Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A more diverse Parliament: it isn't about shortlists, it's about electoral systems and changing the culture

Whilst the inauguration of Barack Obama has been occupying the attention of most of the world's media, the Speaker's Conference on increasing diversity in Parliament has been hearing evidence. Two of those giving evidence today raised interesting points, and I agree with one as much as I disagree with the other.

I'll start with where I agree. Fay Mansell, from the Women's Institute (a far more radical organisation than one might expect), was of the view that the culture of the House of Commons was much too macho, and dissuaded women from getting involved. Indeed, the House of Lords, a much more civilised place, has women in a range of key roles, and some of the best performers on all benches are women. Ironically, such a situation might not survive the coming of an elected second chamber if the 'first past the post' electoral system is used.

There is no question that the culture of the House of Commons, while improved, is outputting to those who believe that a good argument and a strong case should help you to make policy and persuade others to support it. The quality of debate, the lack of courtesy and the childish sub-public school humour make you despair sometimes. Once again, compare and contrast with the House of Lords.

As a backbench MP, or an opposition one, you probably have less power and influence than a senior councillor on a unitary authority. The councillor will certainly have a budget, unlike MPs, will be able to go home at night, unlike MPs, and attract less abuse. You can understand why women are better represented at council level.

So yes, change the culture, cut out the mindless confrontation, make question sessions real, rather than an opportunity for the rutting stags on the green benches to score petty points, and resource MPs so that they can do their jobs well. That way, you might persuade some of the really talented women on county councils and unitary authorities to take that last step towards parliamentary candidacy.

And now for my area of disagreement. Simon Woolley, of Operation Black Vote, continues to promote all-black shortlists for Parliamentary candidate selection. Curiously, I supported the legislation permitting political parties to seek an exemption from anti-discrimination rules, on the grounds that such a notion fitted very nicely into Labour Party philosophy. If it does, I see no reason why they shouldn't be able to do it. Yes, they'll need to deal with the potential consequences - and Blaenau Gwent is a living reminder of what can go wrong - but they need to be true to what they think is right.

However, it appears that Mr Woolley is oblivious to the question of political philosophy. To ask Liberal Democrats to apply positive discrimination demonstrates that he doesn't 'get' liberal democracy as we see it. We are mostly uncomfortable with the notion that we should favour someone because they are something rather than having the right skills. We believe in merit, and that anyone with the right skills can succeed with work and a dash of charisma.

There are some in our Party who give the impression that, if we discriminate in their favour, all will be well, and we will have our more diverse Parliamentary party. And yet isn't it about the concept rather than the named individual? Our aim should be to create opportunity for everybody, and our 'tool of choice' is proportional representation.

Multi-member constituencies would create greater political diversity, would encourage political parties to cast their net wider for support, for activists and for candidates, and allow for the development of new political parties that fill niches that currently have insufficient oxygen to allow meaningful life. I don't hear Simon Woolley calling for that though...

3 comments:

Jennie said...

This! A thousand times, this!

Matthew Huntbach said...

Here is my comment on quotas.

Our party's whole system whereby someone reaches being an MP doesn't discriminate against women or ethnic minorities or people from lower class backgrounds. But it does discriminate very strongly in favour of certain characteristics, maybe what is loosely called "alpha male" ones, but whatever they arem they are most often found in white, middle-class males.

If this hypothesis is correct, then imposing quotas won't deal with the underlying discrimination issue. The non-alpha-males will be just as savagely discriminated against as they always were. But the small proportion of women and people of ethnic minority origin who have the favoured characteristics will be handed a massive advantage.

The next danger from this is that in filling these quotas we would be fishing from a very small pool. So desperate are we to find someone that fits the quota (without actually doing the job of considering why there are so few of these putting themselves forward) that we overlook other concerns about a person we find who does fill the quota. So a few people who are not really suited are over-promoted for quota filling reasons, and when they fall over it can reinforce prejudice.

No names named here, but I suspect quite a few of us could think of cases of this happening.

MatGB said...

"Multi-member constituencies would create greater political diversity, would encourage political parties to cast their net wider for support, for activists and for candidates, and allow for the development of new political parties that fill niches that currently have insufficient oxygen to allow meaningful life."

Absolutely. Their diminishing in the late 1800s was a mistake, their abolishing in 1947 was a massive retrograde step.

Obviously we weren't around at the time, but I wonder if a significant motivation of Labour at the time was to finally kill off the National Liberal/Liberal split and try to force a two party system instead of the 4 parties we effectively had at the time. It's definitely what happened, to the detriment of a more representative parliament.