Diversity has long been a contentious issue in the Liberal Democrats. We frequently get stuck between wanting to make progress, and a genuine mistrust of quotas and A-lists. The answer though, I would hope, is not found within these binary options, and will come by the party as whole deciding to move forward on the issue, instead of fighting over it.
I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating – it is entirely unacceptable that in 2012 only seven of our fifty-seven MPs are women, only three are openly gay, and there is not one single BME Liberal Democrat on the green benches.
While I wouldn’t want the party to start picking its candidates based on who they share their bed with, their skin colour, or their gender, there clearly is a genuine, underlying problem. In fact, the low number of LGBT MPs illustrates the point perfectly. That community is well represented in the ranks of Lib Dem activists, yet many never become parliamentarians or even candidates. Somewhere in the development system, something is going wrong.
It really does matter too. No modern political party can continue to be credible if it does not represent people from the full range of genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations.
The issue played out very clearly when Chris Huhne resigned, and the two people reshuffled into new ministerial roles were both men. Many in the party were quite content, given that two undoubtedly able individuals filled the roles. However, some raised the issue as to why Jo Swinson, then Parliamentary Private Secretary to Vince Cable, hadn’t been moved into the vacant ministerial post in the Business Department (she subsequently became PPS to Nick Clegg,) while others pointed out that neither Sarah Teather nor Lynne Featherstone, both currently ministers, seemed to even be considered for promotion. While it would be disingenuous not to point out that Jenny Willott became a whip, returning to government after resigning a role over tuition fees, the two ministerial promotions still went to men, almost by default.
As an organisation, the Liberal Democrats have meritocracy as one of our fundamental values, and this gives rise to an understandable nervousness towards certain measures that would, in the short term, improve diversity. Many of my female friends would recoil in horror at the thought that their success may have been thanks to a crude box-ticking exercise. The issue also gives way to some rather tense debates within the party – for example when conference discussed moves towards quotas for BME candidates. Such debates do nothing to improve the cause of any under represented group.
The problem, though, is not sticking to a principle of promoting on talent not tokenism, but that the talent pool we are picking from in the first place is not diverse enough. The party is seeking to address this, with measures such as the Leadership Training Programme for groups currently under-represented in Parliament, but it won’t be enough on its own.
I know it’s at this point I should come up with a comprehensive idea for fixing all the party’s diversity problems. However, what the issue really needs is commitment from everyone, from the leadership to the grassroots, from Nick Clegg to local party chairs, to develop diversity. More than anything, this requires that diversity stops being a divisive issue within the party, and becomes one around which Liberal Democrats unite to find a liberal, lasting solution.