It has been a good couple of months since I’ve even clicked on my blog link to write anything. I just haven’t had the gumption as I remember no-one really gives two hoots about what I write and I’ve been busy being an NFL columnist elsewhere. Yet the one subject that has always threatened to drag me back kicking and screaming has been the internal debate on All Women Shortlists for the Lib Dems because the parliamentary party is too ‘male and pale’ (although AWS doesn’t even attempt to fix the pale part but still).
It looks likely (has it been confirmed?) that it will be debated and voted on at Spring Conference. It is going to be the most divisive internal debate the party has faced in a long time. You have people who believe AWS are needed to fix the problem at the top and those who believe that AWS doesn’t fix the issue and that AWS goes against the whole ethos of a liberal party. I think it is generally well known what camp I’m in and if it isn’t, lets put it this way, I believe in equality. That should make it clear.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of this, I have been told by more than one prominent female in the party that I shouldn’t be able to have an opinion on this matter because I don’t know what it is like being a woman. Only women know the issues that they face and therefore only women’s opinions matter on this subject. That is nice. I’m sure these women (and others who express a similar sentiment but haven’t told me) haven’t cheered when a multitude of men have come out in favour of AWS. They have instead lambasted them for having an opinion. I’m sure this is exactly what has happened.
Anyway into the issues facing the party on diversity. They are very real and one that the party needs to be addressing. I think the amount of people who don’t think there is an issue (to varying degrees) are relatively small in number and percentile. So the big question AWS looks at is how to fix the problem at parliamentary level. This has speeded up considerably since May 2015. The Lib Dems were left with just eight MPs, all of them white and all of them unable to wear a dress in the House of Commons without violating the dress code.
I have seen many men point to this has the reason for them finally switching over from against AWS to supporting it. The reason that all our MPs are men is enough evidence in itself that there is a problem they say. What these people seem to forget is the total obliteration of the Lib Dem vote in 2010. Total obliteration. The only way any woman had any chance of being elected in 2015 in retrospect is if Nick Clegg or Tim Farron resigned or stood down and a woman was selected for Sheffield Hallam or Westmoreland. This is saying absolutely nothing about the quality of female candidates, but just looking at things objectively.
Clegg was very much the ‘Marmite’ candidate of 2015 and there was a clear Anti-Clegg vote. However on the flip-side many Tories lent him their vote to keep him in. Would they have done that for another Lib Dem candidate? we’ll never know. Also Tim had a huge majority and a lot of that is very much a personal vote, yet there is an off chance the Lib Dems survive without him in 2015 in his seat. The other six holds, the likelihood of a hold without the incumbency bounce is minimal (whether the new candidate was male or female).
So using 2015 as an accurate measuring stick about the Lib Dems and women is like me putting up pictures from ten years ago on a online dating profile, not strictly accurate.
In 2015, many Lib Dem MPs who stood down were replaced by female candidates and none of them won because as history has showed us, no-one was going to make a Lib Dem gain in 2015. The deep rooted dislike of the party was far more widespread than many of us ever thought. Most thought (me included) that people would still vote Lib Dem (certainly in LD/Con) seats as the Lib Dems were holding back the Tories but instead most people actually said they preferred the Tories to the Lib Dems and what happened, happened. David Laws lost Yeovil FFS and look at Eastbourne and Lewes.
So plenty of excellent female candidates were given chances in seats where we were either the incumbent party or were a close second. These women were impressive and were given the candidacy in these good seats without the need for AWS. Going forward even though no seats have formally adopted their candidates for 2020 yet (as far as I’m aware) due to the possibility of border changes, I have noted well known women and potential candidates moving across the country into seats that are going to be considered target seats in 2020. You would assume that they aren’t doing this for fun and that they have a nod and a wink that they are going to be the 2020 candidate.
I think it is fair to say that in 2015, women made up the majority (yes majority) of new candidates in our top seats. The numbers bare (or is it bear) that out. Isn’t that exactly the type of thing AWS is meant to do and we did it without the need for it?
