Tim Farron’s recent pronouncements on tackling the ‘pale and male’ dominance of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party capture in an almost perfect case study both why he’s the frontrunner to be the party’s next leader – and also how if both he and the party are to succeed with him as leader, some tough questions need asking beyond the cheer-inducing headlines.
As is classic Tim at his best, he’s identified an important issue, set out a challenging-sounding target and enthused supporters about the need to hit it. It’s what he’s done on housing and on membership, and now is doing again with his call for the party’s candidates in winnable seats at the next general election to be 50% female and 10% BAME in an attempt finally to make Liberal Democrat MPs reflect modern society.
(As an aside, if you’re wondering why it shouldn’t just be about the best person for each seat regardless of gender or ethnicity, then that’s to mistake the nature of politics: politics is a team enterprise and all the best teams are put together by thinking about how each member complements the others.)
Watch Tim Farron speak on this issue and you’ll hear a comprehensive plan and level of personal commitment that is a step beyond what the party is used to hearing from senior men on such topics. Here’s the video he recorded in response to my question about his plans on diversity:
Actually, this time Tim Farron’s banner headline figures are less ambitious than is usual for him, because in the 2015 general election the party achieved a pretty impressive 40% female and 10% BAME amongst the seats it was targeting to win, including incumbent MPs in those calculations (see Liberal Democrat Newswire #61).
That gives a hint about the tougher questions that should follow quickly in the wake of the headline figure. Both in 2010 and in 2015 the party had considerable success in selecting a more diverse set of candidates in winnable seats, and both times it didn’t result in progress when it came to who was elected. Which does rather prompt the question: is there anything to learn from those two failures? Is looking for the same again, with slightly higher candidate figures, the answer?
I don’t know what a systematic review of who lost and why from that diverse pool in 2010 and 2015 would find. But then nor does anyone else as a systematic review of why diverse candidates lose has never been done.
But it’s the sort of tougher question that is needed if the party isn’t going to lapse into the comfort zone of a big number that everyone cheers, followed by failure to deliver. (See previous promises from other figures to increase the party’s membership amongst other numeric targets.)
Nor indeed is diversity in Westminster the only place where it matters. The party has done rather better in Europe, Scotland, Wales and London but what about local government? The figures on gender there are mediocre and have been going nowhere for 25 years – and we know very little about diversity beyond gender.
Not only is local government important in its own right, but previous party recoveries have seen local government be an important training ground and launch pad for people who went on to win Parliamentary seats.
So there’s a double reason for looking at improving diversity at the local level. Addressing why the party has failed there on gender for so long is another tough question that should be following rapidly in the wake of the headline cheerleading number.
Yet those two points – about losing candidates and local government – are omissions which can (and should) be remedied in what is otherwise an impressive pitch on the topic of diversity.
Tim Farron is moving the debate on in the party. His Westminster headline figures for candidates are perhaps only a step on from 2015 but they are a step on, and he also includes references to people with disabilities. He’s also called for funding for diverse Westminster Parliamentary candidates to be prioritised, along with enhanced mentoring and says half his team of spokespeople – drawing on Lib Dem peers, the devolved assemblies and local government – will be women 10% BAME and with LGBT+, working class and people with disabilities also reflected.
Moreover, he not only wants to reintroduce zipping to get gender balance at the top of the party’s lists for the next European election he also wants it extended to ensure that one or two regions have a BAME lead candidate.
He has also backed changing the rules for the party’s deputy leader, echoing Norman Lamb’s initial support for the idea that it shouldn’t have to be an MP and hence doesn’t have to be a white man either, and also wanting measures for greater diversity on the party’s committees whilst promising that as leader his own circles of advisers will also be drawn more widely.
Put together and that’s an ambitious package – which it needs to be, given the scale of the task.