political

The Lib Dems have used all-women shortlists, and it worked

A few years back there was a set of public elections coming up. The Liberal Democrats had to put up a large number of candidates for all the vacancies, but everyone knew only a small handful of the posts up for election were winnable. Mindful of the party’s past record on gender (mis)representation, the party decided to take half of the most winnable seats and say our candidates for those specific seats must be women. Members still got to vote for the candidates, but for those nominated seats they had to pick their preferred candidates from lists containing only women. Men were excluded from those ballot papers.

Those were shortlists. Made up just of women. For identified winnable seats. Which is why I’d call those all-women shortlists.

But the reason longer-standing members reading this may be wondering what on earth I’m on about is that we didn’t call them all-women shortlists. We called it zipping.

It was for the 1999 European Parliament elections. Each region had, as now, a list of candidates and we knew that only a handful of the slots on the regional lists were winnable. What the party decided was to take half of the top slots and require them to be filled by women. (With a wrinkle to, ahem, favour the two male incumbents in the South West.)

I mention this for two reasons. First, those were all-women shortlists in everything but name, and they worked. Yes, they had some surrounding theatre to obscure that essential nature of them and they weren’t called all-women shortlists, but that’s not really the point given I’ve yet to see anyone say that their objection to all-women shortlists is their name.

What’s more, they worked as a temporary measure which did not require repetition in future years to maintain a good gender balance amongst our MEPs. That record of success is very pertinent to whether or not we should use all-women shortlists for selections in the future, especially when put against all the other measures we’ve tried for Westminster Parliamentary selections which haven’t worked.

The question about all-women shortlists for future Westminster selections really comes down to this: should we continue trying what we’ve tried for Westminster in various forms for the last 26 years and which has always failed, or should we switch to what we’ve tried for Europe and worked?

Second, that past record of success also rather undermines some of the more self-confident assertions made about how all-women shortlists would have dreadful side-effects. I’m sure people are being sincere when they make comments like ‘oh but the people selected through all-women shortlists will be looked on with derision because of how they got there’.

Choosing Parliamentary candidates isn’t just about the individual; it’s also about the team

When deciding rules for candidate selection, Lib Dem should remember they are selecting members of a team - and the best teams have a good, diverse balance. more

But who really thought the less of, say, Sarah Ludford for having been elected through an all-women shortlist for the top London list slot? Or who thought of Liz Lynne as just someone not up the job who was promoted unfairly over better men? I could go on, but you get the point: look back at how people who were selected in 1999 were viewed both within the party and outside it.

Here then is the unmentioned reality behind all-women shortlists. The Lib Dems have used all-women shortlists, they worked, and the sky didn’t fall in. 

By contrast, for all of the party’s 29 years in existence we’ve tried the mentoring, training and exhorting approach to improving gender balance at Westminster and it has never succeed in producing a Parliamentary Party anywhere close to the female majority there is in the electorate.

Which makes the debate coming up at Liberal Democrat conference in York in some ways very simple: should we carry on trying the thing which has always failed, or should we try instead to do the thing that has worked?

 

An important footnote to the success of 1999: all-women shortlists used to be called that because they literally were just for women. As society has moved on, it would be better for any proposal the Liberal Democrats adopt to be non-male shortlists, so moving away from a purely binary view of gender. This is the approach being used in the all-women shortlist proposals for Scotland, set to be debated at the Scottish Liberal Democrats conference.

42 comments
Kris Castle
Kris Castle

Is there a proven link between someone being a certain gender and being good/better at certain things or being more representative of other people sharing the same gender? If not then how does forcing a certain statistical representation achieve a better capability? I'd also like to know what definition we are planning to use here and why on this single topic we are binary obsessed when everywhere else we shun the binary approach... I believe we would achieve far more by being less tokenistic and instead doing the hard work and expecting everyone to work hard to understand everyone's position - changing the culture and process to properly engage and represent a much wider range of people...

