Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A level playing field to improve candidate diversity

Much has been said about the Lib Dem's parliamentary party being too 'pale and male'. That is, of course, true, but I think that easy soundbite description misses an important point - it's not so much that it is 'too' anything so much that it 'isn't enough' something else! The parliamentary party is not sufficiently 'diverse' - that is the key point for me. It's all about 'diversity'.

The reason I think that is such a key point is that considering it to be 'too' something can all too easily lead us into attempts at 'quick fix' solutions that might actually ineffective in sufficiently increasing overall diversity, could actually in some ways be counter-productive, and actually can be quite illiberal too! It's not so much the danger of a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut as the danger of hammering at one or two particular nuts and ignoring the whole of the rest of the bag!

To illustrate the point, let's consider the often proposed 'All Women Shortlist'. This is a route other parties have gone down, perhaps understandably given the nature of some other parties and their beliefs and approaches - it is a 'top down' dictation of outcome being imposed on local parties and potential candidates, rather than a levelling of opportunity for everyone. It doesn't encourage or ensure 'diversity', but imposes an outcome for one single group over another group, ignoring the rest of the issues. To put it bluntly, is a shortlist of 6 heterosexual white Christian women, for example, actually more diverse than a group which contains a white woman, a black man, a gay man, a disabled man, an Asian Muslim man, etc., etc.? Of course it isn't. And then there is the issue of those who define their gender in a non-binary way - where do they fit in?

As well as actually being potentially relatively ineffective in increasing diversity overall, since they only include one single symptom of the problem, such solutions are also quite obviously illiberal in nature. When it comes to dictated outcomes, discrimination is discrimination - it is setting one group as being more 'worthy' than another purely on account of gender (in that particular case) demographics, and preventing members of another group for applying on the basis purely of theirs. It is addressing a single symptom in a simplistic way, and doesn't even attempt to address the actual problem of creating a parliamentary party that better reflects the diversity of our society.

I have spent many hours discussing politics with Americans from all backgrounds, where 'race' in particular is a much more hotly contested issue than it is currently in the UK, and the issue of giving excuses and ammunition to those who do not favour diversity is a very real one that can effectively be used to derail debate  and discussion about Liberalism and the core principles for which we Liberals stand. We are seeing the rise of such opinions in the UK, unfortunately, and now is not, I think, a time to leave ourselves completely open to accusations of 'creating discrimination' and 'blatant unfairness' that could so easily (if wrongly in terms of intent, of course) seem justified by our actions. We need to make it absolutely clear that we reject all discrimination in favour of diversity and acceptance for everyone equally, and we can't really be seen to be doing that if we are simply reversing traditional discriminations by seemingly introducing brand new ones of our own.

So how do we encourage diversity of candidates? Well first and foremost, of course, we have to do better at engaging with different and diverse communities and individuals so that we encourage them to join the party, to increase the diversity of our membership. There is admittedly a bit of a vicious circle there, with all of our current MPs appearing to be so 'similar', but it is still something we have to make a priority, and still something that I think we can do better. Then we have to look at how we encourage, support and train diverse members of all kinds to become approved as candidates and to stand up and be considered as parliamentary (and other) candidates. We do still have to do more than that, though.

How do we square the circle of increasing diversity without discriminating against anyone, or lapsing into an obvious 'quick fix' solution of top-down dictation of outcome (remembering, of course, that ultimately the electorate is rightly in charge of deciding who becomes an MP rather than a candidate anyway!)? For me it really has to be all about the levelling of fair opportunity, and about the selection process and shortlisting. We need to ensure that shortlists are as diverse as possible, without actually ruling any particular group or groups out of the process, or favouring one particular group over others. I think that this is achievable, and without making a system that is so complicated and/or 'cross constituency border' (as with some proposed systems of 'overall quotas', for example) that is becomes unmanageable or effectively 'dictated from above' in terms of outcome.

