Monday, 14 March 2011

How do we achieve diversity?

It’s a question that was asked at our spring conference.

It’s a timely debate to have. In spite of the positive rhetoric, as a party we haven’t developed any cogent strategies for increasing participation from minority groups.

However, while I welcome the question being put, I am less convinced that the answers being offered at conference actually constitute a sensible solution.

It might firstly help by looking at the motion being put forward for Saturday’s debate:

Improving the diversity of our MPs.

Conference notes with concern that at the General Election in 2010 the party did not improve the number of women MPs, and does not have any black or minority ethnic (BAME) MPs at present. Conference also notes that in June 2010 the President and Leader asked the Federal Executive to commission a Candidates Review, to be written by Sal Brinton, and following the Diversity Motion passed at Federal Conference in September 2010, the Federal Executive asked Sal Brinton to extend the scope of her review to address the issues covered in the motion, and to propose a course of action for the party to address the diversity deficit, and to improve it at the next general election.

Conference further notes that the party is clearly divided over the issue of compulsory short lists (all-women short lists, and a percentage of BAME candidates).
Conference therefore agrees:

1. That diversity champions should be mainstreamed throughout the party; the only way to improve the diversity of our MPs is to improve the diversity of our party itself:
a) Regions will set themselves targets for improving the diversity of approved candidates, Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs), Assessment Centre staff and Returning Officers.
b) Regions and local parties will actively encourage members and supporters from underrepresented groups to become more active in the party, including standing for election.

2. The creation of a Leadership Programme for outstanding candidates from under-represented groups, which will:
a) Have a maximum number of approved candidates, with a minimum of 30 by the end of 2011, and within that, 50% of the places will be reserved for women, and 20% for those from BAME backgrounds, and 10% for those with disabilities.
b) Provide advanced training and support, particularly in media, leadership and team building skills, and fundraising.
c) Provide mentoring and coaching from the moment they are approved as a candidate until after the election day.
d) Offer them opportunities to shadow a Parliamentarian.
e) Raise funds to provide practical support to PPCs from under-represented groups.

3. Selection for the Leadership Programme will be based on competencies, references and an interview with the Programme Panel, and membership of the Panel will be agreed and might include an MP, a Peer, a Federal Executive representative, a Campaigns Department representative and a member of the Diversity Engagement Group, with the process to be run by the Diversity Unit at Federal Party Headquarters.

4. Where candidates from the Leadership Programme apply to a priority seat at least two candidates from the Leadership Programme should be shortlisted on their short list.

5. Groups of Development Seats should get together to advertise and recruit PPCs in clusters, using the Region’s targets for shortlisting (eg 50% women candidates, and a relevant local ethnic minority percentage).

6. The Federal Executive should review progress of the Leadership Programme and the other arrangements in the Candidates Review in 2013, and consider more urgent action if not sufficient candidates from under-represented groups have been selected in our priority seats.

It was sufficiently concerning that the motion was exclusively focused on the diversity of MPs. Yes, there is a vital discussion about diversity to be had, but the issue is far wider than simply increasing the numbers of specified minority groups at parliamentary level. Given this emphasis on parliamentarians, it should come as little surprise that what was actually being put forward was a “top-down” solution, and one that appears to view the parliamentary party as super-significant.

Firstly, the positives. Here is an attempt to get to grips with a genuine problem – i.e. the “diversity deficit”. The undemocratic and tokenistic all-women shortlists so beloved by the Labour Party are rejected, and there has been a useful attempt to concentrate on action rather than simply depending on “positive discrimination”. There is also a welcome emphasis on training for candidates.

However, the actions proposed in the motion (which was passed by a comfortable majority) are to my mind quite short-sighted. They haven’t been sufficiently considered – at least in regards their potential ramifications. As one contributor to Lib Dem Voice observed, “it’s a better idea in principle than clustering, zipping and all the other things which have been suggested before. It’s just that supporters of positive action can’t seem to find a way of doing it without adopting a completely ham-fisted approach that ignores our constitutional structure, and just provokes resentment among those who actually care about our internal democracy.” Agreed.

They’re also by nature discriminatory. Admittedly, they are not as "positively discriminatory" as all women shortlists, but AWS would be next to useless for a party with very few safe seats in any case. What these proposals will do in practice is to actively discriminate on the basis of race, gender or disability. That such discrimination has a “positive” aim is irrelevant as far as the principles of fairness and democracy are concerned. More significantly, these proposals have a wider potential to create a two-tier party than Labour’s ill-conceived AWSs and may actually create a parliamentary party that is in fact less socially diverse than currently.

