Radical measures to improve the party’s horrendous gender imbalance in the House of Commons are being prepared for debate at the York Liberal Democrat spring conference coming in up in March.It is part of a push by both party president Sal Brinton and Lib Dem party leader Tim Farron to turn the rhetoric during their own elections into action. Tim Farron, in particular, set out a wide-ranging plan for improving the party’s lack of diversity during the leadership election, looking far wider than only gender or Westminster.
However, what propels the question of gender balance in Westminster to the top of the list is that this is an area where it is the majority which is so badly under-represented, and moreover in a particularly stark way given the 8-0 tally in Lib Dem ranks in the House of Commons.
What is likely to be put to conference is a mix of four measures:
- all-women shortlists when MPs retire
- all-women shortlists in a selection of other winnable constituencies
- requiring more diversity on shortlists across all seats where there are sufficient applicants and, for this measure, defining diversity more widely than female representation to include ethnicity, disability and so on
- more general efforts to widen the pool of candidates, support diverse candidates with extra support, training and mentoring, and working with relevant party bodies
The legal situation, put simply, is that the 2010 Equality Act permits action for under-represented groups (as explained in more detail here). The liberal situation is more complicated and there will doubtless be some who argue that liberals should not be in favour of such action.
I think such opponents are wrong, and wrong because they look at the issue in two ways which are flawed.Selecting candidates is not only about selecting individuals, it is also about selecting members of a team.
Whenever you put together a team, whether at work, for a sport or in other circumstances, the overall balance of the team and how its members complement each other matters. It’s not simply a matter of judging each person on their own. It is also a matter of considering how the overall team performs – and in politics, a more diverse team makes for better decision-making (as Vince Cable has long argued for business, when pushing for diversity in the boardroom).A more diverse team also, we should note, makes for greater electoral appeal. The electorate likes political parties which look like themselves rather than a group of others. That is particularly important for the Lib Dems given that the chunk of the electorate which shares our values – and so makes for our most fruitful ground for building a larger core vote – is disproportionately female.
The second reason opponents of all-women shortlists usually look at the issue wrongly is that discrimination exists in wider society. So the only way to be fair to would-be Lib Dem candidates is to take action to cancel out that wider discrimination. If you start with an uneven playing field, you need to tilt it back to be fair, not leave it alone arguing that to touch it would be to unfairly tilt it.
Procedural traps await
The full details of the proposals are yet to be finalised, and this is one where area where the plans may yet come unstuck. Getting the technical details of any proposals right is important, and far from a trivial matter when it comes to Parliamentary selections given the way the party’s rules disperse responsibility for them, especially if measures are to extend beyond England to include Scotland and Wales.
As we saw with the move to one-member, one-vote for Lib Dem committees and conference, failing to get the details right on procedural matters can cause an almighty problem.
More recently, the failure of Tim Farron’s team (understandably due to post-election exhaustion) to carefully manage the wording of the Trident vote last autumn made it harder for Farron’s view on Trident to win the day. It did, but it was harder than it would have been with a more cunningly worded motion which didn’t raise side-issues as reasons for disagreeing.
Will new Lib Dem members back all-women shortlists?
Managing the procedural details should be got right this time, but there is also another major potential obstacle: the huge surge in new party members since May 2015 which, combined with the move to OMOV for party conference, will massively change the make-up of those in the hall to vote on the measure.
Given that in the past Liberal Democrat conferences have rejected all-women shortlists, this big change may seem a good thing, and it might be. The big ‘but’ comes in the motivation behind most supporters of all-women shortlists in the Liberal Democrats. That motivation is one of reluctant last resort: the party has tried many other measures already and, in the end, they’ve all failed. So as a last resort, people turn to all-women shortlists.
We’ve seen this cycle in previous debates on the topic in the party, with previous opponents turning into supporters of all-women shortlists the next time round given the limited progress secured by other measures in the interim.
Perhaps the 100% male make up of the Parliamentary Party in the Commons will make new members also view the time as right for a measure of last resort. The big risk, however, is that newer members who have not been through cycles of try-and-fail will not feel that now is the time for a measure of last resort.The Liberal Democrat conference in York will certainly be interesting. Which is a darn good reason for party members who have not been to conference before to make York their first party conference.