Friday, 20 January 2012

The real problem the Liberal Democrats have with gender balance

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I have been interested in following a discussion on Lib Dem Voice, stemming from an article written by a participant in the Candidates Leadership Programme. The programme hasn’t been without controversy, but while considering its strengths and demerits it occurred to me that however ambitious and far-reaching its aims – and however successful it is in selectively nurturing talent – a very real and more pressing danger to improving the gender balance of Lib Dem parliamentarians appears to have been overlooked.

We’ve all heard the by now familiar arguments in favour of gender balance and it’s difficult not to be in sympathy. Only 7 out of 57 MPs are female (12%), as are 1 out of 5 of our MSPs (20%) and 2 out of 5 Welsh AMs (40%). Much has been said, quite understandably, about the lack of female representation – but of course the statistics do not tell the full story. A reasonably small number of votes going different ways in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year could have seen Margaret Smith retain her Edinburgh Western seat, with the Greens pipping Willie Rennie for a regional seat in Mid Scotland & Fife and independent campaigner Billy Fox ousting Tavish Scott in Shetland. Taking that hypothetical outcome in combination with actual results elsewhere, the Lib Dems would have four MSPs, 50% of which would be female.

Would that statistic have meant that the party had finally overcome its problem with gender balance? No, it wouldn’t. It would simply demonstrate the scale of the electoral massacre. It would be ridiculously glib to make the argument that a corner had been turned. But, similarly, it would be wrong to read too much insignificance into the 20% statistic, especially as in different circumstances many of our more talented candidates such as Margaret Smith, Katy Gordon and Alison Hay could have expected a more favourable verdict from the voters.

The challenge is to look long-term rather than simply bemoan the immediate reality. It’s not good that only 20% of our MSPs are female. But what’s worse is that we only have 5 MSPs. Instead of focusing on the gender of our parliamentarians we have to be looking at revitalising the party so that it is an attractive proposition to talented politicians of the future – and, of course, the electorate. In order to secure more female representation, we have to actually increase our representation at elections and that is a challenge that requires a bit more creativity than “leadership programmes” with the express purpose of achieving a parliamentary gender balance.

Take a look at it this way. Let’s imagine the party manages to ensure that 65% of seats not held by a Lib Dem incumbent at the next General Election are contested by female candidates. That will represent progress. However, if the current opinion polls are correct and if – for the sake of argument – our support remains at about that level for the next three years –those candidates, however capable or well-trained, will have very minimal opportunity for success, while many incumbent MPs (who, lest we forget, are mainly white males) will successfully hold off challenges. We might see, quite ironically, that the Lib Dem parliamentary party becomes even more male-dominated in spite of a significant and successful move to recruit more female candidates.

The risk of this happening becomes very clear when the majorities of the seven incumbent female MPs are considered. Lorely Burt has a majority of only 175; Annette Brooke a slender 269. Others with worryingly small majorities are Tessa Munt (800), Sarah Teather (1345) and Jo Swinson (2184). Jenny Willott (4576) and Lynne Featherstone (7875) have respective majorities that are far healthier but, if the verdict of recent opinion polls were applied within current boundaries, the party would lose all of its female MPs in addition to being unlikely to compensate for their loss with gains elsewhere.

I would fancy Lynne Featherstone’s chances of defending her seat and I think it’s too early to write the Liberal Democrats off as a spent electoral force. However, as a party we must face up to this stark reality. Very little progress will be made on gender balance if our energies are directed only towards aspiring politicians rather than in defending the seats of the most vulnerable incumbents.

Again, these raw statistics don’t explain the full story. They show merely that our women MPs are more electorally vulnerable than most of their male counterparts. However, the seriousness of the situation can only be fully understood in the context of the party’s electoral unpopularity (which, far from being a product of negative reading of the polls, is something that expressed itself in devastating style in the 2011 Holyrood elections) and our understandable but foolhardy determination to accept Conservative proposals to reduce the size of the Commons to an arbitrary 600. There are principled reasons for choosing to reduce the size of the legislature, but unless this is coupled with further electoral reform it is plainly suicidal for our party to support the proposals. Boundary changes are likely to make the task of returning even the seven incumbent women more difficult: not only are many of the “big guns” such as Farron, Huhne and Cable facing uphill struggles, many of our female MPs are “defending” against notional Labour or Tory majorities. Of course, Sarah Teather has seen it all before, but the political climate will be different in 2015 to what it was in 2010 and she may not be so fortunate in regards her Labour opponent.

Even if we manage to hold two-thirds of our seats at the next General Election – something I would regard as an achievement in the circumstances – the likelihood is that we will secure very few new gains and that many of our current intake of women will be among the casualties. It isn’t altogether inconceivable that we could be left with not a single female MP. That would, until recently, have been unthinkable but is now a very serious prospect.

