Back at the Autumn 2011 Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham, former party leader Paddy Ashdown talked about the biggest failure of his political career.
His choice? The male-domination of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party. At the time, there were only seven female Liberal Democrat MPs – a number seen as bad then, but of course things have got far worse since.
Paddy went on to say, “I don’t like women shortlists or shortlists for anybody”, but then cut short people who were applauding this apparent opposition to all-women shortlists by adding: “The truth is that we have failed at this for too long, and if the leadership programme doesn’t work then I think we should be doing this. If this is the only way, through a temporary mechanism, to crack this nut that we have singularly and shamefully failed to crack, then I’ll be in favour of it.”
That, in a nutshell, is the point at the heart of the debate in the Liberal Democrats over all-women shortlists and other measures to improve diversity in the party.
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.)