The GLA candidate list has been causing a stink on Lib Dem Voice. On the plus side, and this needs stating because it is a genuine achievement, the list has a good gender balance with 2 of the top 3 candidates women and a good proportion of women further down the list. Indeed, in the case of Caroline Pidgeon (and Jeremy Ambache), she has managed to pip an incumbent to the post, a not inconsiderable achievement in a candidate selection. Notwithstanding this, the tone in the debate is far from self-congratulatory.
For me, there are two main issues. Firstly, there is a distinct dearth of BME candidates at the top of the list and just two, in eighth and eleventh place respectively (out of 11), on the list at all. Secondly, there is only one candidate from north of the river Thames.
There has been much wrangling about the calibre of candidates and the fact that the people at the top of the list, generally speaking, did the most to get elected. This may be true. But the bottom line is, the party will be presenting this list to a multi-ethnic, pan-London electorate. These candidates don’t reflect London, so why should London vote for them? However you dress it up, this is not helpful.
So, what can be done? The party has always opposed quotas and probably always will. While I agree with it, personally I have always felt that the party has to pay a ‘price’ for this position. It can pay this price in two ways: either it pays a political one, by being made to look bad by its opponents and losing out electorally, or it pays one in terms of resources – taking positive action to find, train and develop candidates from under-represented groups.
I’ve always argued for the latter. The party, from the grassroots to the top, has always paid lip service to it as well. But in terms of actually putting its money where its mouth is, the party has always failed to actually enact it.
So it is that the Campaign for Gender Balance has never been given an adequate budget and even that has now been cut. The Ethnic Minority Elections Task Force has never even got that far. Partly this has been because of a lack of leadership from within the nascent EMETF itself (CGB has always stood or fallen depending on who was at the helm), partly it has been because it was clear the party was never going to give it any money in the first place, which isn’t exactly very motivational. Even the much-vaunted new Equal Opportunities Officer in Cowley Street – which I am to understand will solve all the party’s failure to attract minority groups and women at a stroke – has not been fully financed by the Federal Party (the English Party had to chip in) and has either still not been filled or has only just been six months into the financial year.
What the party does have is a Â£200,000 ‘diversity fund’ but its funders have given explicit instructions that it must not be used to find, train or develop new candidates. Instead the money will be spent on BME and women candidates who have already been selected. Intriguingly we are to believe that this is simultaneously not a bribe for local parties to select the ‘right’ candidates, nor will it simply be spent on target seats that would get the money anyway. The analogy I’ve heard drawn is Solihull, where we had a female candidate and which was a ‘secret’ target seat. This money then will be spent of lots more ‘secret’ targets and we will only therefore be able to see if it was spent well or poorly after the election. Either way, what it will mean is that the successful BME and women MPs that get elected as a result will have much more marginal seats than their male counterparts. I don’t see this as a recipe for success, but only time will tell.
I don’t just blame the people at the top about this however. The party is a democracy and the complacency runs through it like a stick of rock. The party’s Federal Executive is au fait with it and conference is au fait with it. The party is committed to a uni-dimensional target seat strategy and until this strategy begins to fail (as opposed to under-perform, which I would argue it does), only a minority have an interest in rocking the boat.
The only real alternative is for interested individuals to take positive action themselves. And I have to plead guilty here: I have a long-standing promise to uphaul the Reflecting Britain website and turn it into a proper resource to help find, encourage and develop candidates from under-represented groups but have thus far failed to find the time necessary to fulfil it. Hopefully the fallout from the GLA selection will give me a sufficient kick up the bum to start working on it.
The South – and South West – bias of the GLA selection does give rise to another issue however, and that is a discrepancy in the party’s constitution. The Liberal Democrats are a federal party, and we have always worked on the basis that if you give the large local parties too much dominance over decision making, the party will only ever reflect the wishes of the large local parties. This is why the party has a degressive system for apportioning conference representatives.
The smallest local parties, up to 100 members, have 1 conference rep roughly for every 25 members. By contrast, local parties with 400 members have 1 rep for every 40 members. The more members you have, the more representation you get, but at a diminishing rate. This system has existed since the party was created: selections for list elections are a much more recent innovation.
My question is, why don’t we apply this rule to selecting list candidates for multi-constituency regions such as the GLA list? In recent years, the party has accepted that the gender balance rule in the constitution (that a third of committees must be of either gender – not that this rule needs to be enforced very frequently) should be applied to party lists: surely this would be little more than an exercise in consistency?
It would be easy to do – simply weight the votes from each local party according to size. The ballots are counted electronically anyway, so this wouldn’t be difficult to do (obviously you would have to add a different code to the ballot papers from each local party – again, elementary). It would make the votes of members in our less active areas worth more, but not dramatically so. It wouldn’t be a panacea, but it would mean that campaigning in smaller parties – which are disproportionately in the north – wasn’t a complete waste of time (as a member in Finchley, I never got a leaflet through my door – just a never ending stream of uninspiring emails from people who were clearly too busy in Richmond to help in the Scottish or Welsh elections).
What of the argument that if we want London better represented, small local parties should simply go out and recruit new members? These local parties don’t have the infrastructure which our held seats in South West London take for granted, and the party nationally hasn’t run a vaguely ambitious recruitment strategy in twelve years. Nor is it likely to for the foreseeable future (for the same reason it won’t invest in training and development: see above).
The bottom line is, the party is failing desperately both to look like modern Britain and to deal with modern British electoral systems. We can’t afford to be complacent. It is clearly time I pulled my finger out and started on my Reflecting Britain revamp; what will you be doing?