Photo credit: Hilton Marlton
I was at a training session, a fairly intense one, at the end of January when my phone rang. It was Party President Sal Brinton. She asked me if I would propose the Electing Diverse MPs motion at Conference on behalf of the party’s Federal Executive, of which I am a member. I was completely gobsmacked. My first reaction was to say that someone important should do it, but she was very encouraging in the way she suggested that it should be me.
I always worry about speaking in public, more than anything else because my gob doesn’t have a backspace key. When I do do it, I always enjoy it, but this was an important gig. I couldn’t afford to stuff it up.
The very next day I was listening to Radio 4 in the car. Will Smith came on, talking about the controversy over the lack of diversity in Oscar nominees. He said something that struck me, that “Diversity was America’s superpower.” He added that “You need to get everybody’s ideas in the gumbo.” That, I knew, had to be in the speech. It really is the whole point of why we need diverse voices, so that lived experience informs policy and changes the culture. I immediately noted it down. Well, I say immediately, but I might have spent half an hour drooling over Gumbo recipes on the internet first.
I used it first in a speech I wrote for the Scottish Conference for our diversity motion but, like many others, I didn’t get called. That became the basis for the speech I gave yesterday.
I put together my first draft last Monday and sent it to various people for comment and was surprised to get some good feedback. I was still editing it up until Saturday night when I printed out a final version. I was still making notes on it until about 2 minutes before I was called.
When you are making the most controversial speech of Conference, it plays on your mind a bit. The butterflies, or maybe they were moths, moved into my stomach on Saturday evening and for 15 hours it felt like they were playing Tug-of-War on a trampoline.
My nerves were only briefly interrupted by a senior party figure saying on my Facebook jokingly telling me that if the motion fell, it would be all my fault so “no pressure.” That really made me laugh, as was his intention.
Just when I thought I’d reached peak Butterfly Action, I looked over and saw Tim Farron come in to the hall and sit right in front of the lectern. I hadn’t quite expected that, although I knew he’d put a card in. I don’t know what I thought would happen – maybe someone would go and fetch him if he was called. The butterflies started doing acrobatics.
Just as a tangent, I have to say that I am full of respect for Tim over this. He knew that the response when he spoke about this motion at the rally had been muted. He knew that we were having a tough time selling it in the bars. He could have bailed, distanced himself from it. He didn’t, though. He did get called in the debate and he basically told Conference that he needed a diverse team around him and that he’d changed his mind, just as Jo Swinson had done.
Anyway, I definitely knew I was going to get called. As soon as I was on the stage, in front of the lectern, the butterflies helpfully buggered off. This is what I said…
Actor Will Smith said recently that “diversity is America’s superpower”, going on to say that you need “everyone’s ideas in the gumbo.
A Parliament which fails to reflect the diversity and lived experience of the people it represents can’t be truly legitimate.
A party that puts a slate of candidates who don’t reflect the people it aims to represent can’t be credible. Diversity changes the political agenda. Look at what Lynne, Jo, Jenny, Lindsay did in Government and the difference Obama has made in America.
How much better, how much more liberal is a society in which everyone’s voice is heard and heeded? Our job as liberals is to make that happen – starting with our own party.
Conference, diversity can and should be a Liberal Democrat superpower. But it isn’t.
84% of Liberal Democrat MPs ever elected have been male.
We have had just 2 ethnic minority MPs in our history. To be clear, that’s the entire history of the Lib Dems, the Liberals and the SDP.
That, I’m sure that you will agree is just not good enough.
We need BAME and disabled candidates people from every gender identity and sexual orientation. We should be leading the way. Not trailing the Tories.
Tim Farron has been clear. He wants to see half of our candidates in target seats being women, 10% from BAME backgrounds and disabled & LGBT + candidates.
Whilst this motion is supported by FE, it’s the product of 3 or 4 different draft motions developed by different parts of the membership.
Conference, this is an ambitious and comprehensive plan that will work. Let me tell you what we are proposing:
All seats where we polled 15% or more will have to prove that they have tried hard to find applicants from under-represented groups.
If any of our MPs stands down, his replacement will come from an all women shortlist.
In the regions where we have 2 or more seats where we have 25% of the popular vote, one will be required to have an all women shortlist
The Candidate, Diversity Task Force will make proposals how to get rid of the barriers that we know exist.
Any local party will be able to reserve spaces on shortlists for people from under-represented groups defined in the Equality Act such as BAME, LGBT and disabled. This is a first for a UK Party.
There are lots of people who wish we could legally do more, and I want to see the party campaigning for the Equality Act to be extended to cover exclusive shortlists for all under-represented groups. That is why we are happy to accept Amendment 2.
