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Baroness Sal Brinton writes…Electing diverse MPs

February 16, 2016 5:57 PM
By Baroness Sal Brinton in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Party President Sal Brinton speaking on the Trans and Intersex Health motion in Bournemouth, 2015One of the most shocking events of the 2015 General Election night was the loss of our top held and target seats with women and BAME candidates, which resulted in an entirely pale and male parliamentary party. Members were rightly upset by this, and there has been much discussion about what steps the party needs to take to ensure that in 2020 and beyond our party looks like the countries and communities we represent. Top seats are already beginning the process of selecting Westminster candidates for 2020. We can't afford to delay any arrangement, hence the motion coming to York Conference.

Under our current constitution, these arrangements are the responsibility of the three state parties. We hope members will let their state party officers know their views as well as responding to the Federal consultation and debate in York.

In the governance consultation response last autumn the Federal Executive received many comments and proposals saying that 'something must be done - doing nothing is not an option'. In fact it was one of the top topics members wrote in about. FE and the Joint States Candidates Committee has investigated possible options, and the resulting motion that will be debated at York Spring Conference sets out a wide range of proposals, including limited application of All Women Shortlists (AWS). We know members have divided views on the issue of AWS, but it is important that the debate before and at conference is much broader, because it includes support for other under-represented groups. Indeed, not every member of FE supports all the details in the motion, but there was broad acceptance that it was right for members to debate and vote on this. You can see the full motion here.

It will not be the first time we are looking at these under-represented groups. We were the first party to set up a Leadership Programme (in 2011) to support our best candidates from under-represented groups (women, BAME, disabled, LGBT+) which was successful in giving us a diverse profile in our top seats for 2015, but this did not materialise into MPs. Those good figures mask a further problem: we have far too few candidates from under-represented groups on the approved list so the pool of candidates, especially women, is too small. In the run up to the 2015 election many local parties struggled to find women candidates to stand.

This needs to change, and it needs a revolution from the grassroots to make it happen: every activist and member needs to consciously encourage women, BAME, disabled and LGBT+ members to go for approval; for standing in local government seats (in addition to wanting to improve the diversity of our councillors, we know this is often a pathway to being a PPC); and to then stand for seats in Westminster, Europe, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and London Assemblies.

We know that there are local parties who already do this, and want to do more, so we want to give any seat that wishes to, the power to have an all women or all disabled shortlist, or have places reserved on the shortlists for those from under-represented groups.

We also want to adopt the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) strategy of asking local parties to demonstrate the active steps they have taken to attract diverse candidates to apply. The LPC say that the responsibility and ownership for diversity very locally has transformed their candidate list, and was one of the reasons Trudeau had a wonderfully diverse parliamentary group to draw from for his Cabinet.

We have previously struggled as a party in engaging with BAME communities in particular. It's vital we take this seriously - encouraging more BAME candidates to stand, acting as role models and speaking up for those issues which affect BAME communities. In the past the New Generation programme, which provided early support to BAME members who were considering becoming candidates, was much appreciated and successful, but we need to expand this.

We want to continue and extend the Leadership Programme to give these diverse candidates the support and skills that they need to fight and win selections, and then win elections. They have barriers that other candidates don't face.

The motion also sets out possible positive action for regions and states to take in some of our top seats. It recommends that where a sitting MP stands down in 2020, there should be an AWS. It also recommends that in Scotland, Wales and each English region top seats where we achieved 25% or more of the vote should designate a minimum of one not-held seat for an AWS. It also proposes that any seat where we won 10% or more of the vote, shortlists should have at least two candidates from under-represented groups (this would continue & extend the practice that Conference voted for on 2011 for Leadership Programme candidates).

The law says that we can't have all BAME or LGBT+ shortlists, but we are permitted to reserve places on shortlists for these groups and women and disabled candidates too. We also recognise that even within under-represented groups there are smaller groupings, so we will work with them to attract them to stand. For example, we had a good number of LGBT+ candidates in the Leadership Programme, but no lesbian or transgender applicants. We want to rectify that. We also believe in the + part of the LGBT acronym, and look forward to intersex and non-binary candidates applying under the LGBT umbrella.

Please read the motion - there's more detail than I can outline here. Any specific questions, please feel free to email me at president@libdems.org.uk. Please also note that wider diversity issues in the party are part of the next stage of the Governance Consultation, and we welcome your views on that too.

Liberal Democrats know we have to change the public face of our parliamentary party in the House of Commons, and conference will now vote on the mechanisms to do so.

* Baroness Sal Brinton is President of the Liberal Democrats. She is a working Lib Dem peer, and was the candidate for Watford at the 2010 and 2005 General Elections.