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Colourblind ‘purists’ derail equality

Lib Dems fail equality test

by Councillor Lester Holloway

It’s been four years since the Liberal Democrats last had to wrestle with the problem of diversity, when a motion that only called for more resources was defeated by the colourblind ‘purists’ in the party.

Yesterday, at the annual conference in Liverpool, the Lib Dems once again debated the issue. Once again, traditional Liberal principles about equality triumphed over the reality that something practical needed to be done to solve the problem that my party does not have a single black or Asian MP, MEP or Assembly Member.  In fact we haven’t elected an MP of colour at a general election since 1892.

For some in the party, their belief – rightly – that we are all equal blinds them to the fact that outcomes demonstrate that equality is not happening in practice. They believe that we should all succeed on merit – again I agree entirely – yet this belief somehow prevents them from wondering why BAME members are not succeeding on merit too.

Because we have these principles, the argument goes, the problem can’t be with us… it must be them! Let’s give them more training and mentoring, they say. BAME candidates need more support and guidance to win through, they conclude. This patronising attitude assumes that the best BAME candidates are not yet good enough, not yet up to the level of the successful white candidate.

There is another attitude amongst some in the rank and file that hold back progress “localism.” The preference for the local candidate who has lived and worked for years in an area by definition excludes those from outside. In reality it means largely white candidates for seats with low BAME populations, and relegates BAME members to going for inner city constituencies often in Labour safe seats. This localism also rejects any moves by Cowley Street to interfere with their freedom to select the candidate they want.

To be fair, the leadership take a much more enlightened view than some of the rank-and-file. Under Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems have instigated equality programmes for the first time. We now have a diversity unit and a New Generation project for training BAME highflyers. Clegg himself spoke out in favour of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat (EMLD) motion at a fringe meeting, and Vince Cable did twice. Simon Hughes spoke passionately in favour during this years’ conference. Sadly this was not enough to persuade some activists.

A lot has happened in the last four years since the Lib Dems last had a debate on this issue. David Cameron decided to grab the Conservatives by the scruff of the neck and promote black and Asian people to candidates in safe seats. At this year’s general election the Tories went from two BAME MPs to eleven. A better performance nationally would have seen at least five more make it.

Labour, despite traditionally being the party with most MPs of colour – and the lion’s share of the BAME vote – became embarrassed by the Tories moves. At one time there was a real possibility that most BAME Members of Parliament would be in the blue corner. Labour responded by selecting an unprecedented number of new BAME candidates themselves in winnable seats. Seven new candidates got elected, the biggest rise at a single election for Labour. They now have 16.

The Liberal Democrats did largely nothing. Consequently on Black representation, the Lib Dems went from zero to zero. They also lost women MPs – just 12 percent of the Commons team now. If Cleggmania had translated into reality we might have won Leicester East (Parmjit Singh Gill) and Walthamstow (Farid Ahmed). There were a couple of other outside bets as well – Manchester Gorton (Qassim Afzal), and Luton South (Qurban Hussein).

As a Liberal Democrat, I don’t see why we should invest our hopes in a political earthquake in order to make a breakthough. We are unlikely to see Cleggmania again, therefore we must have more BAME candidates in more winnable seats to get results. The group Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, which I am a member of, took a motion to this years’ conference calling for positive action measures; one BAME on the shortlist for every winnable seat, and ‘zipping’ – reserved places – for multi-member lists such as the European elections and regional Assemblies.

Sadly this was defeated by an amendment backed largely by the Liberal Youth group which successfully deleted the action points and replaced them with a target of recruiting 100 approved candidates of BAME backgrounds. Aside from my belief that there are already at least 100 BAME people on the ‘approved list’ already, the issue really isn’t at this level.

Being an approved candidate simply means you like the idea of running for parliament, fill in a form and pass an interview. Being an approved candidate is no guarantee of even running in a hopeless constituency, let alone a winnable seat. It is quite simply a debate that ceased to be relevant 20 years ago. Today the issue is results, outcome. We are equal, and second best just won’t do.

Liberal Youth’s original amendment, proposed by Elaine Bagshaw, talked about the need for “exceptional candidates” with “competence” and “empathy.” Such candidates also had to meet “voter expectations” and needed to know their “local area.” Quite what all this means is anybody’s guess. The debate on the conference floor was interesting. One delegate, Paul Zukowskyj, claimed the positive action proposals in the EMLD motion “dehumanises” BAME people!

However, there were also many people passionately in favour of change, including party president candidate Susan Kramer and deputy leader Simon Hughes. I felt the majority of speakers understood that it wasn’t good enough simply to say we would like more diversity, we had to put in place real measures to change the way we select candidates.

The card vote was extremely close, and the sudden rush of people into the hall just before the vote was taken – who all seemed to vote for Liberal Youth’s amendment – may well have tipped the balance. I assume they were called in by text messages!

In the end, I thought the argument was won but the vote was lost – by the narrowest of margins. We now have a review that will report to the party president, who I hope will be Susan Kramer, by Christmas. We need to make this work, and ensure that all equalities strands are represented.

However, from a personal perspective, I am absolutely clear that the review will only be worth the paper its’ written on if it recommends actual measures for changing the way we select candidates. We have heard a lot about training over the years, and yes this needs to be increased too. But training cannot be an excuse to change procedures to overcome the barriers that hold BAME members back.

So while we need to look at a whole range of aspects – including recruitment and retention of BAME members – I could not accept a failure to recommend structural changes to selections, to the way we pick candidates. Because the Lib Dem’s lack of diversity is so crucial, so damaging to our image, that we need to think in the short term as well as the medium and long term. We need to go as far as we can to ensuring the outcome of selections is that talented BAME members run in winnable seats, or vacant held seats if they come up, as they always do.

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