Thursday, November 26, 2009

Diversity: Labour's control freaks want us to be control freaks too

And so the Labour Party Speakers Conference has concluded that political parties should be made to publish the number of women, ethnic minority, disabled and gay people are applying to be Parliamentary candidates. Let us not be under any misapprehension here, this is an attempt to impose a Labour solution on the body politic, regardless of the fact that other political parties see the solution to the diversity issue in very different forms.

The phrase 'Speakers Conference' is meant to reassure, to provide the cover of apparent cross-Party agreement for an authoritarian attempt to blackmail other political parties to adopt the sort of 'nanny state' positive discrimination that, as liberals, we prefer to eschew. However, a closer look at its membership reveals that, far from being cross-Party, there is an inbuilt Labour majority, with nine Labour members, four Conservatives, two Liberal Democrats (Andrew George and Jo Swinson) and one Democratic Unionist.

So, unsurprisingly, it has gone for a 'name and shame' approach in its efforts to make Parliament more representative of the nation. If that is the best that they can come up with, then we should be demanding our money back.

I fundamentally object to being told that I must betray my Party's philosophy and principles in order to achieve the goal of fair representation. As a liberal, I believe that everyone is equal, and that equality of opportunity is something that we should strive for. That doesn't mean equality of outcome regardless of merit, it means creating processes that do not discriminate, and providing support and encouragement for anyone who wishes to offer themselves up for consideration.

More than most people, I know that Liberal Democrats have wrestled with the desire for proper representation with the idea that we select on merit, with the only consideration being ability. We believe that Local Parties are sovereign, with the only roles for the centre being in setting minimum quality standards for candidates and designing the processes for approval and selection. I've been at the heart of the debate for a long time and I know that we haven't always got it right, but we have tried.

For smaller Parties without deep-pocketed funders, it is difficult to provide the training and support that candidates, regardless of background, need. We do our best given the limits placed upon us, trying to be smart rather than omnipresent. And given the evident lack of support for state funding of political parties, I suspect that it is a problem that will not go away.

However, it seems that they have also fallen into the classic trap of believing that numbers are all that matters. As I have pointed out, and won the subsequent argument, the number of women, ethnic minority, disabled and gay candidates is far less important than the numbers in those categories who can actually win. In the past, I have heard positive reports that we selected, for example, eighteen BME candidates in London. The fact that none of them had a hope in hell of winning was considered to be of less importance.

On the contrary, this is not like the Olympics, it isn't the taking part that matters, it's the winning, and only the winning, that matters. The runners-up don't sit in Parliament, they don't count towards the diversity statistics that anyone cares about - the number of women/BME/disabled/gay MP's.

So, Mr Speaker, if you think that you'll make friends and influence people with a report like this, you're wrong. Oh yes, your new Labour friends will love you. But remember, they auctioned off their principles to the highest bidder years ago...


Jo Swinson MP said...

On the contrary Mark, the numbers do matter for us to be able to analyse what is happening at each stage of the process. Sometimes it might point to problems that would otherwise go unreported. For example, in the Lib Dems, this information has shown there is not a problem with getting women selected in seats once they apply, and so we can direct our efforts to solving the issue of getting more women to do so.

Monitoring of job applications and appointments for equal opportunity purposes is pretty uncontroversial in most large employers.

You're right that the winning counts, but parties will have to note which category of seat the selections fall into - held, majority of less than 5% etc. This information being in public domain will enable academics and others to analyse what is going on.

Transparency of what is happening with candidate selection across the parties I believe will be very helpful, and in no way can this be described as illiberal.

Mark Valladares said...


Thanks for that. However, I should respond.

I haven't said that the numbers don't matter. What I've said is that the context is vital. We can select women as 50% of our candidates but if they're in the 325 least winnable seats, it is just window dressing. And of course you need the numbers as every stage, so that you can analyse every aspect.

However, that doesn't appear to be what the Speakers Conference is saying. The reports that I have read imply that it is the numbers of candidates selected that must be reported, and I fear that Labour will use it as a stick to beat us and the Conservatives with. That would, after all, be consistent with their behaviour in places like inner London for many years now.

Our processes are pretty transparent, and there is nothing hidden. If we aren't selecting people from a particular group, there may be perfectly valid reasons, beyond our control. After all, we still haven't solved the problems that prevent women from coming forward in equal numbers to men.

Some ethnic groups are thought to favour particular political parties disproportionately - does that mean that the onus should fall on those Parties to select representatives from those groups? Or should political parties reach out to those communities in an attempt to persuade them to an alternative view and then encourage them to run in their name? I prefer the latter, for what I would hope are obvious reasons.

This is a complex debate, and I have no problem in making it a transparent one. However, let's make it a Party-neutral one where those who judge do so on the basis of all of the information, as opposed to a simplistic benchmark defined by one political philosophy to spite the alternative ones.