriously again as a party:


  • Alice Thomas 7th Mar '16 - 5:16pm

    Tony – I agree our candidates face an incredibly high bar already. I just don’t see any candidate who’s really a miracle worker campaigner (with the ambition and ability that requires) who’s going to give up just because one, or at most 2, seats in their region (which is what we’re talking about here) aren’t available to them.

    Josh and Helen – yes the Equality Act 2010 considers religion/belief, race, sex (I wish they’d use gender) and sexual orientation as underrepresented groups. The motion also recognises more needs to be done for disadvantaged groups, including socio-economic groups.

  • David Evershed 7th Mar '16 - 8:16pm

    Why are some Lib Dems being so insulting to local party selection panels.

    They are suggesting Lib Dem party members on the selection panels have a bias towards white men and are not capable of chosing the candidate with the best qulaities to be the candidate with the best chance of winning the seat.

  • It is possible to overcome poverty by hard work, a good education and a fair bit of luck but BAME people cannot change their colour, women do not, on the whole, wish to change their gender, and gay people cannot turn straight.

  • Jonathan Brown 7th Mar '16 - 10:11pm

    “Other diversity efforts have been great for helping us find and support women candidates, but they haven’t had the drastic effect this motion could on attitudes party-wide.”

    This is the key bit for me. While imperfect, this motion will force the party to think much harder, and more proactively about recruiting candidates. And having begun to get us out of the rut we’re in, should drive us to more urgently address our lack of diversity in other areas too.

    Like many policies we support, there is a balance being struck between different liberal priorities, but it’s undeniable that gender targets have made a difference where they’ve been tried. Rwanda is another good example.

  • Mick Taylor 7th Mar '16 - 10:31pm

    David Evershed. In my experience (now over 51 years in the party) the constituency party members include a large number who have a bias, unconscious or not, towards electing young white men in suits. They do so because they still believe that’s what a parliamentary candidate looks like. The constituency members are offered no training or even given advice about the real evidence that the electorate do not vote in larger numbers for pale men, but actually are just as happy to vote for a woman or a member of any number of minorities.
    In my time in the party I have known both men and women who have thrown themselves heart and soul into fighting a parliamentary seat and plenty of men who have become parliamentary candidates and have done precious little.
    What I have not seen is a real determination to root out bias and a drive not just to get women selected but elected as well by ensuring that women are selected in places that they can win.
    Many who object to AWS keep on bringing up 2015 as if the fact that we selected some women for winnable seats – who then didn’t win because of the car crash of the election – as proof that the party is really tackling this issue. The plain fact is that had we won 70 seats women would still have been grossly underrepresented as would BAME and other minorities.
    So Alice Thomas is absolutely right. Keep up the good work

  • Helen Tedcastle 7th Mar '16 - 11:08pm

    ‘It is possible to overcome poverty by hard work, a good education and a fair bit of luck’

    According to a 2015 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, now just over half of all people in poverty are either in work or living with a working adult, up from around 40 per cent ten years ago.

    So British people are not poor because they don’t work hard enough.

  • Ben Jephcott 8th Mar '16 - 12:07am

    No Liberal should be advocating luck as a mechanism for overcoming structural injustice.

  • David Cooper 8th Mar '16 - 9:57am

    @”There is more to the selection process than the judgment of local party selection panels”
    A sentiment that would be very suitable coming from the Chinese Communist Party, but surprising from anyone who claims to believe in liberal values.

  • Helen Tedcastle “So British people are not poor because they don’t work hard enough.”

    No of course not. But people can escape or be helped out of poverty. We all hope to create a society in which poverty is a temporary state for most individuals. That’s how it differs from gender, race or sexuality.

  • Ben Jephcott 8th Mar ’16 – 12:07am
    “No Liberal should be advocating luck as a mechanism for overcoming structural injustice.”

    I am not a Liberal though I am liberal-minded, but I have lived long enough to realise that luck has played a big part in my life – whether it’s good luck or bad. I don’t think anyone was ” advocating luck as a mechanism….”. For one thing, it might be hard to factor it in to a Gantt chart 😉

  • David Cooper 8th Mar '16 - 5:52pm

    Dear Paul,
    None of these remind me of the Chinese Communist party. But centrally mandated shortlist criteria certainly would, and I took your comment as implicit support of such measures. I would be delighted to be corrected.

  • David Evans 8th Mar '16 - 7:01pm

    Paul, answering a fellow Lib Dem with a comment including “dearest David” is dismissive at best and downright patronising at best. You are much better than that.

  • David Evans 8th Mar '16 - 7:16pm

    Paul, Point accepted, and apology offered. However, to anyone who didn’t know (which means most of us), it made you sound like a right sarky b*****d.

  • David Evans, yes I agree!

  • Phyllis and Helen
    I don’t think we are just speaking of poverty, and whether or not it is a permanent condition. We are also talking about class bias here – and the evidence is that a much higher proportion (as one indicator) of independent school-educated people are finding themselves Lib Dem candidates than those from state schools.

    Income does find its way into this, of course, in that unless financial support is found it makes it very difficult for anyone to campaign wholeheartedly for any sustained period of time. These are the questions that need answering. Funnily enough, everyone goes silent and (apparently) wants to put them in the “too difficult” category.

  • Sorry – I should have said much higher proportion of independent educated people are Lib Dem candidates than in the population as a whole. I am not sure whether anyone has actually analysed whether there is a smaller proportion of state school educated people actually selected than those who come forward for selection? Perhaps someone else knows?

  • Tim13

    ” We are also talking about class bias here – and the evidence is that a much higher proportion (as one indicator) of independent school-educated people are finding themselves Lib Dem candidates than those from state schools.”

    I would agree that the preponderance of Oxbridge-educated MPs and parliamentarians is a big problem in this country. I don’t think the issue of state-funded versus independent schools is straightforward,though. For instance, our local comprehensive school has a high percentage of middle-class kids, many of whom go on to Oxbridge. So working-class doesn’t necessarily equate to state schools and middle-class doesn’t necessarily equate to just independent school-educated. And blue collar workers can now be fairly well off. I know our plumbers, electricians and joiners are earning far more than us and living a better lifestyle too. Class can be fluid too, just like poverty – just look at (Lord) John Prescott, you’d hardly call him working class these days, would you? Or some big union bosses for that matter.

    It’s not straightforward, is it?

  • Paul Walter 8th Mar ’16 – 8:01pm
    ““David Evans, yes I agree!”

    All right, all right – there’s no need for you to join in the kicking contest as well Phyllis! 😉”

    Spoilsport! 🙂

  • Until this comment, there were as many men called David commenting on this thread as women. #justsaying

  • Ruth Bright 11th Mar '16 - 5:13pm

    Jo – see the piece on Liberal Herstory.

    The book “British Liberal Leaders” has 24 chapters. 4 chapters are written by men called David. None are written by women!

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