Dr. Mark Pack for Federal Policy Committee
Dr. Mark Pack for Federal Policy Committee

A gender balanced team which therefore addresses our previous failure to make good use of the talents half (or rather the majority) of the population and have a team which is much more representative of the population overall are both good outcomes. That's not a mere statistic - both are should be things that liberals passionately believe in achieving.

Kris Castle
Kris Castle

It meets a statistical goal - but what does it achieve in outcome terms?

John Napper
John Napper

I really thought Liberal Democrats were above this sort of thing. It's discrimination. All discrimination is wrong.

I have nothing against the idea of more women being elected or more female candidates, but they should get the job because they are the best irrespective of gender or any other difference. Women like Dame Shirley Williams will get to the top by shear ability. I'm sure there are things that can be done to make a more level playing field. There certainly shouldn't be any barriers to women standing, but this is certainly not the answer.

If we accept all-women shortlists, what next? All black shortlists? all wheelchair users shortlists? How about all blond-haired, blue-eyed non-Jewish shortlists? That last one is a watered-down version of Nazi Germany and won't happen here (I hope) but you can surely see the link. Where do you draw the line? What we need is al best possible candidates irrespective of gender, race, disability, religion etc. shortlists. That's Liberal Democracy and, above all else, that's fair to all including women!

MarkPack
MarkPack moderator

@John Napper  Anything can be opposed as the first step on a slippery slope to something awful. After all, democracy itself should be opposed on those grounds - because otherwise we can end up having a close election determined by a drunk neo-Nazi with anti-Muslim tattoos and a history of beating his wife. Best not let anyone have the vote before we slip down that slope then.

Or of course the fact that anything can be exaggerated many-fold and taken to an extreme where it's bad, possibly isn't a good reason not to do it? Instead of being paralysed by fear of the extremes into never doing anything, we could always discard such a deeply conservative mindset and instead judge a measure based on what it actually would do.

Luke Croydon
Luke Croydon

I do believe there is a problem, but the problem is caused by the fact that being a candidate involves a) spending huge sums of money, that most people don't have, and b) being able to commit huge amounts of time, which again, most people (particularly those with a family) don't have. The answer is to give financial backing to candidates (of both genders) and to ensure that the party properly supports candidates to ensure being a PPC isn't such a burden. The solution is not to block people with particular genitals from standing in particular seats.

chariscroft
chariscroft

As with many commenters, I wonder at the definition of 'worked'. Did it mean women were selected? Yes. I take the point that it even worked as a one off, in that it wasn't repeated and women continued to be selected.

Except....we apparently need to do it again. For different seats, granted, but still. So, it achieved the superficial aim, but it hasn't in any measurable way changed the underlying sexism in the party and in the political system more widely. Which has always been my personal objection to these things - that they treat the symptom, but allow everyone to ignore the cause.

Sure, the cause in this case is incredibly hard to tackle, and not entirely in the gift of the party. But we still shouldn't ignore it.

Mark Pack
Mark Pack

The point in my post is that people predicted a set of downsides which then didn't take place. I'm pretty confident that if we went for a 'shoot all men' policy people would also predict downsides to it - but that in this case those downsides would turn out to take place.

Mark Pack
Mark Pack

Worked in the sense that (a) we got an excellent set of MEPs, and (b) the many negative consequences people predict with utter certainty (such as the people who get selected will be treated with derision) didn't happen. You're right of course that it means taking a broader perspective, but given the long-standing massive under-representation of the majority of the population, do you really think we're getting selection just on merit at the moment? I think the answer to that is pretty obvious... which is why we should take action, and the evidence of all our other attempts in the past is that other proferred solutions (which I've been quite keen on at various times) don't work.

Luke Croydon
Luke Croydon

Worked in what way? It still means you're not choosing each candidate on individual merits, which should be a core liberal principle.

Peter Bancroft
Peter Bancroft

The term "worked" is rather loaded. We could assassinate all our male PPCs and we would find that would "work" too - could we really then argue that the technique is therefore a good one based on the evidence?

