During his leadership election campaign, Tim Farron set out a number of priorities on how he wanted to rebuild our party. One of those key pledges was to make our party more diverse to ensure we reflect the society we seek to represent. That was one of the reasons why I and many others were so enthusiastic about his campaign and the victory that followed. The pledge was a simple one: ensure that the the number of women selected to fight our target seats is at least 50% and also make sure that at least 10% are BME candidates.
Whilst the party did a good job of supporting women and helping them get selected for target and held seats in 2015, we didn’t do a very good job at electing them. In fact, we did not elect a single one. The picture across the entire country was even bleaker. Despite women making up a majority of the electorate, only 26% of our PPCs were women. It could be argued that non-target seats are not a priority to ensure diversity because we are less likely to win, but the experience that comes with being a candidate in a seat like that can be really important for standing in a more closely contested seat in future.
Many are currently arguing that our success at getting a good share of target seats selecting women in 2015 means that we have finally cracked it on diversity. Wrong. There is no guarantee that we will end up with a majority of women PPCs in target seats again in 2020, let alone end up with one of them actually elected this time! We have to do more to make sure our success in selecting women for target seats in 2015 becomes the norm and not an anomaly. But it will take even more effort than that to make sure those women get the support they need to get elected next time around.
That is why I and other party members want to put Tim Farron’s words into meaningful action. His mandate to lead is now our mandate to change the face of our party in 2020 by electing a diverse set of representatives at the next general election.
But to do this we will need your help. At our upcoming Spring Conference in York, conference goers will have the opportunity to vote on a set of proposals which will help us go forward in achieving the more diverse set of candidates and representatives we need to drag our party away from the ‘male and pale’ image we are seen to represent.
Party President, Sal Brinton, has helpfully posted the text of the motion on her website: http://salbrinton.co.uk/en/article/2016/1146712/electing-diverse-mps
As you will see from the motion, this debate and the proposals are about so much more than just All Women Shortlists (AWS) that the discussion has been characterised as so far. The motion provides an opportunity for the party, at every level, to take a very proactive approach in improving diversity in terms of improving representation of all the under-represented groups as defined by Equality Act 2010.
However, as AWS will be the most contentious part of the debate it is only right to address that square on.
The main proposals have been widely mis-characterised by some who believe that we will just be making the same mistakes which we perceive to have been made by Labour (ignoring the fact that research shows the criticisms to be unfounded). Former Lib Dem MP for Redcar Ian Swales claimed that Labour used AWS because it’s membership was misogynistic. A bizarre comment, not least because misogyny is not something that exists in isolation in just one political party. It exists everywhere throughout society (including in our own party) and, if anything, this shows that Labour were at least willing to employ a mechanism that counteracts it. Yes, let’s tackle the culture but let’s also act now. It isn’t a choice between the two.
Ultimately, AWS is being presented in the vast majority of cases as an option (as are All Disabled Shortlists) if local parties want to use them. However, seats where MPs stand down before 2020 will be expected to take on AWS. This will give us a real fighting chance of electing women in 2020 should any of our current crop of male MPs wish to stand down. Many actually forget that it is a mechanism we have tried before (and to pretty great success too!).
Worryingly, a recurring theme around the debate on AWS is that it is patronising meaning that the merit of a candidate is discredited. This could not be further from the truth. I believe it’s patronising to tell people that we live in a society where the contribution of women, BME, LGBT+ and Disabled people is viewed on merit. Especially as the evidence suggests otherwise. Men currently occupy the vast majority of positions of power in politics and in other fields such as business and the charity sector. Are we really saying all these men got there on merit alone? Are we to say it is just coincidence that women and other under-represented groups are continuously sidelined in such a way? The problem is clear for all to see. Clear enough that it shows we must do something about it.
It is also why we need to make sure this debate is not consumed by the divisions on AWS alone. Because tackling diversity is about much more than just selecting women in target seats. This motion, if voted through, will help us make vital progress on engaging and supporting candidates from other under-represented groups through the proposed ‘2020 Candidate Diversity Task Force’. There are also plans for us to try and emulate the success of the Canadian Liberal Party on diversity. We will achieve this by asking the relevant Local Party to provide evidence of their efforts to source candidates from under-represented backgrounds. This kind of action is proven to work. Just look at the Canadian Liberal cabinet!
It is right when people say that these measures may not do everything to help tackle the underlying problems surrounding the culture of our party. And they’re right to an extent. But to improve diversity of representation does not mean that tackling the underlying culture of discrimination is sidelined. Not in the slightest. As I have said before, it isn’t a choice between the two. The answer must surely be let’s tackle both! But for one debate, time is running out. More and more seats want to select early, so the debate on diversity must be as soon as possible.
The debate at Spring Conference will be a huge test for us as a party. If we act now, we have a fighting chance of changing the face of our party. If we fail, we are back to square one with no plan to tackle the deep, deep problems that we face as a party on diversity.
The time to act is now. So let’s get on with it.