Politics by candlelight

On Saturday night I was invited down to Horsham constituency (which bizarrely now includes my home village of Copthorne within its boundaries) to talk on my favourite topic of diversity.

I went down there, a little nervous, as I know that my thoughts on this topic are sometimes a little radical for many Lib Dems (although not Shirley Williams); however, I was incredibly heartened by the response that I got and in particular the views of women who had actually been councillors, PPCs or were potential candiates etc. I wonder sometimes that this debate is often prematurely stifled by our collective horror at some of the implications of positive discrimination but in Horsham there was a very open debate and much of what I talked about seemed to resonate with them.

Of course, there may have been lots of people sitting there thinking 'what a load of rubbish' and to polite to say and there were people who challenged parts of what I was saying, but I did not get mauled! I met lots of lovely people and even sat opposite someone at dinner (in candlelight because of Earth Hour) that I had unwittingly been at school with!

I came away full of pride and affection for my home county of West Sussex!

So here is the speech - I also spoke in candlelight because of earth hour, which was a challenge, and added in the odd anecdote or exclamation! So it's not verbatim.

I don’t know how many of you managed to get to Harrogate at the beginning of the month but we had a great speech from Howard Dean. He talked about the Democratic party becoming once again a national party and he said:

“If wanted to be a national party, we had to look like a national party’

So how do we Lib Dems, do?

Only 9 out of our 63 MPs are women.

We have no ethnic minority MPs.

Only 2 out of our 16 MSP are women.

We do OK in Wales for women but in the last London Assembly elections, the first ethnic minority on the list was placed 9th! In a city where 30% of the population is born outside the UK!

40% of our members and conference goers are women but only 25% of our PPCs and Conference Speakers. We don’t yet know how many ethnic minority members we have.

We are a white, middle class party that tends to put men in positions of influence and power. We may have a female president but she, like Margaret Thatcher is the exception that proves the rule.

We cannot, in any shape of form, even in the most diverse parts of the country claim to be a diverse party.

Why in a party, that often defines itself by it's commitment to the individual do we need diversity?

Why does it matter?

Surely, what we need are the best people for the job?

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 everyone because even the voices of the minority or less powerful groups can be heard.

And you don’t get ‘group-think’

We all like to think that we are compassionate enough, fair 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.

And as Lynne Featherstone says in an article on her blog , 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.

Often, those in privileged positions do not even comprehend of the benefits explicit and implicit that that benefits gives them; in fact because the world is designed around them they find it the hardest to see the world from a different point of view.

Secondly, there is the issue of identity.

It is, as Zohra Moosa said in the Guardian a couple of months ago, when talking about business but can be just as easily translated into politics: 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.

There in politics, as in business, a whole pile of accepted practices and ‘the right’ way to do things. These practices have built up around the lives of the people who are in power. They assume that they will be married, married to someone who will take off their shoulders the burned of domesticity and childcare.

For example, why are all jobs, particularly the well paid ones, deemed to be at least 35 hours a week.?

They also define how people must dress and what they must look like. All a man has to do is put on a suit to look like an MP.

And because the groups in power look so homogenous, they also have the effect of excluding everyone else from feeling that that path is for them or even that they are wanted.

Not just from taking part, but from actually voting for us. I think women who are interested in women’s equality and those of a progressive bent feel far more at home with Labour than they do with us, because of the simple fact that Labour has made more effort to be diverse than we are.

And of course, even if you are not convinced by the need for diversity for its own sake then you should be convinced that diversity or lack of it can have an impact on electability.

Oh, and before we get on to thinking that PR is the answer to all our problems, then we should look at the experience of diversity and PR in some other countries.

If you look over at New Zealand, you will see that the National Party did not start to achieve significant electoral success until their parliamentary party list started to look more diverse.

They undertook polling and the upshot of it was that people were not voting for them because they looked like a ‘bunch of honkies’.

It was not the introduction of PR that had happened years before but the fact they were not electable that made the National party change.

They now have not just ethnic Chinese but a Samoan and a ethnic Korean MP.

It is very easy to put the onus on the group that is under represented – oh but they don’t come forward! They don’t put cards in to speak at conference! Lets give them some extra training so that they can be more like us!

