Diversity 101

"...many organisational cultures are outdated, having been designed for just one type of worker. The days of trying to shoe-horn people into institutions that were never designed by them or for them are over. They need to reform".

Many thanks to Zohra Moosa, in the CiF piece on Friday. She's talking about business and the world of work but she could just as equally be talking about political parties, and particularly, in my experience of the Liberal Democrats.

Jonathan Hunt of the wrote a letter in Lib Dem News, a few weeks ago, pointing out the parties dismal record of recruiting, selecting and getting elected ethnic minority candidates. We are vaguely better at getting women in to place but we are far from utilising the potential of the 40% of Liberal Democrats that are women to their full force.

And gosh, the letters that have come in since decrying Jonathan's letter! And none of them actually suggesting what we do about apart from inferring it's not really a problem!

Indeed, in the latest Lib Dem News (9th Jan), Ian Hale suggests, by some weird logic, that in Labour dominated areas, where he suggests that most BME people live:

'A capable person who wanted to be actively involved in politics might well take the pragmatic decision to join Labour'.

What he does not then go on to explain in his letter is why ethnic minority candidates should be more prone to this behaviour than white people.

Really!! The letters page of Lib Dem News can be as bad as listening to Any Answers on a Saturday afternoon at times!

It is true we do not have the luxury of safe seats that perhaps the other two parties have, which means that our techniques for getting people elected require that person to sacrifice all including career, income and family in the hope of getting elected. For a lucky (and sure, hardworking) 63 it has paid off but for many more the bet rarely has any chance of success.

I have long been of the view that we expect too much of all our candidates, whether male, female, black or white. We make the prospect and process of being a PPC such a hair shirt that those people who are in demand in their own communities, whether that's an interest community or a geographical one decide they can probably achieve their aims in another less sacrificial manner.

And so off they go, just like Chamali Fernando, and go and find something more constructive to do. Her actions were a little impatient I thought, but she's a loss to us and a gain for some other cause. We can shrug our shoulders as much as we like but, her leaving is still a net loss to us as a party.

Those of us who by virtue of our race or gender find ourselves on the wrong end of power are expected to rise above the fact that we have to work far harder than our white male peers to get nowhere near as far.

What is clear is that all these letter writers are against positive discrimination. Fair enough. But what is also clear to me is that many of these letter writers do not understand why we need to be diverse as a party. In fact, it seems to me that they see diversity as an irrelevance and are far more interest in just spewing out once more the mantra that we need the best person for the job.

But why then, is that person so often white and male? Equality does not just happen; surely millennia of human civilisation has taught us that? And, in any case, who gets to decide what is best?

But why in a party, that often defines itself by it's commitment to the individual do we need diversity? Surely it's the policies that matter not the colour of their skin or their sex?

Well, there's two reasons.

Firstly diverse groups make better decisions for the whole of society because even the voices of the minority or less powerful groups can be heard. We all like to think that we are compassionate enough and objective enough to take every one's situation into account but experience shows that groups of white men, largely tend to create organisations that fit the modus operandi of groups of white men. Take the way parliament works, for example.

And as Lynne Featherstone says in her article here of her time as a London Assembly Member and the difficulties ensuing were there was a homogeneity of life experiences:
"Nowhere is this clearer than in the allocation of resources, where the macho boys culture so often summons up the massive project and neglects the important details. When I was chair of transport at London Assembly it was starkly clear. Why is it that an obsession with boys-toys – the macho game of who’s got the biggest airport or the longest train – delivers multi-billion pound budgets for massive transport infrastructure projects yet not even a fraction of those budgets were spent on so called ‘soft measures’, such as making sure you can fit a double buggy through the door of a bus and making sure that local shopping centres and services are easily accessible – really easily accessible - through using public transport?"
The benefit of diversity is not because someone has different coloured skin or a differently shaped body but the different life experiences that they gain because society treats us differently depending on what colour skin we have or what sex we are. As long as women undertake the majority of childcare and the men making the decisions do not, women will be more likely to understand the need for these 'so called soft measures' that Lynne refers to.

Secondly, there is the issue of identity. Identity politics may be an anathema to a bunch of liberals but I can promise you that if I look at a group of people that I might aspire to be part of and I see they are all white, middle aged men then I will assume that's because the people putting them there only wanted white, middle class men. I am highly suspicious of homogeneous groups in positions of power and I don't buy that it's because they are all the best people for the job.

It is as Zohra Moosa said a culture designed for one type of person that still insists that the rest of us have to be shoe horned into working the same way.

To be honest, I cannot believe that anyone ever wants or desires positive discrimination as a first point of call. There are many other things, that we have yet to do, but that we can do before we have to resort to that. But, we have to go forward with the assumption that it will be us and the way that we do things that will have to change not BME or women as a group who have to change to fit in.

I'm hoping that the Diversity Engagement Group chaired by Vince Cable and of which I am a member will explore many of these opportunities. We are currently catching up, very slowly it seems to me, on the very basics of being able monitor and target diversity but I think once that's done we need to get much more radical and look at how the Liberal Democrats are going to change the way we do things to make being involved as easy for a woman in her thirties with 2 children to look after as it is for a similar man.


MatGB said...
22 Jan 2009, 23:18:00

"What he does not then go on to explain in his letter is why ethnic minority candidates should be more prone to this behaviour than white people."

They're not? In areas where we're weak, we find it much harder to recruit members and potential candidates. In areas where we're strong, candidates come to us.

I initially supported the Lib Dems not out of some commitment to Liberalism (I was 17, I had never heard of Mill) but because I lived in an area where Labour had trouble keeping their deposit, and I wanted rid of John Major.

I rejoined a long time later, after I'd come to terms with what liberalism was. Where we are strongest, the BME proportions of the local populace is weakest. That's changing now as we encroach into Tory no-go-zones in urban areas, but we've along way to go.

Given that we put a large amount of emphasis on our "local" candidates, and a large number of our MPs are from very white areas, is it surprising really?

Combine that with the amount of work it takes and the number of times the average PPC has to fight an election, and it'll take awhile.

I've long said that the problem is the electoral system and single member constituencies, they disincentivise diversity in a really pronounced way.

We need to keep moving into Labour safe areas, and we need to keep pushing multi-mmember STV. Not because it's "fair" but because it creates a more representative field.

Positive discrimination is hurtful—our local AWS MP still gets griped at for only being there for her gender, and her replacement Labour PPC will have similar problems—indeed, our (female) PPC is making a point of how she won her democratic selection on merit as part of the campaign. We have to keep moving forward, but we also have to recognise the root cause.

Single member constituencies create a selectorate that wants a "safe" candidate, and that's frequently a white middle class man in a suit. But multi member constituencies incentivise diversity as each candidate mobilises a slightly different base, and transfers kick in.

We have the policy to change Parliament. That's what we should concentrate on.

a very public sociologist said...
11 Feb 2009, 12:23:00

You can twitter but not blog? Where's your priorities?????

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