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.


Joris de Bres Race Relations Commissioner said...
1 Apr 2009, 10:02:00

The actual figures on diverse representation after the New Zealand election were as follows (refer the recent NZ Race Relations Report www.hrc.co.nz ):

Following the election, the National Party now has as many Mäori MPs as the Labour Party, and the combined total of seven National Party and five Mäori Party MPs associated in government is 12. National also has one Pacific and three Asian MPs. The Labour Party has seven Mäori MPs, four Pacific and three Asian. Of the remaining parties only the Greens have a Mäori MP. The overall total of Mäori, Pacific
and Asian MPs is 31 out of a Parliament of 122 members (25 per cent). There are two Mäori ministers and one Chinese minister in Cabinet, and two Mäori ministers (from the Mäori Party) outside Cabinet. Of these five (18 per cent of ministers), all but one are women.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
2 Apr 2009, 09:44:00

Thank you Joris - that's really interesting and improved my understanding of just how diverse the New Zealand parliament is!

Although, I have to say it was obvious just by going to watch PMQs when we were over there back in February. The difference between your parliament and our parliament in the UK was, lets just say, significant!

New Zealand has much to be proud of!

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