But why should they engage with us when it looks quite clear that you don’t get to the top unless you’re a white male – all but one of the Chief Officers Group is male and although it’s great that Kirsty Williams leads the party in Wales, she’s just not going to have any impact on what the rest of the country thinks we look like.

People often say how politics is a dirty game; not one for those without sharp elbows but is it right that we just shrug our shoulders and leave some of the most important decisions in our lives to those with the biggest egos and the sharpest elbows.

That is not equality.

Why not change the way politics is carried out? Why not make it an inclusive place? Why not make it more equal? Why not provide the environment to create diversity?

So, how do you do that?

Well, firstly you have to make the Liberal Democrats a place where women and ethnic minorities feel welcome and want to be decision makers.

This is more that just having nice policies or the right philosophical background.

We’ve already got those and that hasn’t made us diverse.

So, we have to change ourselves and the way we do things.

We have to make contact with community groups; we have to give new members not just a delivery round but to involve them in some of the more interesting jobs. We have to write about things of interest to them in our Focuses.

We have to hold sessions on the value of being a councillor.

We have to listen to them and their thoughts about how to do things.

We have to ring up those that we know and ask them to be involved not wait for them to volunteer.

These are some of the things that we have done in Lewisham.

If you are not doing these things then why should anybody who isn’t white, middle class and largely male want anything to do with us?

And when we get women and ethnic minorities in the right positions we should not assume that there is only one way of doing things- women stepping down as PPCs outnumber men by 4 to 1. There must be something in the way those local parties are behaving that creates that pattern.

Inequality does not just happen; it requires the exercise of power and Equality does not just happen; surely millennia of human civilisation has taught us that?

And even when we are successful, we still have to deal with prejudice or unwarranted concern that this or that particular electorate are not ‘ready’ for someone different.

But however effective and active we are at the grass roots, we will not encourage diverse members and activists until the public face of the party, those in leadership positions and in parliament, more fully reflect the population they seek to represent.

So I think, we will in the end, have to do more than just encourage and head hunt. I think, in the end ,we will need to use some sort of quotas in Westminster and local elections. We already do for every sort other kind of election, both internal and external.

To be honest, I cannot believe that anyone ever wants or desires positive discrimination as a first point of call.

But if you look around the world the only national parliaments which have at least 30% of their parliament as female are those who have some sort of quotas.

I do not think that we can ignore the only things that seem to work just because we deem them to be unfair to our male, white activists.

Interestingly, I don’t know if anyone saw the article about the Equality & Human Rights Commission in today’s guardian but there was a very interesting quote from an equality lawyer, they said:

"The problem is that 'fairness', unlike equality, has no basis in law. It's a much more nebulous concept. Fairness is not about protecting the rights of those who have experienced discrimination, it's about being fair to everyone, including businesses and white men."

And this is our dilemma as a party – which do we value more – fairness or equality?

I know that some would find an all women shortlists in their area very unfair. Like many men found the process of zipping.

But equality and diversity is going to mean that there will be fewer opportunities for men and white men that there were before.

But it will not mean that there will be fewer opportunities for them, than for women or ethnic minorities.

We cannot have a more diverse party and keep all those people who are currently in power in power.

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.

Because if we don’t sort it out ourselves and soon, it will be taken out of our hands.

Either the Speakers Conference will come out with something to force our processes or, worse (but perhaps more likely)

we will become electorally irrelevant as we put up slates that do not reflect those whose votes we want and just fail to get voted in.

But if we do change and we do become a more diverse party then we really will have the opportunity to change Britain and build a bright future for Britain.

Fairness is not the the same thing as Equality

Interesting that the EHRC (Equality & Human Rights Commission) seems to be imploding. I have to say I was, like many, underwhelmed by their recent thoughts that equality for women might have to be put on the back burner during the recession - surely that is the time that we need the EHRC most?

But I was very interested to read in the Guardian this morning, that some of the concerns are about a shift in focus aware from equaity to fairness. As an equality lawyer saying in the piece:

"The problem is that 'fairness', unlike equality, has no basis in law. It's a much more nebulous concept. Fairness is not about protecting the rights of those who have experienced discrimination, it's about being fair to everyone, including businesses and white men."
And so it seems to me that is the Lib Dems problem with Diversity (and despite some interesting moves forward recently, we do have a problem with it) is because we actually value fairness above equality.

