Paddy Ashdown, back in 1992, proudly held press conferences stressing that the LibDems had the most BME candidates of any of the parties. But they were heavily concentrated in areas that the party was weak. This has been the pattern of LibDem selections ever since. They may well repeat both the largest number of non-white candidates again this time, while failing to elect any non-white MPs for the fifth successive General Election sicne.
I think a large part of the reason is that the LibDems, perhaps inadvertently, end up taking an ‘ethnic candidates for ethnic voters’ approach to diversity. They consistently select large numbers of non-white candidates in areas with high minority ethnic populations, but have relatively little chance in most such seats in General Elections. (They did have a couple of spectacular post-Iraq war by-election successes in Brent and Leicester South, which gave them an Asian MP for 10 months before losing the seat in 2005).
More importantly, they have a consistently weak record of selecting non-white candidates in areas without large minority populations.
The Operation Black Vote claim that the LibDems could quite probably win Leicester South, Manchester Gorton and Walthamstow strikes me as very optimistic indeed - and it does not deal with this issue of the overall pattern of candidate selection. The LibDems need a different and broader strategy.
In the first nine LibDem held seats looking for new candidates during this Parliament, the LibDems selected five women candidates (showing how the party's efforts at gender diversity, a significant challenge after 1997 and 2001, are creating progress) but no BME candidates. Only by selecting non-white candidate in these winnable seats – which included Winchester, York or St Ives – and not just Birmingham, Bradford and East London would be likely to diversify the LibDem benches in a sustainable way.
So part of the explanation involves the demography and electoral geography of where the party is strongest (including Scotland, and the West and South-West), and the relative weakness of the central party given strong localist 'pavement politics" traditions.
And the result is, consistently, an all- white parliamentary party. That does become a bigger problem when the party has not 20 MPs in the Commons but over 60 and argues it can mount a broader national challenge. And the party leadership wants to change the situation, not make excuses as to why they are stalled.
So what should Nick Clegg do?
Clegg has suggested the party would have to consider a quota or all black shortlist approach if the party could not make progress by other means. That would be unpopular in his party (as debates about all women shortlists demonstrated) and challenged by critics as s an illiberal. I am not sure it would deal with the issue either. So I see this more as a rhetorical 'we must do something' challenge (or threat) - but it leaves open the question of what the successful alternative might be.
In my submission to the Speaker's Conference, I made the following alternative suggestion as to what the LibDems' should seek to increase their chances of not having an all-white Parliamentary party in the Commons. (The statistic reflects selections up to the end of 2008).
The LibDems will probably not elect any BME MPs next time around. They have only briefly had one Asian MP, when Parmjit Singh Gill won the 2004 Leicester South by-election before losing it after 10 months at the General Election, and he is again the only candidate in anything like a competitive seat. In nine selections in this Parliament in LibDem held seats, the party selected five women but no BME candidates. The party does select BME candidates at a slightly higher rate (5.6%) than the Conservatives but very heavily in areas with high ethnic minority populations where the LibDems have little chance.
The LibDem party needs to select a non-white candidate when selecting for winnable seats like Winchester, York or St Ives (and not only for areas with high minority populations like Birmingham or East London). The LibDems need to work out how, within their own political culture, they could facilitate the selection of good BME candidates in a winnable seat. A more effective route than seeking permission to use all-minority shortlists (in marginal constituencies with very low ethnic minority populations) would be to hold a transparent national competition among party members to find perhaps five highly talented BME aspiring politicians who the national party would promote to constituencies and party members for selections for Westminster, Brussels and other elected posts.
The thinking is that it may be relatively difficult, given party cultures and structures, for potential candidates to build a profile with selectorates in winnable seats. Rather than a relatively top-down A-list approach which might jar with LibDem activists, party members could be involved in identifying talent within the party in an open and transparent way, mainly online and using the party conference as a focal point. It would then be for party members to show that they would select winning candidates, who would now have a high profile with selectorates. Versions of this approach could of course be extended to any or all relatively under-represented groups, such as disabled candidates, non-graduates or working class candidates.
One debate about all black shortlists (of which I am critical) is whether they would or would not end up being used predominantly in areas of high minority populations. In principle, they might be used anywhere, but this would reflect where the pattern of local pressure or support would be highest. What can be said about this debate for the LibDems is that all-black shortlists would probably only change the situation if used in areas with comparatively low minority populations. That makes this approach politically more challenging and quite unlikely to be the route the party adopts.
The current LibDem "ethnic candidates for ethnic voters" approach doesn't work for the party.
Such an approach could be an option for the Labour Party, which represents almost all of these seats. However, Labour has elected non-white candidates to Parliament in a range of different types of seat, including Ashok Kumar in a 99% white seat in the north-east and Parmjit Dhanda in Gloucester, as well as BME candidates representing inner city seats.
(Of course, there is nothing wrong with black or Asian candidates standing in areas with high minority populations, but I have argued that it would be regressive to regard that as the primary purpose of diversity in Parliament).
But this is simply not an approach which is open to either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. (Where the Conservatives did attempt a naively sectional approach in Ealing Southall, they got their fingers burned, because organising the block defection of councillors did not sway communities of voters as they seemed to think that it would).
The Conservatives have now managed to select black and Asian candidates in safe Tory seats, going from absolutely nowhere (38 white men and one woman in their class of 2001) to catching up to, in selections in this Parliament, approximately where Labour had got to by 2001. (Operation Black Vote know they are rather stretching the numbers - as a strategy to challenge Labour to do more - in suggesting the Conservatives may now be ahead. It remains the case that Labour is selecting BME candidates at a rate which has eliminated any evidence of an aggregate "ethnic penalty" in this round of selections, making it the first west European party to do so. While the Tory progress does not quite match that, it is impressive given the very low base and something I have consistently welcomed).
But the LibDems have not done so. It is their pattern of candidate selection that the LibDems need to break if they want to achieve their leadership's ambitions in this area.
LibDem blogger Mark Thompson (at "Mark Reckons") offer a traditional LibDem response, in suggesting that electoral reform is the answer.
I am very sympathetic to electoral reform. But the party needs to also have a plan to make progress under the current system - and Mark underestimates the entrenched nature of the LibDem barriers here. I think it will be treated with increasing urgency in the party after May.
He may also be too optimistic about the impact of PR and preferential voting too.
The truth is that there is little hard evidence about what such changes would do in terms of diversity in British elections. That was the conclusion of the academic consensus submission to the Jenkins Commission, coordinated by David Butler, which found that overall socio-cultural characteristics and party candidate processes were the most important features.
There is good comparative evidence that PR is generally good for gender representation. What doesn't necessarily follow is that what is true for an under-represented majority of the electorate (women) will also be the case for under-represented minorities. The academics cited one piece of evidence pointing in the other direction in an STV simulation:
Dunleavy et al (1997) found in a simulation that candidates with Asian or other ethnic names seemed to under-perform given their position in a party's slate. For example, when listed as the first name on Labour's slate for the North region, Ashok Kumar received only a third of first preferences for Labour, whereas normally the first candidate on a slate received around three-quarters of first preferences.
Something similar can be said of open primaries: these could prove a force for greater homogenity or greater diversity of candidates. We simply don't have much evidence on which to base any firm prediction about that.