Gender balance amongst the Liberal Democrats: some evidence

Over the weekend, Paul Head criticised the party’s Leadership Programme, saying,

While the Candidate Leadership Programme seems like a good idea, giving candidates from underrepresented groups the support and training they need to go on and, hopefully, become MPs, I believe it is destined to failure for the same reasons that shortlists are not the answer.

They both ignore the real problem.

Shortlists in particular are a quick-fix, tinkering round the edges, top-down attempt to create the façade that we are a party that is representative of the whole country. The truth is we aren’t. A quick look around the conference hall and most fringe meetings would have demonstrated what the real problem is, not just that our Parliamentary Party is “too male and too pale” but that the Party as a whole is “too male and too pale”.

Looking around conference is of course not the only way to judge the party’s grassroots diversity, so what do other measures say? I’ve not got figures for other diversity (and in a comment Paul has said “my post was probably more relevant in the case of BAMEs than women”), but on gender the story is more nuanced than this:

  • Overall, the party’s membership is slightly more male than female, with 52%-48% the frequently quoted figure. That’s approximately the reverse of the actual UK population, but still pretty evenly balanced. In other words, the hugely lopsided gender imbalance at most levels of elections can’t be put down to the party not having recruited enough women to the party. If the party’s election winners reflected the party’s overall membership the collective picture would look very different.
  • At the local level, the proportion of Liberal Democrat councillors who are female has been stalled at 30-35% for the last two decades. Hopes that social changes will gradually over time remove the gender imbalance amongst those elected to public office look likely to be dashed.
  • The only elected level at which the proportion of females amongst those elected is significantly higher for Liberal Democrats than for other parties is the European Parliament, reflecting the knock-on effect of introducing zipping (see link for full figures).

The past is not a sure guide to the future, but it can help illuminate the choices – and this trio of evidence from previous experience goes a long way to explaining why people such as Paddy Ashdown have, as Paul pointed out, changed their minds over the years and moved in favour of more radical action.

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