If the comments on other websites and blogs is anything to go by, next week’s debate on equality and diversity at Lib Dem conference looks set to be a bit of a row. Up to this point I had expected the row to be the debate on taxation, but as the party in its wisdom decided that I shouldn’t receive a copy of the agenda despite being an elected conference representative that had registered to go, I missed this particular motion. Presumably as I only registered as a steward and therefore haven’t paid to go I don’t deserve to be kept informed of what is on the agenda. Despite having been told initially that this was the case, I now understand that agendas were posted out but many people didn’t receive them thanks to problems with Royal Mail.
I usually judge how good a motion is by the fairly simple criteria of whether I read it and decide that I disagree with parts of it and/or read it and think “now there’s a good idea”. Instead I read all of this motion and I can’t find either anything to disagree with or anything that seems like a good novel suggestion.
First, the big flaw. This motion is put forward by the Federal Executive with federal applicability. Yet, the whole process for approving and selecting candidates is run by the state parties, i.e. England, Scotland and Wales, and within England the job of ensuring that seats have candidates is largely done by the individual regions. So FE can say what it likes, but it can’t actually do much about it except monitor what is happening. Perhaps that is why the motion is so fluffy and yet vague. This certainly isn’t the first time that something like this has happened. Countless statements are made by the party, often by Simon Hughes, on how candidates should be selected and yet no one has even seen fit to talk to the English party’s candidates chair or the English party executive, even though they run the process in England. The motion says:
Conference calls on the FE to continue to consult regularly with the Women’s Liberal Democrats and the Gender Balance Task Force, Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and the Ethnic Minority Election Task Force, the Liberal Democrat Disability Association and DELGA and all successor organisations, as well as with appropriate national organisations outside the Party
But what it doesn’t say is that it will also consult those people who actually have to put any of this in to practice.
To me, the nearest this motion gets to making any sort of statement on which it can be held to account is where it says that selecting a candidate from any under-represented group should “be considered when assigning target status to UK parliamentary constituencies”. As someone who has always opposed all-women shortlists, this is something that I have previously advocated as a fairer way of achieving a similar result. Instead of forcing constituencies to pick a candidate that they don’t want just because they are from the right under-represented group, we should instead elect more MPs from under-represented groups by letting people pick who they want and then give extra support to ensure that those people stand a better chance of getting elected. Whilst the motion does not say how this will be achieved, we can at least come back in the future and ask what specific actions have been taken to support specific candidates. My primary concern however is that some people already seem to have a belief that the only way they can be a target seat is to pick a female candidate. Whilst this may inadvertently encourage people to give greater consideration to female candidates, it is not the way it should be happening. When people ask which are the Lib Dem target seats the simple answer has always been to tell them to look at the previous election results and the ones with the smallest swing for the Lib Dems to win next time are the target seats. That is the right approach, but I think there is a case for adding to the list of target seats, those places that are still credible seats to target but with a candidate from an under-represented group. The big proviso to all of this is that none of these seats should be allowed to remain target seats if they fail to run a good campaign.
It is ironic that two weeks before conference starts, Liberal Democrat News is full of letters complaining about how lengthy the candidate selection process is. Indeed, one suggestion has been that constituencies should be able to re-select their previous candidate by just holding an EGM. Whilst this may well speed up the process, it is the best way of just selecting favoured sons. Party members will only be exposed to good potential candidates if there is an open selection. It has not always been the case that PPCs are re-selected, but perhaps they would have been if the members were not presented with a better option. The way the party selects candidates quicker is to have more trained returning officers and to ensure that there are more people around who can train selection committees. The English party has been addressing this, and there are already far more returning officers out there. The selection rules may seem complex, but they have gone that way to cover all potential selection problems and we’ve had plenty of those. A good returning officer will understand the selection rules to an extent where the process should not be complex for the local party.
Of the comments I have seen on other websites on this motion, the most astute come from James Graham. He rightly points out where the real problem lies:
In my view, the party’s fundamental problem is not in finding strong candidates from under-represented groups or in local parties discriminating against them. The main problem is we don’t have enough of them. The approach of both the Campaign for Gender Balance and the Ethnic Minority Election Task Force was to provide a mechanism for proactively going out and finding candidates in significant numbers.
Instead the party puts forward a fluffy but vague motion and created a ‘diversity tsar’ in the form of Steve Hitchins. As much as I think Steve Hitchins is good and to be fair, he has a good track record in this area, the approach we need is a lot more simple. We do need headhunting, but not in an exclusive tokenistic way. Instead the party, and that means all party members and not just “the powers that be” should be encouraging those who are good to stand for us, no matter who they are. Those good candidates can present themselves to local parties for selection, and if they are good, that will show through.
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: Conference Agenda Motion “Diversity and Equality”
ALEX WILCOCK: Sex and the President
JAMES GRAHAM: Reflecting Britain Update
PETER ON THE APOLLO PROJECT: Rough and ready rhetoric