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From Iain Donaldson, a Manchester Liberal Democrat Learn more

Political Perspective – Creating a balanced team

by Iain Donaldson on 7 February, 2016

The Worm that Turned, the Two Ronnies, 1980

The Worm that Turned, the Two Ronnies, 1980

There are those who wrongly argue that the Two Ronnies never did political satyre or new wave comedy, but the reality is that they were the masters of the art as was demonstrated in the series of sketches ‘The Worm that Turned”.  Broadcast in 1980, just after Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.

The sketches told of a future society in which women had usurped “the role of men”.

“The Date line is 2012, England is in the grip of a new regime of Terror. Traditionally a land of brave heros and great statesmen. Britain now laboured under the yoke of a power guarenteed to strike fear into the hearts of all men… The country is being run by women”

Well, here we are in 2016, and women despite being the majority in the country are still in a minorty in Westminster.  The great feminist uprising so widely predicted by white middle class men never happened and we still live in a society in which despite being the majority of citizens women are still not equally respresented in our primary legislative chamber.

Worse still for the Liberal Democrats we have no Women MPs.  There are those in the Party who would contend that all this can be changed through mentoring, supporting and strongly encouraging or urging women to stand but surely nearly 40 years after the election of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, and 29 years after the party was founded, if that approach was going to work we would see at least the beginings by now.  Instead we see a 5% variance in this century ranging from 21% (134) in 2010 to
26% (162) in 2015.  At first glance this looks like marginal progress, until you consider that we fielded 22% (139) in 2001 and 23% (144) in 2005 giving an average of 23% giving a 3% variance overall and certainly not getting us anywhere near to 50%.

In the preamble to the constitution of the Liberal Democrats we assert that

“Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality.”

Why does a party founded on that principle of equality have a team of MPs that is all male, white and University Educated?

Our teams in the Lords and in the European Parliament tell a different story. In the lords we have near parity between men and women and a good mix of ethnicity and LGBT members. In the European Parliament we achieved parity between men and women and our only surviving MEP is a woman.

There are those who argue that not enough women, ethnic minority and LGBT+ members put themselves forwards to be Parliamentary candidates, but that argument is in itself indicative of unconscious bias in that it recognises the problem but offers no solution. “If not enough women come forward what can we do?” is a response that is excusing the inexcusable and must be blown out of the water every time.

From a diversity perspective things have rarely looked bleaker for the Liberal Democrats, and yet now is the time when we can take stock and address the unconscious bias. If ever there is a time to make a change it is when the resistance is lowest and the impact would be greatest. The near decimation of our MP’s at the 2015 General Election gives us the opportunity to do something radical.

At our 2016 spring conference we will discuss a resolution that proposes to address this unconscious bias with positive action to get more women, more ethnic minority, more LGBT+ and more people living with disabilities onto our parliamentary team.  Yes it requires conscious action to counter unconscious bias, and yes it is controversial in that it marginally reduces the pool of seats available for one over-represented section of society, but if our parliamentary team is to reflect our nation as a whole then it is essential that we take positive action.

It is said that the strategy has been “directly lifted” from that of Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister who successfully reshaped his party. This was a part of a strategy that took Canadian Liberals from being a third party to being in Government.  From day one, Tim Farron has made clear that he wants to change the culture of the Liberal Democrats so that any member with ambition, ability and hard work can get themselves elected regardless of their sex, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, infirmity or disability. If this proposal works then it will achieve that, and if it doesn’t work will it really makes us worse off as a party than we are now?

My colleague Mark Pack has written on his blog that:

“Whenever you put together a team, whether at work, for a sport or in other circumstances, the overall balance of the team and how its members compliment each other matters. It’s not simply a matter of judging each person on their own. It is also a matter of considering how the overall team performs – and in politics, a more diverse team makes for better decision-making (as Vince Cable has long argued for business, when pushing for diversity in the boardroom).”

I mentioned earlier that our party in the European Parliament tells a different story, the fact that half our MEPs for the past few years have been women was due in no small part to a decision to effectively use all-women shortlist in selecting our European Candidates some years back.

Whilst some in the party fear the advent of all women shortlists the evidence from history is that it works and it is best practice in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

It is suggested that the same can be achieved by mentoring, supporting and strongly encouraging or urging to women, ethnic minority candidates, LGBT+ candidates and people living with disabilities to stand as candidates for the party. This has now bee tried by the Liberal Democrats for 29 years and by the Liberals and Social Democrats before us. It has never succeeded in producing a Parliamentary Party anywhere close to the female majority there is in the electorate.

The question then for the Liberal Democrats to answer in York is simply this: Do we continue with the failed approach of encouraging, supporting and cajoling or do we take a more radical approach that has already worked both in Canada and here in our own party?

Any child knows that if you want to get a worm to turn you poke it with a stick, and the stick that we have available to us on this occasion is biased shortlists.  I say it is time to be radical, it is time to adopt biased shortlists in order to counter the unconscious bias in the party towards straight, white, university educated men.

It’s time to end the farce by creating a balanced team that reflects modern Britain.

Some links you might want to follow:
Mark Pack’s blog
The preamble to the constitution of the Liberal Democrats
Liberal Democrat Women
Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats
LGBT+ Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrat Disability Association