Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Improving the Diversity of our MPs - don't get your hopes up too much...

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...


Richard Gadsden said...

Far as I can tell, the only motion that would work to get outcomes now would be one that centrally deselects white men who are already MPs.

I've suggested before that we simply have a motion that requires MPs to retire until white men are no more than 50% of the parliamentary party (still overrepresented) and then has all non-white-men shortlists for every constituency that we currently have an MP in.

If insufficient MPs retire by a cut-off date, then have an all-member STV election to elect 27 white men from the white men who wish to continue and forcibly deselect the rest.

Such a motion is obviously not credible - we'd never pass it, much less by 2/3 (it's surely a constitutional amendment) but anything short of that would be both discriminatory and ineffective, surely the worst possible combination.

Mark Valladares said...


Interesting, but I can see some of the flaws in your suggestion.

An all member ballot to choose the 27 most blatantly populist male members of the Parliamentary Party? Because that's what would inevitably happen. There are those who, whilst very good at rousing the Party, are rather less good in terms of delivery, and others who are excellent local MPs and genuine liberals but are less likely to be in the spotlight.

In addition, why should I have the right to deny the Party members and, more importantly, the voters of another constituency, anywhere else in the country, the person they chose and then elected as their MP?

Richard Gadsden said...

It's a remarkably silly idea. The point is that if you actually wanted "outcomes now", you'd need to do it, or something even dafter.

Short of kicking sitting MPs out of office for being men, I see no approach that will increase the proportion of female MPs dramatically at the next election. None.

Labour achieved it in 1997 by making lots of gains, and by making those gains mostly with female candidates. Unless you believe that we will make 30-40 gains at the next general election, there is no quota approach that will make a big change to the male/female ratio, simply because most of our post-2015 MPs will be drawn from our present MPs.

Mark Valladares said...


Ah yes, now I see where you're coming from...

You're absolutely right, and for those of us who see the road to proper diversity as being a long one, with setbacks along the way, the 'quick fixers' are a source of much frustration.

Most things can be achieved with sufficient casting off of principles and philosophical consistency, but if our principles are good for our nation, we should apply them rigorously in running our Party, not cast them aside in pursuit of instant but transient gratification.

Anonymous said...

I do hope that you will give conference your thoughts. I found your speech on the diversity motion to be one of the more illuminating in October - it's nice to hear from someone who actually knows how these high sentiments would actually translate in the real world!

Oranjepan said...

Balanced representation is only one side of the battle - if the terms of debate stay the same then the opportunity for valuable new contributions are limited, which in turn limits any reason for under-represented groups to feel they actively represent greater plurality.

For example, during the debate over the rise in VAT there was ample opportunity to point out how there are aspects of progressiveness designed into the tax to reflect the specific expenditure of different sections of society (such as women), and that the progressive principle could easily be extended to take more account of necessity.

Yet this was completely overlooked by all and sundry, and there is absolutely no indication that any amount of positive discrimination would grasp this opportunity to present a more radical perspective.

History suggests Britain prefers people to earn their rewards, so I think it may be more effective (and possibly headline-grabbing) to pose the positive challenge to women and other under-represented groups to 'show us what you've got!'

And if someone dares to make a play of that line I promise to search them out and buy them a drink (if that doesn't scare them off).