Needs is the key word in the title.
The first by-election of the 2015-2020 will be called following the sad passing of Michael Meacher MP, who died this week following a short illness. He had been a representative in the House of Commons since 1970 and had always been an MP of them seat (and the seat under its previous boundaries and guise of Oldham West). The result of the by-election itself should be a straightforward Labour hold, although no doubts UKIP will have their eyes on the prize but in reality Labour should triumph here with relative ease, therefore this won’t be the first real referendum on Jeremy Corbyn or on the Conservative government.
For the Lib Dems this is a seat where they’ve never finished higher than third and never really been in the game in win it as it were. In the 1990s, the party were the kings of shock by-election wins as people protested against the major parties before returning home during a General Election. These days a lot of that protest vote goes towards UKIP, so I don’t think the party should be expecting much here but that doesn’t mean the party should be ignoring the by-election. This is a good grounding for Lib Dems in the local area to get back out of the streets to promote liberal values.
Jonathan Fryer over on LibDemVoice has written that the party must take the by-election seriously and I agree with him. I certainly wouldn’t be advocating an open cheque book in the attempts to pull out something surprising but a good well run campaign seems like a sensible approach.
One key will be finding the right candidate. I have seen multiple Lib Dems saying on social media that the party needs to find a female candidate because our current line-up of eight male MPs looks bad. Whilst I would agree with the second part of the sentence, selecting a woman for this by-election is highly unlikely to change the make-up of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary team, no matter how much we’d like for it to do so.
In 2015, the party chose only one man in a seat where the incumbent was standing down, in every other situation the party chose a woman. I’m not sure the fact the parliamentary party was all but wiped out can be laid at the feet of not having enough female candidates. I’m not sure deselecting Clegg, Farron, Mulholland, Lamb, Brake, Carmichael, Pugh or Williams and replacing them with a female candidate was ever truly advocated by people, yet in all likelihood that is what would have had to have happened for a woman to be selected as a Lib Dem MP in the 2015 General Election.
So I think looking back at the campaign and the gender breakdown our our representatives on the green benches and blaming the party as being sexist or not fair to women is pretty harsh. If we select a woman here and she doesn’t pull off the upset of all upsets then will people still call the party sexist for not having a female MP?
I’ve always advocated the best candidate for the job as being the bottom line. If it is a man, a woman, I don’t really care. If they are gay, bi or straight, I don’t really care. If they are white, black or of other regional descent, I don’t care. If they are atheist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh etc. I don’t care. I think you catch my drift. All seats at all levels will have better or worse candidates, some people just don’t fit in an area, some are already well known locally. It all comes down to individuals.
Yet having said all this, this word ‘optics’ is a key one. The optics of the Liberal Democrats is not good on this front. The optics won’t change after this by-election, certainly not from the outside, yet maybe the internal optics are just as key? I think that whatever the decision it won’t change much as we have to wait until a by-election in a Lib Dem winnable seat. Should Edinburgh West go tits up then that would be a seat where the Lib Dems could feasibly win a by-election but if that did come up, Mike Crockart would seem highly likely to be the candidate having been the disposed MP in May.
Richmond Park though is probably the key. There was no sitting MP in 2015. A by-election is very possible for 2016 should Zac Goldsmith win the London Mayoral Race (which he is very much in) and although he had a 19,000 majority, political parties traditionally do not do well when they are defending a seat in a by-election. It would be a tough win for the Lib Dems but it would be very much possible. This is a seat where the lights would shine bright for the party and the optics would be glaring. Getting women as candidates into winnable seats is far more important than the likes of Oldham West and Royton.
To answer my original question, no the party doesn’t need to field a female candidate. It would probably be preferable for most people but deep down it won’t make too much of a difference in how the party is perceived on this matter. Now getting female candidates in seats where they can win, that is another story entirely. The party has many impressive women who would be excellent candidates (and indeed many men as well) but just putting females names on the ballot won’t solve a damned thing. Getting women the right experience and putting them in the right situation is the key.
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