Personally I have always felt the biggest issue facing some women and some men who are looking to progress upwards is the support that they need. Both emotional and financial. To put yourself out there to be a candidate is quite a decision. The Lib Dems as we all know have no safe seats and to win you are essentially putting in at least four years of work for no money with no guarantees. Many will have to move across the country, find new employment and find time to embed themselves into a new community. It is no easy task.
You are basically living two lives within one body, you are a full-time worker to earn money and also a full-time candidate. This is extremely difficult and causes a lot of stress. It is partly why a greater proportion of candidates are of a vintage that have progressed up the career ladder to the point where they have more flexible working hours and are financially more secure than others.
I think that addressing this situation is actually far more key than ensuring that there are some seats that are designated as women only. This help needs to be ensuring that chosen candidates get help to find new work, a strong team around them to help them and of course some sort of financial help to ensure that they can afford to live and be the strong candidate that the party members believe them to be. We need to put candidates into the best position to be themselves as possible. Be the best they can be. This is a far bigger issue for the party to help get younger candidates and those with a less stable financial situation to get involved and put themselves up for key seats.
We can all agree (well ok, only some of us) can agree that we want everybody who wants to put themselves forward to get the leg up and support they need. Former MP for Redcar Ian Swales has written about the issue on LibDemVoice and some of the comments from people on twitter and Facebook make me despair. It is a well reasoned and thought out piece. He points out that plenty of excellent candidates got put in a position where in a normal year for the Lib Dems, they were in places where they could do damage and for some of them, win. 2015 though was an anomaly and we got our backsides handed to us. His comments that AWS is only a solution if women aren’t being selected by local parties is dead right, we all know this, that is obvious but some people still disagree for reasons unbeknown to me.
Going forward this debate will become extremely bitter. People are very much entrenched into their positions. I’ve seen supporters of AWS tell people who disagree that they are sexist for disagreeing with the idea. So someone who thinks that the genders should be treated as equals is sexist and that if you think they shouldn’t, then you aren’t. Sexism has moved on seemingly. This will not be pretty. However it goes down in York some people will be bitterly disappointed and disillusioned with the party. Some will wonder if the party is about equality any more or if they are all about ticking quotas whereas if AWS doesn’t go through, some will call it the old establishment ensuring that women are disadvantaged (because they aren’t being given an extra advantage due to their gender).
It is not going to be pretty. It will help split the party however it goes down. At a time when Labour are in a nasty civil war over the future direction of the party, we have decided it is time to answer whether we are about equality or inequality.
When you have an issue you have to seek a solution. When the solution doesn’t fix the problem then you really aren’t doing much. If women aren’t getting selected for key Westminster seats when they are vacant and have no incumbent then AWS would be a solution. The numbers though suggest clearly that this isn’t the case. the fact we have a 8:0 men to women ratio in the HoC has little to do with internal party wrangling on women and all to do with a disliked party, a poor campaign and a proper shellacking. The optics do suck but they are just that, optics.
I can see why people are passionate on both sides. However if AWS was instigated in 2015, we don’t have any extra female MPs and how many extra female candidates are in key seats? We put up an overwhelming selection of women in seats we held but had an MP standing down and even on the next step down, plenty of strong female candidates were selected. Women are getting selected where they are seemingly the best candidate and isn’t that the key?
Seats like Lewes, Yeovil, the seats in SW London will be top of the tree for the Lib Dems come 2020 and excellent women seem to be the frontrunners for the vast majority of those seats. Excellent. They have seemingly been given the nod and a wink not because the local party were told they could only select women but because they went out and found fabulous people who happened to be women and essentially head-hunted them.
The cream will always rise to the top. If a woman is the best candidate who applies for a seat then they’ll get selected. I do think that the other issue of financial and emotional support is a much more pressing one, to attract younger voices and those who aren’t as financially secure into politics and into key seats for the party. That is a much more liberal way to potentially help open up the parliamentary party to other backgrounds.
Still what do I know, I’m but a man and as I’ve been told, I can’t hold an opinion of this subject because of this fact.
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