Nick Clegg is particularly keen on the social mobility message. I’m sure he won’t mind me quoting him again and applying his wise words in the context of the “diversity deficit”. Clegg said on 1st March 2010: “the fortunes of someone’s life should not be decided at their birth. A person’s fate shouldn’t be settled by their sex, their colour, their postcode, or their parents’ bank balance. In a fair society no one can tell you to lower your sights because - no matter how hard you try - the things you dream of somehow aren’t for you... we are willing to tackle the unfairness that sends some along one path while others are left behind.”

Clegg is passionately against entrenched advantage and tokenism. So why instil such values into the party’s selection process?

One key problem is that these proposals have pre-determined which minorities should be given special treatment. Women, yes. Ethnic minorities, yes. Disabled people, yes. The much reduced approved candidates list will be made up of 50% women, 20% from ethnic minorities and 10% from BAME backgrounds. This over-prescriptive and illiberally top-down approach seems ridiculously arbitrary and not only fails to state how the remaining 20% will be made up, it completely overlooks other minorities such as gay people (something picked up on by DELGA) and the economically disadvantaged. It also doesn’t make clear in which category a disabled woman of Asian background would fall into…

Clearly some people are going to be more equal than others. I would never have thought the Liberal Democrats would have gone down this Orwellian route to facilitate diversity, advancing the interests of one select group over another. It’s isn’t democracy. And it isn’t liberal.

If I can come back to Nick Clegg’s war on social inequality, quite how do these proposals help create a more equal society? Surely that should be our primary objective, not simply a more diverse parliamentary party? Quite simply, the “leadership programme” will exacerbate the problem.

Firstly, I dislike the emphasis on “leadership”. Better training for candidates is very welcome – and overdue. But, while leadership is a key part of an MP’s role, it is in my view only a small element of the required characteristics for a good MP. Again, this is a misplaced emphasis. I would like future MPs who are empathetic, knowledgeable about their communities, people who are experienced in “real life” and deeply human. Not a product of what is essentially an elite internship.

And this is what the “leadership programme” will do. It will create an elite within the party. One of my principal concerns about modern politics is the advent of the professional politician and an emerging class of careerists who have only ever worked in politics. Politics is rapidly becoming the preserve of those who have the financial means and sufficient time on their hands to commit to internships or “leadership programmes” that clearly require candidates to have good personal contacts, the financial freedom to spend months working for nothing and the time to shadow an MP (who will presumably represent a different constituency). So much for meritocracy and fairness. What is being proposed is the emergence of a two-tier party in which candidates for “leadership” will be drawn from a narrow section of society. Is this really what we want?

The programme sounds very much like an internship to me (and I’ve criticised internships previously). We all know how they operate to in the interests of the few, not the many. The “leadership programme” will be exactly the same. In reality, it will do little to promote true diversity and inclusion. We might see more middle-class women rather than simply middle-class men, but politics is becoming a closed shop to the economically underprivileged and this motion does nothing to combat it.

Taking inspiration from the Conservatives’ A-list approach with the emphasis on the uber-candidate is hardly consistent with Liberal Democrat belief in the importance of communities and localism. Neither does it ring true to promote this deeply flawed “leadership programme” in a party supposedly committed to ensuring that “a person’s fate shouldn’t be settled by their sex, their colour... or their parents’ bank balance.”

It’s always going to be a bit contentious deciding exactly which groups constitute “minorities” which is why it was plainly unhelpful for the motion to be so prescriptive and inflexible. My own view is that the biggest single problem in relation to the diversity of parliament isn’t the raw statistic that the proportion of women is particularly low, however regrettable that is. No. It’s the emergence and perpetuation of the professional political class which is by nature exclusive. A “leadership programme” will simply compound the problem.

Yes, there is a “diversity deficit”. Do we need more women in parliament? Yes. Do we need more people from ethnic minorities represented in parliament? Again, yes. Disabled people? Yes. But we also need more gay people (although I would be loathe to suggest that gay people should feel pressured to “come out” simply to further their political opportunities; I for one don’t declare my sexuality). And we also need more people who are from that most under-represented group in parliament – the economically disadvantaged.

I don’t believe there are enough people like me in parliament. Neither are there many MPs like my brother, or with the life experience of my friend Stuart - both of whom are real, down to earth, practical people. That might sound an arrogant thing to say, but we all want our elected representatives to be able to relate to us as individuals. I'm sure many other people think the same way. When the public rightly complain that parliament isn't representative, they're not asking for quotas for women or ethnic minorities. I mean, how many of our current MPs have lived in a grim council estate? How many have known what it means to be unemployed and live on JSA? How many have been homeless? How many have ever worked for the minimum wage? How many have known grinding poverty? How many have, like me, seen a promising career escape from their grasp due to a lack of financial means? Or seen their family members suffer with addiction problems? In fact, how many nurses, health care assistants, porters, rail workers, caterers, manual workers, classroom assistants, drivers, shop workers, etc. are there currently serving their communities as MPs? Now, there’s a shameful statistic.

