Beyond Quotas

It’s been a dispiriting few weeks for women’s representation.  Outstanding women candidates for the Labour leadership, deputy leadership and London mayoral candidacy were beaten by men, compounded by no women being appointed by Corbyn to shadow the great offices of state.  Men once again dominated the dissolution honours list, with 28 of the 45 new Peerages (63%) going to men.  The fact that men were not quite as dominant in the Lib Dem list (55%) as that of the Conservatives (62%) or Labour (75%) is no cause for celebration in a party with no women MPs.

We should certainly celebrate the women playing leading roles in our campaigns for next May’s elections – Caroline Pidgeon as our London Mayoral candidate, Katy Gordon fighting for a key Lib Dem gain in the Scottish Parliament, and Kirsty Williams as our inspiring leader in Wales.

We also need to harness the momentum of our new leader and 20,000 new members to drive a cultural change throughout the party.

Philosophically, the Liberal Democrats are absolutely in the right place: valuing the individual, protecting freedom and celebrating difference are at the very heart of our constitution and founding principles.  Practically, we need to ensure our actions make that a reality within the culture of the party.

A commitment to diversity needs to be embedded across structures, processes and all that we do.  Candidates are important of course, as the public face of the party, but it goes much wider and deeper than that.

Whatever your views on all-women shortlists and whatever the party decides on that one small part of this debate, we can’t afford to continue with the complacent thinking that suggests there is only a problem in the lack of diversity of our parliamentary candidates or that there is a single, easy solution.  Like the arguments about boardroom quotas, it can end up being a distraction.  Even if implemented, all-women shortlists alone would be insufficient, failing to tackle the underlying problems.  And obviously just choosing not to go down the quota route doesn’t take us any further forward.  So either way, we need to develop a broad range of practical steps, and I’d rather we focused the bulk of our energy and debate on what they should include.

Party staff, local party officers, national committee members, conference attendees, speakers at conferences, informal advisers – we need to be looking at all of these groups and more.  Figures on the diversity of these varied groups, and on pay, promotion and retention rates, must be collected and analysed on a regular basis.  Data is key to help us analyse where we are doing well, and less well, and work out an action plan.  There is a strong case for us publishing it too – the same arguments apply to a political party as a business, public scrutiny of the figures will help to focus minds.

The specific actions we need to take should be informed by what we learn, but could include increasing awareness of unconscious bias, undertaking an equality impact assessment of policies, improving succession planning, trialing measures to secure better balance at conference, addressing financial barriers, overhauling recruitment practices, and many more ideas.  So instead of obsessing about the quota debate, let’s look more creatively at the bigger picture and focus on what we will do to change it.

 

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Jo Swinson
Jo Swinson was Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire 2005-2015 and Minister for Women and Equalities, and for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs in the coalition government

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