For example, the only way that any parliament has ever reached the key proportion of 30% women to men has been through use of quotas; in our westminster system as currently managed that would mean All Women Shortlists.

That is of course a very unfair state of affairs for the male activists that would like to stand in a seat which is AWL (or zipped with women in front as per our Euro lists used to be) is in place.

I'm not sure that equality can be 'fair' for everyone at all times but we have to decide which is more important to us.

Just a thought....

On SkyNews.com last night...

Here's my spot, with Martin Stanford, on SkyNews.Com from last night.

The fact that Lembit is cross because of parliamentary censorship...

...is just one of the stories that I'll be covering on SkyNews.Com tonight.

It's a 7pm and I'll try and make it with plenty of time, this time.

Bloody Baby Boomers!

Couldn’t quite believe what I heard on the radio yesterday morning: according to the organisation Grandparent Plus, Grandparents ought to be paid to provide childcare for their grandchildren – or get tax credits or whatever!

So, this is what we’re in for, as baby boomers become grandparents!

Was there ever such a fortunate generation? Was there ever such a self-centred generation? Ever a generation with such a strong sense of entitlement?

Baby Boomers are those born between roughly between 1946 and 1961 (pre 1946 they’re categorised as war babies, as my mother will tell you, but I challenge you to find a war baby who was unable to take advantage of the same economic and social conditions just as well as a baby boomer).

As a generation they have benefitted from a health service, social security, largely benign or indeed positive economic conditions, better educational choices and no war.

They are certainly more fortunate than the generation before them.

And they will rely on the generation below them to support them in their old age, like no other generation before or after them will be able to.

Just think of all that capital they’ve got tied up in their houses, whilst their children’s generation struggle with overwhelming debt.

Just think of all the fuss made last year or the 40th anniversary of 1968!

But is all this advantage enough?

Remember when forty became the new thirty? And fifty became the new forty? (Which of course was already the new thirty) That was baby boomers.

And as Baby Boomers become older and grandparents then we start to see demands for tax credits on their pensions and the right to flexible working. Pensions that their children’s generation are already paying for.

Did they do this for their own parents when they relied on them for child care help? You bet your bottom dollar they didn’t!

Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, George Bush. All Baby Boomers.

Why would anyone join the LIberal Democrats!

Excellent film

Behind the scenes at the Today programme....

For Comic Relief I presume, thanks to Tom Harris MP, for the prompt....not that he needs traffic from my blog.

Public Space, Pornography and what I did on my holidays

Friday afternoon at the Lib Dem’s Spring Conference and it's the Women's Policy Consultation session.

We went through a whole pile of topics, neatly titled in the consultation paper under such terms as 'Can we have it all?, Money, Sex, Love & Relationships and MEN!

One thing we got on to talking about in our group, towards the end of the session is the increasing sexualisation and objectification of young women, particularly in our public spaces.

It seems to me that the norms of pornography are seeping into our public spaces, and I don't just mean billboards in the centre of town, but the media and mainstream internet and the products we buy.

The liberal in me, reckons that pornography does not have to be degrading to women; I am largely a sex positive feminist. The liberal me, that lives in the real world, has to admit however that most of it is degrading to women

The pornographic norm is that women are ready to have sex at all times, they are happy to share their men with other women, that even when the pornography involves gang rape, the women in these scenes, though they may be unwilling to start with soon discover they really, really wanted it after all.

Above all, they must always make an effort to look attractive to men.

A 2005 review found that half of all children have logged on to a pornography website, whilst over 57% of children aged 9-19 had seen pornography online.

But they don’t have to go online; everywhere I look there are pictures and adverts involving women in sexual poses, scantily clad and often inferring some sort of lesbian relationship - but not the type that doesn't involve men, of course.

Even the Daily Mail is running articles looking at gratuitous use of sex to promote products!!

The defects that all of us have, including the models used, are airbrushed out creating a standard of perfection for young women to aspire to that actually does not exist.

Lap dancing clubs, able to operate on the same footing as cafes, have doubled across the UK in recent years. This involves naked and topless women dancing at close 'proximity' to men (often there after work or at lunch time). There is ostensibly a three feet rule but in practice this rule is not enforced.

