Welcome news from the conference floor this afternoon as the party finally votes for a diversity motion without referring it back or dithering further.
There were only a handful of people opposing the motion, led by Sophie Bridger, a candidate in the general election for Glasgow. She said what was proposed was against key Lib Dem values. It would entrench unfair advantage and tokenism. It would undermine the status quo where everyone gets a fair shot. It would even, she said, make a mockery of the selection process.
It sounded familiar to me – and Alistair Carmichael put his finger on it towards the end of the debate. “Sophie – I’ve heard that speech before. Jo Swinson made it in 2001. She might not make the same speech now. I agreed with her in 2001, but now I have changed my mind because in the last decade we simply have not seen the progress we expected.” (And if Jo wants to get in touch to let us know whether Alistair summed up her 2011 views, that would be welcomed)
Alistair is not the only one who made those points. Tim Farron too thought that twenty years ago he would have opposed any positive action – but that now the proof is clearly there that it is needed to end the bias. And he pointed to existing successes in our own party and others: zipping at the first regional Euro elections led to lasting change in the gender balance of our European Parliamentary Party. The Labour party’s All Women Shortlists radically increased the number of women and even the Conservative A lists have had lasting change.
Adding her voice to the “it is time” brigade, Sal Brinton also said that 25 years ago she would probably have taken Sophie’s position. Even ten years ago, when she saw the launch of the Campaign for Gender Balance, and Miranda Piercey’s campaign within the then LDYS to encourage younger women to speak at conference as a stepping stone to greater activism within the party, she might have taken that view. But now, with a humiliatingly low percentage of women in the parliamentary party, and beaten on diversity by both other major parties, was the time to take real action in the Liberal Democrats.
The new provisions for the party will be to establish a Leadership Programme which will give them access to parliamentarians, a comprehensive training and support package, as well as mentoring and coaching. Those on the list will – if they apply – be guaranteed a place on shortlists before going ahead to be voted on by local parties who are selected. The list will have at least 30 people in it by the end of 2011, and will be made up of at 50% women, 20% from BAME backgrounds and 10% for those with disabilities.
Of course, even writing a list of people who need extra help is going to be contentious, and representations from DELGA ensued. What about LGBTQ people, poorly represented in parliament? Ed Fordham moved an amendment on behalf of DELGA which was accepted by the movers, and subsequently voted through. He had a vivid picture of the status quo in selection of a school disco with a clear divide: the middle-aged, white men in suits and ties doing dad-dancing at one side of the hall, who get selected for all the winnable seats; and the diverse gay, black and female candidates who get selected for the unwinnable ones. Later in the debate, Chris Ward continued the demand for action for LGBTQ people: these are the people disproportionately likely to be bullied to suicide in school age years, and a group of people still desperately in need of positive role models wherever possible. It was offensive, Chris said, that the movers of the motion had excluded the LGBTQ – and it was just as bad whether it was intentional or not. DELGA’s amendment also made the important point that those who were economically disadvantaged should also be recognised by the programme.
The party’s lack of progress particularly on racial grounds was highlighted by a number of speakers. Anuja Punj Pashar told us she had worked with many faith and ethnic based groups in her community and within the Civil Service – many of whom were amazed to hear of her decision to join the Liberal Democrats. She also made the telling point that she had been actively courted by the Conservatives. She had been approached by the Labour party. But no-one from the Lib Dems ever knocked on her door: she had to come to us. Speaking in the interventions, Cllr Michael Bukola recounted his experience of knocking on doors with a black face and a yellow rosette: he was met with suspicion and discontent from members of the black communities, who asked him “You really don’t get this, do you?”
With more experiences from local government, Cllr Daisy Benson drew on her success with a talented councillor programme. The training and support she received there directly enabled her to take on a significant role with her council, and now she is responsible for a budget leading into millions and a significant staff. Mark Pack made the important point that the percentage of women in local government has stabilised at a disappointing 30% and has not changed much in 20 years. Continuing to do what we have done in the past will not cut the mustard in future.
Perhaps the most trenchant point made throughout the debate was that this has to be a grassroots movement. Whilst it is important to get a more diverse parliamentary party and increase diversity in representative roles, perhaps the most important locus of action is within our membership. Just as we are insufficiently diverse at the highest levels, we are insufficiently diverse amongst our grassroots membership. We are all responsible for recruiting more members to our movement.
UPDATE: A podcast of the debate is available here.