Yesterday, I upset Iain Dale and, in return, he challenged me to 'answer the question'. So, here goes...
It's all very well telling us that we don't have any BME members in the Commons or the devolved administrations. I had noticed. And yes, as a 'minority ethnic' person, I want to see our representatives reflect more accurately the communities they serve. The difference between you and me is that I haven't just pontificated on the subject, I've done something about it.
When the Party debated the issue in September 2005, following a motion promoted by Simon Hughes, the then Party President, I was frustrated by the calls for quotas and, effectively, bribes to ‘ensure’ that BME candidates were selected. So frustrated, indeed, that I spoke in the debate and swore, as I walked off the platform, that if the motion was defeated, I would come back with something better.
The resolution was duly defeated, I went back to my constituency, and prepared for something better. Two months later, at the London Regional Conference, I moved a motion calling for the Party to develop and properly resource efforts to attract, support and mentor candidates on under-represented communities, which was overwhelmingly carried. Having taken the precaution of consulting the Chair of our Candidates Committee, as well as senior ethnic minority members of the Party, I was confident that it would address their concerns as well.
And indeed, the motion was debated at the party’s Federal Conference in March 2006, where it was overwhelmingly passed with two amendments. I then left the Federal Executive to do their job. Since then, the Party has engaged a National Diversity Advisor, it has set up the New Generations project, designed to do all of the things that I had hoped for.
I then took on the task of trying to change our selection systems to make them fit for purpose, and to find ways to make them neutral in terms of gender and culture. Again, our National Diversity Advisor has been included in that process, and we will be launching the new selection rules after the General Election. If you believe, as I do, that selection should be based entirely on merit, then the aim is to make our processes as accessible as possible, to ensure that nobody is unfairly excluded.
I have always opposed artificial mechanisms to ‘ensure’ diversity, as I do not believe that replacing one form of discrimination with another is a liberal solution. And yes, that means searching for ways to remove discrimination for systems and processes. It means actively looking for and encouraging people who can demonstrate that they are sympathetic to Liberal Democrat philosophy and policies, regardless of their background, helping them to fulfil their political aspirations.
I’ve dedicated a good proportion of my political career doing that, Iain. It isn’t glamorous, it doesn’t garner headlines, but it is the right thing to do. And, in the process, I have remained true to my political principles, in particular the belief in equality of opportunity, not necessarily of outcome.
Your original posting was inaccurate and a slur on Nick Clegg and the leadership of the Party. Regardless of whether or not you intended that, your failure to actually check your facts combined with the credence placed on your blog by the media, means that there are some who will take your comments to be factual rather than opinion. As a journalist and publisher, you are expected to cleave to a higher standard than the average blogger.
I also note that you refer to one Liberal Democrat blogger’s view as representing the broad view of Party members and activists in your second update. If I was to claim that a random Conservative blogger was representative of the views of your Party activists and members, you and others like you would rightly crucify me. It is always dangerous to superimpose the views of an individual member of a group upon the group as a whole. Labour have a tendency to do that, and those of us who believe that society is comprised of individuals (and I presume that you would define yourself as holding that view), rebel against it in our politics.
For the record, I do believe that electoral reform would potentially make an impact on representation in this country. It isn’t a magic bullet that will solve all of our problems, and Mark Thompson didn’t suggest that it would. And to call Italy in aid is a highly selective and disingenuous argument, just as using Germany as a sole example would be if I was to base my response on it.
The culture of our Parliament is a factor in deterring women and ethnic minority politicians, the lack of ‘beacon figures’ for those from minority groups is another. Issues related to representation are complex, and whilst the evidence of raw numbers is easy to explain and convey, what is being done behind the scenes, and how it reflects the culture and, rather crucially, the philosophy of a political party is much more difficult.
Organisations like Operation Black Vote tell us that quotas are necessary. I respect their view, but sense that it is based on the fact that many of their activists come from a Labour-supporting background, where social engineering is considered to be an appropriate response. As I noted earlier, I oppose positive discrimination. If quick results are required, regardless of political principle, you can meddle with your systems. If you want lasting, cultural change in any organisation, your task is rather harder.
The Conservative Party has taken the steps it believes appropriate to increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities amongst its Parliamentary Party. As a perceived likely party of government, it has an attractive offer to make. It also has a lot more opportunities to offer than the Liberal Democrats do. If the spread betting markets are to be believed, you are six times more likely to be elected as a Conservative this year than as a Liberal Democrat. Your campaign is likely to be 200-300% better funded as a Conservative than as a Liberal Democrat. And, quite crucially, the number of available candidacies brought about by retirements of sitting MPs and likely gains is far greater for the Conservatives than it is for the Liberal Democrats. In short, the opportunities are far greater in your Party than in mine.
So, in summary, no, I’m not happy about the lack of ethnic minority Liberal Democrat elected representatives, and the decided under-representation of women. As previously noted, as an ethnic minority myself, I take a personal interest, even if I have no ambition at Parliamentary level myself. However, I’m reassured that we’re actively trying to improve matters within the limitations of our resources. There are things that I would like us to be better at, i.e. looking for new activists and members locally, but then that appears to be a problem for all three political parties, in that we’re so busy running campaigns that we don’t have time to actually ask people to join and/or get involved. I’m also confident that, in time, a cohort of excellent women and ethnic minority candidates will be selected in target and held seats as a result of reforms in place now.
And finally, I acknowledge that I launched a cheap, point-scoring attack on you. However, sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, and you unwittingly provoked me. The idea that one can use the argument that ‘we’re more diverse than you are’ demeans the wider issue of building a fairer, more equal society, something that we should all care about if we want the best for our nation.