Comment: Time is running out for the Lib Dems on diversity

We need radical measures like BME shortlists to wake the party up


The Lib Dems could be the first party to introduce minority-only shortlists at the next election, ran a recent headline.

With just eight MPS, who are all white and all male, you would have thought more diversity couldn’t come soon enough, but it is still meeting some resistance from grassroots backwoodsmen.

124 years after Dadabhai Naoroji was elected as Liberal member for Finsbury Central in London, the party awaits the next MP of colour returned at a general election.

The dawning realisation that the Lib Dems cannot compete across large swathes of multicultural Britain without getting its’ diversity act together is now universally accepted in the ranks, but the question of what should be done, of how far and fast to travel, remains unresolved.

So far evolutionists have the upper hand over revolutionaries and a diversity motion, due to be debated at the party’s spring conference next month, will most likely see a large dose of rhetoric and a tiny drop of actual change.

The party have never had a visible minority in the London or Welsh assembly or the Scottish parliament and only ever had one such MEP, who then defected to the Tories. It’s a miserable return for a party with the word equality sewn onto their sleeves.

Lib Dems are divided on what to do. Some want radical measures like all-women and all-BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) shortlists; others a bit more training and support for wannabe MPs.

A small but vocal band of ultra-liberal fundamentalists want no change whatsoever, based on a belief that because everyone is equal that means tackling inequality is somehow discrimination and anyone who disagrees is ‘illiberal’.

The party’s mainstream is in the middle, which is not where they should be if they are serious.

There’s another strand of opinion, the mourners. They say: ‘Our local [white, male] former MP [who lost his seat] has [had] local name recognition. Surely he stands a better chance of winning it back than some ‘diverse’ newcomer who’s not from around these parts.’

This rests on an assumption that the defeated MP will be fondly remembered and locals are aching to welcome back their homely and familiar Lib Dem.

It’s natural for the faithful to emotionally pine for their old MP but in reality even long-standing veteran politicians can be quickly forgotten. The world spins on.

Diversity cannot wait for the greybeards to die off. The decimation of Lib Dems in 2015, as painful as it was, is an opportunity to move forward, not an excuse to bring yesterday’s men out of retirement while the future joins the back of the queue.

There have been several conference motions before all calling for greater candidate diversity. Two of those were driven by BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) members, both watered down amid heated debate.

That a decade of talk has failed to reap results should give all pause for serious reflection.

The last motion introduced a diversity A-list called the Candidates Leadership Programme, covering all under-represented groups to polish up talent in all equalities ‘strands’ with a bit of extra training and mentoring.

None of the programme’s participants were elected, largely due to a nationwide collapse at the ballot box. But theoretically if that hadn’t happened most of the beneficiaries would have been white women.

There is no question the Lib Dems desperately needs greater gender diversity, yet some BAME activists feel they are being left behind. Three A-list candidates of colour were selected in what used to be winnable seats and two of them stood down before the starting gun had been fired.

Back in 2008 Nick Clegg told a Speakers Inquiry into diversity that he would consider all-BAME shortlists by ‘the election after next’ if his MPs were still all-white. The election-after-next is now the one just past.

During the last leadership contest Tim Farron said he wouldn’t rule out such measures, but hoped that success could be achieved by more liberal means.

The trouble with the evolutionary path is that it relies more on wings and prayers than expectation that progress will be delivered. It is a gamble with a dice that has never come up six, while the gambler cannot bring themselves to contemplate that the game might be rigged against BAME candidates.

‘Where is the concrete evidence of race discrimination in selections?’, my favourite party troll has asked me many times. The answer is always the same; if it was explicit and obvious the perpetrators would already be expelled.

Institutional racism has always been a complex mix of unconscious bias, self-replication tendencies, old boy networks, stereotyping and sophisticated hiding of prejudice. People from all these categories can happily combine in a single selection to pick the best person for the job, inevitably a white, middle class man.

This is why radical mechanisms like all-BAME shortlists are needed. Because unpicking this is nigh-on impossible for an organisation of volunteers. Better to force change and then for members to realise they had actually selected an excellent candidate and MP.

While more are coming round to the idea that ‘unpalatable’ policies may be required to get more diverse MPs, many ethnic minority members such as myself remain frustrated.

The gap between intense frustration and well-meaning liberal mild concern is down to experiences. BAME members feel the party’s reputational damage of an all-white middle class image from family, friends and the community.

They better understand how the disproportionate impact of coalition austerity on BAME people and other narratives fold into this, and how BAME MPs can back race equality policies to help unfold it.

The fact that the Tories, who have already made great strides on black representation, are discussing race equality strategies and the prime minister is talking and writing about these issues risks further entrenching the Lib Dems in public consciousness as the nice-but-dim party.

An example of this dimness can be witnessed in debate about the spring conference motion. Despite rising temperatures about ‘all-minority shortlists’ in reality the motion only commits to training and support – in other words more of the same.

The motion ends with a vague reference to the possibility of all-women and all-disability shortlists sometime in the future, but no mention of all-BAME shortlists.

This anaemic motion so disappointed the group representing BAME members – Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) – that they refused to support it in its current form.

The Lib Dems are running out of time to change their image, as I’ve warned before. More influential members recognise this but are so far not using their influence or persuasion to take the party more than one baby step forward at a time.

It’s time for the leadership to break from deference to the federal nature of the party, and the behind-the-curve attitudes of leaflet-deliverers, to drag the party into the 21st century on BAME representation instead of sitting on the fence and waiting for the grassroots to catch up.

Lester Holloway is a former councillor and current member of EMLD, writing in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter

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