I’ve previously written about my own experiences in the context of social mobility. I am testament to the truth of what Nick Clegg says: “no matter how hard you try - the things you dream of somehow aren’t for you”. I’m not saying I necessarily would like a political career, but it should be an option for all of us. I personally find it quite insulting that I should have to apologise for who I am: it’s not my fault that I happen to be white and male. But of course I will be judged according to such insignificant criteria as my gender and skin colour, rather than what I might have to offer in relation to my life experience and practical skills. The fact that I might belong to another kind of overlooked minority (one which, in my view, urgently needs extra help) pales into insignificance next to my inheritance of a Y-chromosome. Very democratic.

What this motion didn’t seek to address is “aspiration deficit”; a poverty of hope that is almost tangible in some of our underprivileged communities. Now, where is the action to empower the really disadvantaged into political careers?

What the motion also failed to do was to examine other countries’ political systems and the processes used to increase female participation. It might have been useful to learn from the experience of Iceland, where almost 50% of parliamentarians are female and the Prime Minister is openly lesbian. In Sweden’s parliament, women’s representation is at 43.5% (some Swedish parties operate quota systems while some do not – the Social Democrats operate a “gender neutral" quota – although it appears that female representation across all parties is broadly similar) while in Finland (where no party uses quotas) female representation is at 37.5%. It might have been preferable to examine the processes in the Nordic countries before recommending a particular line, especially one so prescriptive and discriminatory.

A bit more attention given to what diversity actually means in practice wouldn't have gone amiss, either.

I did agree wholeheartedly with one line of the motion: “the only way to improve the diversity of our MPs is to improve the diversity of our party itself”. This is absolutely correct, and therefore it would perhaps have been more positive if the movers didn’t contradict themselves and then propose rigid measures to diversify the parliamentary party while not actually going on to suggest anything worthwhile to actively improve the diversity of the party as a whole, other than the obvious “local parties will actively encourage members and supporters from underrepresented groups to become more active in the party”. The federal party also has a role to play in increasing the diversity of councillors, party activists and the membership, although what ideas it has in this regard are something of a mystery.

Perhaps it would also have been better to examine how to more effectively facilitate an inclusive and representative parliament and to consider a range of other unrepresented groups including gay people, those not from the professions, the economically disadvantaged, single mums, single dads, Gaelic speakers and Morton fans (OK, the last two suggestions weren’t serious).

As it stands, this was a wasted opportunity to propose something genuinely radical and far-reaching. The problem of a lack of social diversity within the party remains unresolved.


Anonymous said...

Agree with you for the most part. One thing you didn't pick up on was the reason that the party did not improve on its number of women MPs in the general election last year. That of course is because the party didn't actually increase its number of seats and most of the seats held went to incumbents. Unloess the Lib dems can make progress in regards gaining seats or persuade some of its undesirable white male MPs to retire, I don't see what can be done.

Andrew said...

An interesting point in regards the general election. You're right, it is hard to increase the number of female MPs without either incumbents retiring or the party gaining new seats. I wonder though what the percentage of female candidates actually was (something I will look into).

Not too sure about white male MPs being "undesirable" though.

Andrew said...

I have discovered that only 21% of Lib Dem candidates were women in 2010, compared to 24% for the Tories, 30% for Labour 29% for the SNP and 33% for the Green Party:

Anonymous said...

too right. we don't need all these quotas, look what happened in the Labour party, were any of the Blair babes anything more than mediocre? Like you said what we need are more ordinary people with experience of real life in parliament not especially groomed elite candidates.

Anonymous said...

And sorry I didn't mean that white men themselves are undesirable but that the dominance of white males in parliament is undesirable.

Andrew said...

Hi Anonymous (I presume you are all the same person).

I appeciate you making clear what you meant by "undesirable". Like every Lib Dem I know, I want to see a better gender balance in parliament. For me, however, this is not an end in itself but merely one step towards a more liberal AND EQUAL society.

You hit the nail on the head in the first post - one of the main reasons not much progress is being made in spite of the fine sentiment is that as a party we're not making many gains at elections, while by and large the (usually white male) incumbents generally hold their own seats. Unfortunately quotas can do nothing to change that.

But we do need more female candidates, the 21% statistic I quoted previously shows there is work to be done. How best to do it is another question; any kind of "positive discrimination" or quota system is to my mind illiberal and discriminatory - and of course if it's only focused on one symptom rather than the wider problem of social inequality and the lack of participation from disadvantaged groups then it will ultimately be a missed opportunity.

The real challenge is to change the culture (both in politics and business) and change attitudes while looking to develop the undoubted talent of many would-be MPs from all backgrounds. A "closed shop" leadership programme is in my view not the way forward.