Equalities and the Liberal Democrats: lessons from the last century

Whilst digging out a spare computer cable from my basement recently, I found the paperwork from the consultation London Region Liberal Democrats ran a decade and a half ago, literally in the last century (yikes), on what the rules should be for gender balance for the party’s London Assembly list candidates.

Back last century, I was a member of the Regional Exec and heavily involved in getting through what was then still a novel idea of having gender balance for list elections; in this case of the form that at least one of the top three must be female and one male, and so on with provisions further down the list.

Seeing the paperwork now, in the context of more recent debates and incidents in the party, several lessons strike me that are very relevant for what the party does next.

First, the consultation with members in London was based on the assumption that everyone is either male or female. Back then, within the party that was an uncontroversial assumption to make. It was one that didn’t come under the sort of criticism during the consultation that Jennie Rigg – quite rightly – made during the debate over gender quotas for committees at the recent Glasgow conference. Whatever may have been the case in 2000, it’s certainly not an assumption that’s sensible to make now.

Second, the other key assumption – that it made sense to debate gender on its own, without consideration of equality measures based on other characteristics – was only slightly more controversial back then, but has also aged rather since then.

There are many reasons behind that, one of which is the growing size of Britain’s BME population, which has not been accompanied by anything like a similar growing diversity amongst the party’s elected members. That makes ignoring the BME question in such measures increasingly hard to justify.

Another, however, is a much more sensitive reason. It’s that the party has made significant progress on addressing female under-representation since the last century. Significant, but not nearly enough.

Significant – look at the number of female MEPs the party has had, the number of female members of the London Assembly, and so on. But not nearly enough – look at the proportion of female councillors, which used to be relatively good, has flatlined a long way short of where it should get to. As for the ranks of Liberal Democrat cabinet members…

It’s this partial progress which feeds of fractious debate which wasn’t there when the party was debating its London gender quota rules. At it’s simplest, the debate kicks off:

Person A: We must do more about gender balance amongst MPs.
Person B: But why do you keep on going on about women only?

That is then exacerbated by the regrettably far from infrequent tensions between people most concerned about gender issues and those most concerned about one or more other equalities strands. By no means does this apply to everyone, but – especially in private – there are an awful lot of tensions between key individuals with each pointing the finger – often politely, sometimes rudely – at each other for not taking their prime concern seriously enough.

Hence the third lesson – the need to make debates over what the party should do about equalities less about competition and tension between different equality strands and more about the best ways to achieve a shared liberal vision. All the more so because people can and do come under more than one strand.

That doesn’t mean treating all equality strands in exactly the same way all the time. Measures appropriate for a strand which encompases 50% of the population are not always going to be the same as those for a strand that covers 1% of the population.

Yet that very difference of approach only works successfully if there is mutual trust and support rather than (real or perceived) competition or neglect.

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