Honest to god, I'm not a prude - I really, really don't mind what it is that people to get up to, as long as they're both consenting - but I do think that public space should not be given over to the lowest common denominator.

They even advertise lap dancing classes for women and my health club - just along from the cr̬che Рwhen did the work of a sex worker become so aspirational?

I think public spaces should be available and safe places for children and young people; it's bad enough being a 37 year old woman in these times and being made to feel no good unless you're a size 10 (with at least D cup breast, of course) - who would be a 14 or 15 year old girl, trying to work out a sense of self?

Liberalism isn't just about freedom for people to be and do what they want - that's libertarianism - but is also about freedom from harm and I want to be and I want children and young people to be free from the pornographic norm that suggests that in order to be normal you have to be gagging for sex at all times (whether male or female) and that if you’re female or even just a little girl you primary aim is to look sexy and attractive to men!

As a friend of mine, over in Sydney, said recently when this subject came up at dinner - why should we let corporations and businesses (for it is they that run the lap dancing clubs, the porn sites and push the products with the highly sexual adverts) dictate to us what are public spaces feel like? Why should it always be the freedom of companies to make money through sex that wins out?

I am glad to see that today Jacqui Smith has ordered a fact-finding review into the increasing sexualisation of young women.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be like this.

I’m not long back from New Zealand plus a long weekend in Sydney. Lucky me!

But lucky New Zealanders as well. Because one of the most striking differences I noticed between the UK and NZ was that there seemed no pressure on women to be sexual objects at all times – although there did seem to be a lot of excessive baking going on.

Perhaps, they’ve yet to catch up with us, but I don’t think that’s it. New Zealand is way ahead of us in many things and especially in terms of diversity, particularly in its parliament. It’s already had two female Prime Ministers and 33.6% of it’s current MPs are female.

In fact when I spoke about how worried I was about the sexualisation of young women in the UK, they were kind of mystified - it was clearly not as much a problem there.

It is hard to say which came first.

Does New Zealand have more female MPs and therefore any over sexualisation of women and girls in public spaces has been nipped in the bud; or do more women feel able to go forward into parliament and are taken more seriously when they get there because they don’t feel any pressure to come over like a sex object?

One New Zealander that I know well, is not sure how New Zealand women became free from the need to be a sex object at all times, but thinks that it may be because women get organised in NZ. Perhaps female MPs and groups would lobby companies that wanted to produce overtly sexist and sexualised adverts and products and therefore preserve their public space for everybody, not just those who want to use sex to make money from it.

In any case, the sexualisation of young women and the pornographication of our public spaces is not inevitable; we can stop it and we can say no to handing over our public spaces to those who would be happy with the lowest common denominator.

If you would like to contribute to the Liberal Democrat's Women's Policy Consultation, you can do so here.

By an accident of birth...

I was finally dragged from sleep, in disgust this morning, by a report from Refuge and Migrant Justice charity highlighting how UK Border staff had not been following guidelines when dealing with children and that they were often locking them up and not providing them with legal advice.

In fact, when I looked this up on the BBC I saw that:

"an eight-year-boy who had fled his country after his home had been destroyed in fighting was given no legal help with his asylum interview and application.

His claim was refused because of his lack of "credibility", the report says.

He's a child, without legal representation up against adults who are playing at God!

Of course, if this is true, then UK Borders need to sort it out and much is in the training, as always.

But I have to wonder what is wrong with these people, that they treat children, who are only in the position they are in by an accident of birth, so appallingly!

Would they want someone to treat their own children like that?

It never ceases to amaze me how so many people think that somehow that they somehow deserve the relative riches that we live in more than others; that somehow it was all their own hard work and not an accident of birth!


Just a quickie....

I have (finally) got a blog cooking on Cambridge University , because I have (finally) got Who's Who off to the printers, but in the mean time here's my slot last week on skynews.com where I talked to Martin Stanford on some of the up and coming sites on the web!

Amazed I got there actually, as traffic was uber bad on the M4 & A4 and I had to run from car, through reception (much to the angst of the security guard), to make up (thank God, imagine going on TV without it) and then straight on to TV - much exciting and certainly the best way to do it!

Except for the traffic of course.

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