I have to admit to feeling a little deflated having spent a lot of time running the Reflecting Britain website. This weekend, the Lib Dem Spring Conference passed a motion on encouraging more ethnic minority MPs. Although you can’t sum up a strategy as wide as that in a single motion, the fact is, the donkey work has already been done. As Ming Campbell pointed out in his pitch, the motion essentially reiterates the action plan worked out in great detail by a working group that reported back to the party’s Federal Executive as far back as 2004. Essentially, the intent of this motion was to kickstart a process that had already been agreed.
What happened instead was an amendment got passed to hold a review of the process and report back to the Autumn Conference. The FE is to “consider” the plan (which it has already approved, let’s not forget), but not necessarily go along with it.
This would annoy me slightly less were it not for the fact that the review promised in the motion was promised as a “top priority” for the FE to work on immediately after the General Election. For the last 12 months, we’ve had a succession of FE decisions, and another conference motion on gender balance last autumn. In short, we have an extremely clear action plan on both ethnic diversity and gender balance, yet we are still holding yet another review. I can’t help shifting the suspicion that we will continue having reviews until the FE and conference come up with what certain senior party officials consider the “right” answer. Until then, it is review after review after review.
For me, this will be a major test of Ming Campbell’s leadership. Let’s be clear: Ming and Simon Hughes profoundly disagree on this issue. Look at their responses to Reflecting Britain: Ming‘s approach is essentially mentoring and support; Simon‘s approach is focused around twinning and zipping seats on a gender and ethnic minority basis. Look closer and you will see that Simon wants to bring staff support for both initiatives directly under Cowley Street control, something that has been resisted and that Simon was overwhelmingly voted down on less than 12 months ago.
Why is this an appallingly bad idea? Simply because the purpose of the task forces are to find, train and support individuals standing in target seats. In order for it to work, they have to function as honest brokers who will support people on an equal opportunity basis regardless of any particular campaign priority or agenda. Often that means pitching candidates against “favoured sons” that the Campaigns Department is keen to retain. As soon as this is brought under direct Cowley Street control, doubly so if they are made into a single unit as Simon wants, you create a conflict of interest. What the task forces do will be subject to what the Campaigns Department regards as a priority; in short, the role will be politicised so that it is open to the charge that favoured sons will be protected while troublemakers will be targeted in the name of diversity.
You may accuse me of being paranoid, but that is EXACTLY what a senior party officer called for the last time this was reviewed (Chatham House rules prevent me from saying who). And of course, it is exactly what we have seen happening within Labour and appear to be seeing to an extent with Cameron’s “A” list.
Good intentions about diversity should not be used as a tool for increasing centralised control. It was very bad judgement on behalf of the London Region to accept the amendment which essentially drove a coach and horses through everything they wanted in the name of holding yet another godforsaken review. But as well as the centralisation, it is the lack of urgency that depresses me. While Ming was speaking in Harrogate today, the Politics Show had a piece on how the Tories’ diversity strategy has been proceeding. I might take issue with how they’re doing it, but there is no question they are making a serious effort and are likely to get tangible results. By contrast, Harrogate Conference agreed to put the Lib Dem’s strategy on hold until at least the end of May and, to a real extent, until the end of September. How many target seats will have selected by then?
UPDATE: Mark Valladares gives his version of events. Sorry mate, you’ve been had. I’m not suggesting we won’t get the right decision in the end, but it will take us considerably longer for us to get there. And as I’ve said twice before, the review happened in 2004…