Regular readers will have gather that I’m not only in favour of the party having more women MPs, but I want to see it take positive action on the issue.
What I do oppose however is positive discrimination where it is not warranted, and simplistic tokenism. What therefore am I to make of this:
Mr Hughes told the hustings meetings that if he became leader one of his first actions would be to ask his parliamentary colleagues to agree to a change in their rules, and elect two deputy leaders – one female and one male…
“By agreeing to this rule change and appointing two deputy leaders, one of which had to be a woman, my colleagues in Westminster would demonstrate both to the Liberal Democrat party at large, but as importantly the wider general public in the country, that the Liberal Democrats were serious about increasing the number of women in parliament.”
Nonsense on stilts! The position of deputy leader, on its own, isn’t that significant a role. Their only real job is to ask John Prescott questions when Tony Blair is off sunbathing at one of Silvio Berlusconi’s mansions. Ming Campbell, when deputy, was high profile because of his Foreign Affairs brief. By contrast, Alan Beith was almost anonymous in the last few years of his deputy leadership.
If you want to improve representation of women, you give a significant number of them senior frontbench positions. You don’t achieve it by creating a single extra ceremonial post.
For balance, I should point out that like Mark Valladares I am disappointed to hear that Chris Huhne apparently came out in support of BME-only shortlists at last night’s Ethnic Minority Election Task Force Hustings. Party conference rightly rejected similar proposals (made by Simon Hughes as it happens) by a majority of around 4:1 last September and it was right to do so.
UPDATE: Since Ming supporters have (quite reasonably) decided to make capital out of my disappointment over Chris Huhne’s support on the issue of BME-only shortlists, I should add the following:
Disagreeing with Chris on this is not the end of the world as the party is a democracy and any such changes would require conference to change the constitution. As Simon Hughes learned to his great cost in September, it ain’t gonna happen.
But, to be fair of Chris, my understanding is that his position hasn’t changed greatly from his stated position on Reflecting Britain. i.e. try everything else first. Given that I happen to believe that if properly implemented the party’s position of positive action is extremely effective (let’s not forget that the gender balance proposals voted down in 2001 called for measures that would guarantee that 1/3rd of target sets had female candidates – in 2005 7 out of 21 new MPs were women), I don’t need to worry too much.
As for Ming, well, I’m not convinced he particularly cares about the issue one way or another. During the first Sky News hustings he branded the current Lib Dem policy of gender balance and ethnic diversity as a “complete and utter failure” – now he has signed up to both of them. Welcome though it is that his more enlightened supporters have got him to sign up to the issue over the past few weeks, there is a significant question mark over whether he will continue to take interest if and when elected. Peter: how well do you know your candidate?