Friday 30 April 2010

How could liberalism deliver on Parliamentary diversity?

I have a short response piece in The Guardian, looking at how the Liberal Democrats could catch up with the other major parties in increasing the chances of black, Asian and mixed race candidates winning selection in winnable seats, an area where I think cross-party progress is important.

The central issue for the third party is that LibDem BME candidates have been very heavily concentrated in areas with high minority ethnic populations, where the party is electorally weak. This contrasts sharply with Conservative selections in this Parliament; Labour has selected candidates in seats both with and without large BME populations.

My piece draws on earlier Fabian research at the end of 2008, looking at how there was a tendency to underestimate progress during this Parliament, and mentions the proposal specifically aimed at the LibDems in my submission to the Speakers' Conference.

I think that this would be both a more permissive and more liberal approach, more likely to be supported in the party, than Nick Clegg's suggestion that he would be bound to consider using all black shortlists if other means fail. (That remains rather unlikely to happen). I am critical more generally of all minority shortlists, but this seems particularly unlikely to provide an effective route to change for the LibDems in any event:

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.

One instinctive response has been that the LibDems mostly elect local candidates - and their all-white Parliamentary party simply results from that, in combination with the party's electoral geography.

It is true that the pattern I identify does arise from the combination of a tradition of localism and constituency autonomy, perhaps combining with a traditional approach to multiculturalism as 'community representation'.

Many LibDem candidates have local government experience or are local. But this can easily be overstated too. For example, very few leading LibDem frontbenchers were in fact local candidates in their constituency selections: take Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey, David Laws and Norman Lamb as among the counter-examples to this local candidate rule, covering just about all of the main shadow portfolios.

The party leadership has said it wants to give this issue of representation a much greater priority and urgency, and so will need to think further about the methods they could use to achieve this. The LibDems were always likely to be pressed to think further after this election, even before the increased prominence of the LibDems in this campaign, mainly because the Conservative success in selecting several candidates looks likely to leave the party quite far behind both major parties for the first time.

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