Paul Green
Paul Green

It's not the selection process but the conditions of politics that is putting off more women than men

Karen Coates
Karen Coates

Surely 'best qualified' also applies in a team situation. Each person needs to have the skills necessary for a successful team. In a parlimentary candidate I would think one of the more important attributes would be the ability to listen and communicate effectively. As a woman I want my MP to be approachable and willing to listen, and they able to take it further if necessary. I really don't mind what that persons race or gender is. As a new LD (after the election) I am new at expressing my thoughts - but I do know for sure that I find the idea of all-women shortlists discrimatory. I don't want a female MP if there is a male who would do the job better.

Kris Castle
Kris Castle

which aren't (as far as I can see) aren't value added outcomes - which is why I asking ;)

Mark Pack
Mark Pack

Simon Arnold Hence my post - pointing out that when the party did use all-women shortlists, people didn't go round 'patting on the head' (metaphorically or otherwise!) the women who got elected as a result. Nor did it make us look stupid. It was something that worked.

Karen Coates
Karen Coates

Shortlists should contain the people most qualified to do the job regardless of gender, race or anything else for that matter! I think it is important to have a cross section of people reflecting society as it is, but they do have to be qualified and capable.

Simon Arnold
Simon Arnold

I believe we don't want a society where Men are sent out with Pipes ablaze, down coal mines, while 'the little woman' is at home with a mountain of washing. It is about choice for all. Today, we have an endless array, of means to improve ourselves, and get up that ladder. But, at th end of the day, when it comes to the dentist chair, who do want taking your teeth out? Do you want an unqualified man or woman, that ticked all the 'equality and diversity' boxes or do you want, somebody with experience and knowledge, doing the job, via merit? It's just madness, and i think most would agree with me, because it also condecending to women and men, to be 'patted on the head' and told 'equality' 'here's your label'. It isn't liberal and it is complete and utter nonsense, making the LDs look stupid.

Becky Thomas
Becky Thomas

Mark Pack in some ways. But I really feel that this has not been addressed properly in politics generally. I do agree about it being discriminatory against men and that if I were up for selection, and a male candidate were better qualified, he should win. I am a huge advocate for tackling diversity issues of all kinds, and I just get tired of the gender issue being at the forefront of conversations when other factors are not well addressed. I say all this as a well-intended female who wants to win.

Mark Pack
Mark Pack

Becky - doesn't the end of the post address your binary point?

Mark Pack
Mark Pack

Bearing in mind the huge male domination of elected posts, both at Westminster and also at local government, do you think we're really getting the best, most qualified people at the moment? I look at the massive under-representation of women and regret that we're missing out on so many skilled and brilliant people. Taking action to address the long history of gender imbalance isn't about undermining the idea of getting the best qualified, it's about taking action to ensure we really do get that.

GWYN WILLIAMS
GWYN WILLIAMS

Comparing the Euro elections to Westminster is a mistake. Huge areas in which the personal vote would be impossible to develop. Apart from Carmichael and Clegg, our MPs have had to win their seats from other parties. It has taken the individuals 10, 15 even 20 years of campaigning to win. If we had safe seats then all women short lists would make sense.As it is they do not answer why women candidates from all parties are less successful at getting elected and specifically in the case of the Lib Dems why our women MPs do not get re-elected.

MarkPack
MarkPack moderator

@GWYN WILLIAMS  Given the changes being proposed don't affect our incumbent MPs (who certainly do have big personal votes), I don't follow your logic Gwyn. Certainly the personal vote matters more in Westminster than in European elections, but as women are just as good as men at building up personal votes, I don't see that really as a reason not to act on gender imbalances?

GWYN WILLIAMS
GWYN WILLIAMS

@MarkPack @GWYN WILLIAMS It takes years sometimes decades of campaigning to take a seat for the Liberal Democrats. Its that work which counts. Why should a man who has spent 20 years building up the local organisation and a personal vote be cast aside because the Party centrally decides that the seat is to have an all woman short list. The assumption behind all women short lists is that the selection of the candidate is the most important part of the process. In the Lib Dem Euro seats in England before 2014 and in the Labour Party with its safe seats it certainly is but for the Lib Dems its the campaign and the personal vote.

