Liberal-Democrats dither over increasing female MPs

Labour Party

Now that the Liberal-Democrats have gone back to their constituencies to prepare for whatever coalition they think may give them some chance of being in government, this blog will use one post to review their performance.

The only item of real substance was Ed Davey’s call for more female Lib-Dem MPs. The party’s current standing – only 12% of its MPs are women – is pitiful, even compared to the generally low bar set by the British Parliament (which is only 22% female). Davey said it was “not good enough”. For a so-called progressive party the figures must be particularly galling. Even the world of finance – hardly a pioneering sector on these types of issue – does better than the Lib-Dems, with directors at UK banks now 20% female.

As a champion of gender equality in politics I would love to see more women across the British political parties. But unfortunately the Lib Dems’ lukewarm reaction to all-women shortlists does not fill me with hope. Minister for Care Norman Lamb, who purports to be an advocate of more women, nevertheless said he was “not very keen” on the policy. Others in the party complained that all-women shortlists would be undemocratic, by taking power away from constituency parties, and a survey found that the idea was deeply unpopular among Lib Dem activists.

Fears of positive discrimination or ‘tokenism’ make people wary of all-women shortlists. But the policy helped Labour, whose MPs are now 31% female, without detracting from the calibre of its candidates. And the European Parliament does even better, with 34% of MEPs now female. As several studies show, diversity drives standards up, not down.

The current 4:1 ratio of men to women in the UK Parliament is unacceptable. And the idea that quotas for women means a lower quality of candidate really doesn’t wash unless you think men are four times as equipped as women to run the country.

So how do we change this? Well, in my view concrete action rather than big talk is what is required. We need more all-women shortlists which have been proved to have an impact on the number of women in politics.

Unfortunately for the Lib Dems decisive steps of this kind seem to run counter to the laissez-faire ethos of the party. As a result I fear that very little will change for them in the immediate future, and they will continue to lag behind rather than lead the gender equality debate.