Monday, 27 January 2014

Sexual discrimination: reform must start at the very top


It is unfair of the Guardian's political editor Toby Helm to sub-head his Observer article "Lib Dem reforms failing". I believe that our policy (inherited from the SDP, if I recall correctly) of balanced shortlists got more progressive women into influential political positions than there would otherwise have been. Moreover, they stayed the course, voters permitting. (Where are the "Blair babes" now?) I am particularly proud of belonging to a national Liberal Democrat party which had gender balance in the National Assembly from the start of devolution until the last Welsh general election. Until our chief executive moved on to higher things recently, women had a clean sweep of top jobs: leader, president and chief exec - something of an over-achievement.

Perhaps the federal party became complacent. Robust procedures for appeal when things went wrong within the party were not in place. They are now. (Again, the Welsh party handles these matters better, as the response to a muck-raking story in the Daily Mail, which only saw the light of day because of Rennard, has shown.) It is reassuring that there has been just one threat of resignation and no actual defections among women activists over the issue, and it has not been raised on the doorstep to Liberal Democrat canvassers in by-elections.

Certainly we still do not have enough women in the House of Commons. Helm identifies one cause: women are put off by the nature of what passes for debate in Westminster. The atmosphere in the Welsh Assembly, chaired by the excellent Rosemary Butler, is more congenial. You will also find more Conservative and Liberal Democrat women on local councils, where the emphasis is on action rather than on words, and, away from the headlines, more cross-party cooperation. It would reduce the air of Punch-and-Judy politics, and underline what women could bring to the chamber, if the Labour spin machine did not insist on their female MPs adopting the same hectoring tone as the men in their set speeches and questions to ministers. I also blame deputy leader Harriet Harman for setting the tone dating from her first appearance at Prime Minister's Questions.

The results of the last general election were a disappointment. However, it is fair to say that if we had made gains instead of two or three losses, around half of those would have been Liberal Democrat women. We are not in the happy position of having safe seats to which party HQ can parachute favoured (and, in the case of Labour, eye-catching) candidates. So our women have to campaign as hard as the men. I believe they had another handicap in 2010: that the British electorate is conditioned to prefer a male candidate to a female in times of trouble, which 2010 certainly was. Conservatives suffered similarly - witness the different fates of brother and sister Jacob and Annunziata Rees-Mogg in similar seats. I have only such anecdotal evidence for this assertion, but I am sure it would repay an academic study. If I am right, then 2015 when there should be continuing economic growth will create a more level electoral arena.

Another cause of women's dissatisfaction with the political process is discrimination at the very top, and here Nick Clegg has to share the blame with David Cameron. The original coalition government included too few women, and subsequent reshuffles have removed or sidelined most of those who performed well. For all my criticism of Labour, I applaud their giving keynote speeches to their women - it seems to be just over half of the introductions or winding-up in major debates. It's a pity our broadcast media don't give as much coverage to politics in our continental neighbours as they do to the United States. Borgen may be fiction, but it is inspired by fact. Currently, Denmark, Germany and Norway have women heads of government and women in other key ministries. (Norway also has a law imposing gender balance on boards of directors and the commercial sky has not fallen in there.)

(Conservatives have more serious trouble than ourselves, if the situation in Thirsk is anything to go by. There does appear to be a sexist element in the move to deselect Anne McIntosh.)

If the party leader will not be more proactive, then the grass roots in true Liberal Democrat fashion must take him on. Women Liberal Democrats have formed a group campaigning for "Women, for fairness and equality within all spheres". They organise seminars, fringe meetings, workshops and training sessions, encourage women to become and remain active members of the party, support women candidates at national and local level and campaign on issues which affect women's lives, among other things. Being an organisation dedicated to sexual equality, they allow men to subscribe, as I do.


2 comments:

Frank H Little said...

Straw in the wind?: at least the deputy leader of the party in the Commons may be a woman after 28th January. Lorely Burt is contesting the position vacated by Simon Hughes on his government appointment. I must admit to some prejudice as I have met and been impressed by Lorely at a conference fringe meeting, whereas I do not know the other two contestants as well - though I once voted for Malcolm Bruce in a leadership contest.

Frank H Little said...

Straw in the wind?: at least the deputy leader of the party in the Commons may be a woman after 28th January. Lorely Burt is contesting the position vacated by Simon Hughes on his government appointment. I must admit to some prejudice as I have met and been impressed by Lorely at a conference fringe meeting, whereas I do not know the other two contestants as well - though I once voted for Malcolm Bruce in a leadership contest.