Friday, June 01, 2007

GLA selection: will the agony never end?

As an Officer of the Regional Executive and a member of the Regional Candidates Committee, I find myself near the centre of a firestorm of angst and despair that has broken out over our selection of the London-wide list.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe rows that took place over the Rules, the campaign phase and the actions of the Returning Officer were bad enough, but the list that emerged at the end of the process is now under widespread assault for the absence of black and minority ethnic candidates at the sharp end. We’ve been attacked by Operation Black Vote, the 1900 Trust, and even by the Mayor of London. I also note that a number of our leading BME activists have also gone public with their criticisms.

The Regional Constitution requires that the Candidates Committee has at least one BME member, whose role will be to address questions of diversity. And who is this year’s lucky occupant of the role? Yes, you guessed it, yours truly. I suspect that I could have a very busy summer ahead of me…

I’ve already made my views abundantly clear on Liberal Democrat Voice, posted in my own name for those anonymous critics out there. However, I really should use this platform to make some direct criticisms of the process, the participants and anything else I feel like so…

The Process

We need to learn that budding candidates look upon candidacy as a career, and allow them the opportunity to plan. Admittedly, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that we will be selecting candidates eventually, but given the realisation that the Regional Party needs to be far more long-sighted in its planning and organisation, it should not be beyond the wit of a Regional Executive to think beyond next week.

The scheduling of this hinged on a failure to act earlier, resulting in a very hasty decision-making process of scheduling. In fact, the schedule was drawn up one afternoon by David Allworthy and myself, and presented to the Regional Executive just two hours later. Why did this happen? If action had not been taken then, we wouldn’t have had a selection process for many months due to a clash with the already scheduled European selections. Why wasn’t action taken earlier? Don’t ask, it depresses me to even think about it.

The Selection Rules came from the Regional Candidates Committee. There was barely any consultation beyond the Regional Executive and this, in hindsight, was always bound to lead to accusations of favouritism. It wasn’t favouritism, it was incompetence. I’ve already noted that I should have paid more attention. I didn’t. Mea culpa, mea ultima culpa.

Best of all, we timetabled the campaign phase to coincide with local elections outside London. Campaigns Department weren’t happy, and rightly so. Admittedly, members of the Regional Campaigns Committee voted the timetable through so nobody emerges from this covered in glory.

The Participants

I was certainly aware that one likely candidate was organising her campaign as early as last summer. Guess what, she got a place in the top three. As for the rest of them, apart from the steady flow of e-mails from sitting London Assembly members, little sign.

The notion that you can contact 8,000 members across the city in the six weeks or so that the campaign phase lasts without an organised and enthusiastic campaign team is so ludicrous as to be laughable. Any sensible election campaign in the real world starts with the realisation that you need to start early, get an organiser and recruit people to campaign for you, in short, hit the ground running. How is an internal campaign different, especially when you have more than twenty opponents?

The incumbents aside, those candidates who did well had learnt this simple lesson and executed well. This is not to say that the method is foolproof and always successful, as we see in local and parliamentary elections, and saw in this selection too, but you improve your chances if you have done the groundwork first.

Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats

I will make no friends by saying this, but EMLD has seldom lived up to its promise. I fully accept that a lack of funding has hindered its performance but the frequent impression that its aim is to promote whoever happens to be leading it at the time has done nothing but harm for its credibility.

I have tremendous respect for Meral Ece, but EMLD really needs to work out what it can do and then get on with it. The risk is that the appointment of a dedicated Diversity Officer by the Party will effectively consign EMLD to the margins unless it is seen to have a purpose and a coherent message. Indeed, the existence of a number of groups such as Chinese Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Democrat Muslim Forum can only act to blur that message.

The other question for EMLD is who it represents. Can any organisation properly represent the diversity of groups sheltering under the BME umbrella? What issues unite the entire BME community, or is there such a community to address? Unless the problems are directly racist, do Chinese activists have the same needs as Afro-Caribbean ones, or Muslim ones? Do the potential solutions reflect the philosophy that underpins the Party? If not, can/should they be imposed?

Alright, the critique is all very well, what do we do next? What should happen is multi-faceted;

We need to review the Selection Rules as soon as possible. That process needs to involve Local Parties, candidates, Returning Officers and the various groups with an interest, such as EMLD, the Campaign for Gender Balance and the Parliamentary Candidates Association, to name but three. This means more than just a questionnaire, but implies an ongoing public review. The Rules shouldn’t be a secret, and nor should the process of change.

We need to analyse the data that we have, in terms of our membership, voter participation and behaviour. It is all very well to presume a South West London bias but this doesn’t wholly explain the results. The Sutton candidates didn’t do that well, and the number of Richmond candidates selected doesn’t come close to reflecting the membership there. The incumbency factor clearly comes in to play but isn’t guaranteed to comfort.

We need to encourage candidates to start campaigning earlier, to build a profile outside their own corner of London, especially if they come from a part of London with few members. Being a known figure helps, allowing you to build a campaign team of people who want to see you get selected. Members in otherwise neglected constituencies like my own Dulwich & West Norwood remember people who they have met, albeit briefly, and are likely to vote on the basis of “I’ve met him/her, he/she took the trouble to come to see us.”.

We need to do for BME candidates what the Campaign for Gender Balance has done for women, providing opportunities to meet, network and benefit from mentoring and training. We still aren’t good at creating and nurturing opportunity and more must be done.

There are probably other aspects that I have overlooked or don’t support. However, we have no choice but to act, or risk losing what credibility we have as a force campaigning for genuine equality of opportunity for all.


Duncan Borrowman said...

I am totally willing to accept that two overriding factors in my poor showing were my late change of heart to stand and my decision to stop irritating members over the phone.

But given that, I will be sitting down and writing in full my views of all the stages of the process, but you know most of them!

Anonymous said...

All sensible comments, Mark. Two additional ones: you are not 'ultima culpa' (or whatever the correct 3rd person version is), the regional chair is and ought to resign; secondly, yes, review the rules as soon as possible but that ought to mean after November since lots of people involved in the selection 'game' will be busy til then.


Liberal Neil said...

A very sensible contribution to the discussion Mark.