Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have rather a lot of form when it comes to internal Party debate on issues of diversity and representation. I've spoken in the last three debates and, when it became clear that we would have another debate next weekend in Sheffield, I did wonder whether or not to dip my toe in this rather stormy water again. I admit to being minded to sit this one out, but can't resist some comment. Perhaps it might inspire me to put a card in... who knows?
So, let's dip into this confectionery box, and see what fillings are to be found...
'Conference notes' the recent history of the debate, especially the review carried out by (now Baroness) Sal Brinton. In passing, I should note that I opportunistically took a brief window to feed in some of my deeply-held views on the subject. Only Sal will know whether that had any influence at all, but I'm confident that she will have juggled the competing views with her usual professional thoroughness.
'Conference further notes' diplomatically describes the current division between the opposing schools of thought, although if we are being blunt, the anti-quota view has now won out three times in a row, so we are effectively trying to see how far we can move towards a minority position without losing the motion all together.
And that leads us to the proposals for action...
The first proposal is targeted at Regional Parties in England, which appears to exclude Scotland and Wales (they aren't Regions, they're States, mes amis!). The 'mainstreaming' of Regional diversity champions does sound like management jargon, and as the Regional constitution geek, I am truly intrigued by what they might actually want to see happen. There is also a call for targets to be set, and I am pleased to see that the lessons have been learned in terms of looking at the process as a whole. For the first time, candidate assessors and returning officers are also seen to have a part to play in achieving equality of opportunity.
Admittedly, the responsibility for setting targets is left to the Regions, and this will probably disappoint some, especially the more urban activists, some of whom still seem to assume that the rest of the country is like London, or Birmingham, or Manchester. I suspect that the targets in places like the North East or Devon and Cornwall will be pretty low and yet be properly reflective.
The creation of a Leadership Programme for outstanding candidates from under-represented groups reflects the sort of thing that Messrs Campbell, Hughes and Huhne were promising during the 2006 leadership contest. Indeed, we were hearing similar things from young Mr Clegg in 2008. Hopefully, this time, we might actually see some product.
One aspect that is interesting is the proposed fund to provide practical support. In the past, we have been offered funds to support candidates once they've been selected, i.e. a bribe. This looks to be rather more subtle, and implies that you might, for example, provide funds to a wheelchair-bound candidate to cover additional transport costs, or childcare costs for a candidate with children, or funding for substitute carers. I don't see a problem with that in principle, but the devil is, as usual, in the detail.
The selection criteria appear to be entirely consistent with the concept of selection by merit, although I do wonder how easy it will be to find an MP or Peer with time to do this, a minor cavil, I accept.
I am troubled by the proposal that, where a candidate from the Leadership Programme applies for a priority seat, at least one other person on the programme should be shortlisted. Does that mean, in some cases, press-ganging an unwilling applicant to apply? This looks like a token gesture, and I'm never keen on such things. Applicants for any seat should be enthused by the challenge that a particular seat presents, not there because they were made to be.
The proposal that groups of development seats get together to advertise is, again, window-dressing, and presumes that Local Parties lack the ability to judge for themselves when best to seek a candidate. The phrase 'development seat' covers a multitude of possibilities, from those keen to run a fully-integrated campaign to seats where there are few members, fewer activists, and no activity in large chunks of the constituency.
And finally, there is a call for a review in 2013. Whilst I understand the motivation - ensuring that this isn't kicked into the long grass, for one thing - I do wonder what tangible results will be available at that time, two years out from a General Election, remember. It does look like the ground is being prepared for a 2014 motion calling for quotas, even though that will in turn be too late to change anything until potentially 2020.
In summary, the motion is, for the most part, respectful of the Party's frequently restated stance against quotas. That said, it strays into some rather tokenistic territory as the drafters apparently clutched for a few gestures to satisfy those who continue to favour quotas. I think that clauses 4 and 5 add little in terms of potential outcomes, and would lose little sleep if they were removed. However, in the round, it offers potential for improving the diversity of our MPs. Probably not in 2015, on current polling figures, but eventually. My fear is that the 'outcomes now' lobby won't wait...