People are used to the general concept of filling in a 'diversity' form when they apply for many jobs, and that is an approach that I think we can easily adopt, and adapt to provide a workable solution. With a fairly simple set of groups, we can ask potential candidates to self-identify according to a number of fairly basic criteria. As is my general habit, I'm not going to spell details out too specifically, but we could, for example, include elements such as: Gender (Male/Female/Other and/or Trans (Note: it has been pointed out to me that transgender people may, of course, prefer to identify simply as male or female, but I do think transgender representation is worthy of consideration in some way in this context. I do not pretend to be providing a definitive answer on how best to take that into account on such a diversity form basis (I make no claims to be an expert on the issues of every possible under-represented group!), but I'm quite sure that there is a viable answer that will satisfy needs in a sensible and reasonable way - the same kind of thing holds true for every other group, of course), Sexuality (Heterosexual/Bisexual/Homosexual/Other), Ethnicity (a fairly simple and general set of definitions, plus an 'Other - please specify' type option), Age (from 3 or 4 group ranges), Religion/Culture (to include an 'Alternative Religion or Subculture' option - this is a broad set of groups ('Pagans', 'Wiccans', 'Goths', 'Emos', etc.), often with strong correlation and ties between them, that deserve to be remembered and considered as both 'under-represented' and 'widely discriminated against' whenever we look at the 'diversity' issue), Disability (None/Physical/Sensory/Mental/Other), and so on.

To ensure a diverse list, we simply say that local parties are not be able to choose potential candidates who 'match' for shortlisting - in other words, they could include one 'White, Straight, Christian, Middle-Aged, Able-Bodied Man' in their shortlist, but only one of them. Only one person can represent their set of definitions on the shortlist (and we could potentially say that they have to differ in either one or two areas - that's something that can be considered). By approaching it in that kind of way, no group is actually excluded from ultimate outcome consideration (i.e. becoming the candidate), but all groups are equally limited to promote overall diversity. It would then be for the local party to choose between them in the usual way. Indeed, we could go slightly further to say that a local party MUST include all candidates who do not 'match' in the shortlist, so that there can be no suggestion that any person or group has been 'discriminated against' before coming before the local party as a whole for consideration (that could produce a long shortlist in some instances, obviously, but that can be addressed easily by a 2 stage process involving the entire local party).

This kind of system would not dictate to local parties and executives about who they must include and who they must exclude. It does not prevent the representation of any individual or group. It does not impose outcomes. It does not actually include any form of 'discrimination'. It is, in my opinion, an entirely 'Liberal' solution, and one that can be continued in the long term (rather than getting into any arguments about whether what has been done is 'enough' for a particular group's representation, or whether 'all women' should now be replaced by 'all something else', or whatever).

If we start to actually discriminate against any group in order to promote another, where do we stop? Do we stop by dealing with the under-representation of women? Do we extend to include other under-represented groups? Which under-represented groups do we decide are worthy of being favoured by such discrimination? It's a can of worms I don't think we should open, and I don't think we need to open. If we simply limit ourselves to addressing diversity of shortlisting in a way that doesn't actually exclude or discriminate against any particular demographic group, I firmly believe that our membership is Liberal enough that they can be trusted to decide between shortlisted candidates on merit and give us a diverse outcome of candidates and, ultimately, MPs. Yes, we know that the party does need to do something urgently to address the situation, but I think we need to do it in a strongly Liberal way that doesn't leave us open to easy criticism, and that doesn't resort to centralist dictation of outcomes or exclusion of 'non-favoured' groups.

We do need to use a sledgehammer to address the staggering lack of diversity among our MPs, but in doing so I think we need to make absolutely sure that we are fairly and equally targeting the entire bag of nuts in a firmly Liberal way! We shouldn't, in my opinion, attempt to address the issue by introducing new discriminations, but we should be looking to do it by levelling the playing field for everyone (and yes, that is the slightly tenuous excuse for including a rugby picture!).

Additional notes: I am aware of discussions about diversity for appointments and elections within the party structure itself (party bodies, interest groups and so on). I can see no reason why this could not be structured along similar lines and principles. Also, I think it's important to reiterate that I do not claim to have every detail of how every group should be defined in the context of such a system pinned down and accurately represented here (I certainly don't claim to be a fully knowledgeable spokesperson for every group and interest!). The post was and is about the general principles of how such a system can be constructed, and of course specific groups should be listened to and have opportunity to make their case for how they can best be considered and represented within it - that's really the whole point of having a system that is capable of considering diversity in terms of all under-represented groups simultaneously and on an ongoing basis (so that any additional groups can be added as needs become apparent).

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