MarkPack
MarkPack moderator

@GWYN WILLIAMS Well, that's why introducing this after an election in which we got just 8% is very good timing. By the way, it wouldn't be "the party centrally" deciding to change our selection rules - it'd be the party grassroots democratically voting to do so at a party conference.

GWYN WILLIAMS
GWYN WILLIAMS

@MarkPack @GWYN WILLIAMS It could not be a worse time to introduce this scheme. We are not guaranteed a revival at the next General Election. Even if our vote recovers there is no guarantee that this will lead to an increase in seats. If we pursue this policy, it could lead to a lost decade like the 1950s.The party conference will decide on the rules but it will be committees in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh, which will decide exactly which seat will have an all woman short list. 

MarkPack
MarkPack moderator

@GWYN WILLIAMS Why will having more women candidates hinder our revival? If there was a batch of male candidates who had built up seats to within a small margin of winning in 2015 I can see the logic of your argument - but look at the results from 2015: that is very far from the case of where we're now starting from. 

GWYN WILLIAMS
GWYN WILLIAMS

@MarkPack @GWYN WILLIAMS Having more women candidates will not hinder our revival but that is not what is being proposed. In winnable seats it is being proposed to exclude men so that a woman who may or not be more competent is selected.  What will hinder our revival is excluding competent candidates who have worked hard for their constituency.

Ian Eiloart
Ian Eiloart

I like this idea. In the past, there was a problem with incumbency. However, since the incumbents are almost all gone, I think it ought to be possible to protect the incumbents and still achieve a much better balance in the next parliament. Of course that relies on us  doubling our representation, or better. But that's not an undesirable presumption, and hopefully not unrealistic either.

Becky Thomas
Becky Thomas

I am not a supporter of all women shortlists. Isn't this an example of putting diversity before equality when both are important? We need to find ways to actively encourage diversity (not just based on gender) while not alienating others who are just as skilled. This also suggests that gender is binary. It isn't.

Simon Arnold
Simon Arnold

Isn't it discrimination? because men are missing out. The only way to equality, is hard wor and merit. Oh deary me. I don't care what gender removes my tooth, as long as they are 'QUALIFIED' and that's the problem, because the drive for equality, means my tooth maybe rmoved by somebody 'UNQUALIFIED' but it ticks all the right boxes.

Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson

Apart from the fact the LDs have lost shedloads of MPs . . . . so how many of those all-women shortlist MPs survived the cull?

Allan Heron
Allan Heron

Ah, the good old days when people voted for us \U0001f609

Kris Castle
Kris Castle

So your measures of successful outcomes are???

Ian Eiloart
Ian Eiloart

More than zero femaie Lib Dem MPs in 2020 would be a start. But you could look to an improvement on the 10 or 15 per cent that we had before 2015. For small numbers of MPs, at least 30%, but for larger numbers (like 60 or so) at least 40%.

MarkPack
MarkPack moderator

@Ann Marie Barker  That's not quite right Ann Marie. Members voted separately for lists of women and men. The top person on the female list was then made no.1 in the South East, the top man was no.2, the top woman no.3 etc. i.e. the top slot was guaranteed as being for a woman in the South East.

Trackbacks

  1. […] At Liberal Democrat Conference in York, delegates will have the opportunity to vote on a set of proposals which will put in place and instigate a series of approaches to tackle the lack of diversity among candidates and elected Liberal Democrats. The announcement of the proposals has caused debates right across the party with, in my view, deeply worrying attitudes, responses, and reasoning for rejecting the more controversial proposals (which include AWS and ‘zipping’). […]

  2. […] Given all that the party has tried over the last near three decades, is it really plausible to say, ‘let’s carry on trying the same’ in the belief that time, really, finally, somehow it will produce a different result, or is the sight of zero female Liberal Democrat MPs the point at which to say, ‘this time, we have to do something different’? (Especially as, in fact, all-women shortlists have been used before by the Liberal Democrats and they worked.) […]

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