Liberal Democrat efforts to have a more diverse Parliamentary Party have long suffered from the historic legacy of an all white and all male House of Commons Parliamentary Party. Whilst the gender balance amongst newly won constituencies has vastly improved, the overall balance of the party was kept heavily male by the party’s failure ever to select a woman to succeed a retiring man in a held Parliamentary seat. For the 2010 general election the party had finally cracked the problem – with half the retiring male MPs succeeded by female candidates.But in a cruel twist, all of these women were defeated. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that being female was a disadvantage (and evidence from past elections is that, if anything, female Liberal Democrat candidates have a slight advantage in appealing to the electorate). Yet the result has been that all the hard-work by the Gender Balance Task Force and others to train and encourage more good quality female candidates got so close to breaking that historic burden – but not quite close enough.
This failure is compounded by the way the coalition arrangements mean that for the next few years the party’s five most prominent politicians – the Cabinet members – are all white men. Taken individually, each of those people make excellent and obvious choices. That should not though blind us to the collective impact of those individual choices.
Does it matter? I think it does – and for three reasons. One is that, taken collectively, I just don’t believe that the best talent amongst Liberal Democrats is so heavily concentrated amongst white men as you would take from looking at their dominance amongst the Commons Parliamentary Party. The second is that amongst any group of people a greater diversity of life experiences, characters and interests almost always makes for better decision making. Gender and race are by no means the only relevant criteria – but they are important ones. The third is the one that is perhaps least appreciated by some in the party: the collective impression, deliberately or not, the party gives to outsiders of the sorts of people it welcomes and values.
There is clearly much work to be done – and also a significant opportunity for not only does the coalition agreement point to Liberal Democrat ministers outside the Cabinet, it also points towards the creation of a group of Liberal Democrat members of the Lords in the near future. Those are two opportunities that should not be squandered.