It is that combination of measures that will ensure success. We need them all.
We have traditionally been reluctant to adopt all women shortlists. I know that most opponents are as committed to equality and diversity as I am.
Here’s the thing, though. They work. The massive effort put in to other methods has not worked.
Look at Labour’s success – 43% of their MPs are now female. Look at the one time we’ve achieved a gender-balanced team of candidates in an election, when we used zipping in the 1999 Euros. Internationally, the British Parliament is 49th in the world in terms of its percentage of women MPs and every other country bar 2 that has better female representation has taken some sort of positive discrimination.
The Scottish Party has already gone much further than the provisions in this motion, with members voting by a margin of 3:1 for measures such as ring-fenced funding to support candidates from under-represented groups and ensuring that the candidates in our top 5 winnable seats will be women.
I realise that this is uncomfortable, but we have to recognise that the culture of our party can be a big barrier to equality. When you have young female members being told that women should “wake up, recognise their biological duty and stop crying out for equality” when members tell me that it’s fine to closely question female candidates about their childcare plans, you can see that we have work to do. And, this wasn’t in the dark ages when I first joined the party, it was 2 weeks ago.
We have to change this culture and we will, but it won’t happen overnight and our key seats need to start selecting within weeks.
It’s clear, conference, that the playing field is not level for men and women. It’s even less level if you are a man of colour, even more so a woman of colour, or if you have a disability. We have to sort this out.
In 2001, Jo Swinson led the charge against adopting all women shortlists.
She then spent a decade and a half putting her heart and soul into encouraging, inspiring and mentoring people. She and others like Sal could not have done more & it’s right to acknowledge and appreciate their effort.
Jo has changed her mind, though, because we’ve gone so far backwards. She told Scottish Conference:
“We’re now the outlier, the anomaly, the party that looks like we just don’t get that the world has changed.”
Jo was not alone. Speaker after speaker said that they had been dead set against, but had now come round to the idea.
Another feature of that debate was that a stream of young people from under-represented groups saying that they would be more likely to put themselves forward for selection.
We know that if we adopt these mechanisms, we will be able to achieve the targets set out by our leader.
Rejecting them would just embed the discrimination that already exists in our party.
As Tim Farron pointed out the other day, our constitution demands that we “oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality”. Using these methods is entirely consistent with our liberal values.
Sometimes people treat the use of quotas and all women shortlists and getting the best person for the job as if they are entirely different things. That is a false dichotomy that is not backed up by the evidence. This party is far from being a meritocracy. Think about it, if it were, we would have had far more than 19 female MPs out of 111.
Recently Mary Nugent and Mona Lena Krook of Rutgers University did some research that busted many of the commonly held myths about All Women Shortlists. They found that they resulted in a higher quality of candidates who went on to perform well in Parliament. Those elected were diverse in other ways too.
“Quotas thus do not pose a threat to “merit” at any stage of the political process. Instead, fostering diversity has contributed to a host of positive democratic outcomes. The Liberal Democrats should be enthusiastically embracing the move towards all-women shortlists.”
If you vote to remove these provisions from the motion, you will rip the heart out of it. Even the Canadian Liberals approach only gets you so far. Justin Trudeau was rightly praised for appointing a 50/50 Cabinet,but the overall make up of their parliamentary party is not quite as good.
They only increased from 17% to 27% women despite all the measures to ensure that each riding searched for a woman candidate. Out of 150 new MPs, only 44 were women.
There are some definite advantages to the Canadian Liberals’ approach. Let me explain why.
Way back in 2005, a key seat in Scotland was selecting. They wanted to proceed with an all-male shortlist. As Candidates Convener, I would not allow this as I didn’t believe that they had done enough to find a woman. They didn’t like this and they shouted at me a lot. I didn’t give in, though and they readvertised. The woman they found didn’t win, but she stood for Holyrood 2 years later. Conference, that woman was Alison McInnes, our fantastic Justice Spokesperson who in the last five years has forced the SNP to back down on excessive use of stop and search, routine use of armed police and many other civil liberties issues. She is one of our most effective parliamentarians ever. The Scottish Party was stunned when she was beaten to first place on the list for this May’s election by a white man.
Conference, we need to think about the message we send by our vote today. Passing the motion will be a huge signal to people from all underrepresented groups that we welcome them, we want to include them and we are committed to giving them a fair chance at getting into Parliament.
You have to decide whether you vote to bust through the glass ceiling or cement it in place. There is no middle option. Please support this motion and Amendment 2 and reject Amendment 1.