So, what can be done? One solution is for the party to look beyond its strategy to equip women and those from minority groups to put themselves forward for the most winnable seats – and instead also consider the most defendable seats. That might mean taking a risk on seat exchanges with popular senior male MPs opting to defend a marginal while allowing a female colleague to contest their safer seat. An example of this could be Jo Swinson “swapping” constituencies with Charles Kennedy. Obviously this strategy is problematic, not least because the benefits of incumbency are sacrificed, and Jo Swinson would probably feel a deep loyalty to East Dunbartonshire or may have little experience of the needs of a Highland constituency. But it is a thought-provoking concept, and should at least be considered if there is interest from parliamentarians. Another idea would be a policy of replacing all retiring MPs with either a woman or a candidate from a minority background. This might not go down too well with many within the party, especially if some popular MPs were felt to come under pressure to retire. In truth, it doesn’t sit comfortably with our democratic credentials. But if we simply do nothing, there is a real risk that we will become a male-only party in three years’ time and that is equally unpalatable.

I don’t profess to have the solutions. I am uncomfortable with quotas and any form of positive discrimination. I’m not entirely convinced by the Leadership Programme which, if I were to apply for it, would require me to wear either my sexuality or socio-economic background as some kind of badge - which I refuse to do. And I’m not sure that focusing so much attention on one aspect of a person’s identity (i.e. their gender) is anything but patronising.

What I do know is that all our incumbent MPs and candidates will have a better chance of success at the next General Election if our party can be revitalised and if we can actively demonstrate to voters our value at the heart of government. The real problem is that, in order to have more women MPs, we need to make electoral gains - and that requires cultivating credibility and respect from voters who think we have neither. It means forging a new identity; it means finding way to make the unelectable electable. And so what I will heartily recommend is a concerted effort directed towards articgulating a strong, vibrant, liberal message that can resonate with the public; stronger action at the Cabinet table; a re-energising of the party’s grassroots and communicating the same ideals and political courage that has earned us so much respect in the past. We have to rebuild trust with the public and distance ourselves from what is negative or toxic. Moreover, if we’re serious about political equality, the best way to achieve it is through the passionate championing of social equality.

If we can do all this successfully then we might do far more to secure a political future for more talented people within our ranks than any Leadership Programme could ever hope to. This is, of course, a long-term path I have mapped out; not entirely inappropriate given the long-term nature of the problem - but there are those who favour more imminent results. Personally, I am convinced that there is far more to the pursuit of equality than merely achieving a parliamentary gender balance (subjected, naturally, to the vagaries of voters’ unpredictable behaviour) but if the party prizes it so highly it will have to make some very tough decisions in the very near future. Very tough indeed...


Colin Heinink said...

interesting post.

Andrew said...

Thanks Colin. A lot has been asked in recent years about why we have so few women MPs. Is it an attitude problem within the party? Is there a shortage of women coming forward? Is it a case of our not being good at recruiting women and people from minorities? Is our message not sufficiently women-friendly? And so on. All these questions need to be asked but the real problem as I see it is an ability to take any more seats; even in 2010 with an increase in the % of the vote, we made few gains and scored net losses. If we can't make gains, we'e not likely to change the make-up of our parliamentary party any time soon.

Perhaps we're looking at this in the wrong way. In terms of equality and gender balance, maybe we're taking to top down approach, believing if we get the numerical equality in parliament (always tough given the volatile nature of electorates) all else follows. Perhaps - just perhaps - we should first ensure that the party as a whole, our activists, local election candidates, party officers and councillors better reflect the diversity of the communities in which we live - and then build upwards?

Graeme said...

Quick fixes often don't fix anything. Whilst we should be gender-conscious as an organisation, we're not going to see the fruits of schemes set-up now to get more people from minority demographics involved for a good 2-3 General Election cycles at a minimum. Alas, as your piece implies, our rather more pressing issue is making sure there's a Lib Dem party left for there to be an argument worth having about who represents it!

Andrew said...

Graeme, you are of course right. The long-term view is the right one. Quick fixes are seldom fixes. And the greatest challenge facing the party, especially here in Scotland, is one of survival and maintaining a cultural and political relevance.

But if the party is not to lose much (if not all) of the female elected representatrives it currently has at Westminster in three years time, the party has to do something either radical or imaginative. There needs to be structural planning for the longer term in regards creating a more diverse party and in the recruitment, retention and training of talented women (of which the Leadership Programme should be simply a part) - but serious thought should also be given over to how best we can defend these seven quite vulnerable seats. So far, I've heard nothing from the Campaign for Gender Balance on the subject...I wonder if they have noticed?