Thursday, September 18, 2008

Women and BME members - should be seen and not heard in the Lib Dems?

Thanks to Jo Christie Smith for highlighting the issue from conference that had me most apoplectic. No, not the way the amendment to Make it Happen was misrepresented and thrown out (more about that later) tho that came a close second, it was the TOTAL misrepresentation of the diversity of the party in the debate. I am excluding the interventions since people self select, however, interesting that in self selection there were 3 BME members speaking and 2 women. I understand that 11 women and 56 men put in cards, ethnicity is not recorded but I know of at least 1 BME member who put in a card and was not called. Apparently in order to "balance the debate" we ended up with 26.79% of the men who put in cards and 9.09% of the women speaking. This would be laughable if it weren't so serious. The main underlying issue allegedly being argued over in the debate was how best to support those on low incomes. Now, earlier that day I had heard how twice as many young women as young men are living in poverty - and I would hazard a guess this is true across the adult age spectrum. If you are from a BME community, or are disabled, you are also far more likely to be living in poverty. So, I think we have established that this is an issue that disproportionately impacts on women, BME communities and those who are disabled. let's yet again get a bunch of white middle class men deciding the best way forward!!!!

After the debate I was chatting to two white male friends who had the grace to admit that until I mentioned it, they hadn't noticed the lack of women or BME members........the exact same thing happened when I made the same complaint in the Meeting the Challenge debate (incidentally with the same chair, who clearly hasn't remembered). Then along came another apoplectic female PPC who shall remain nameless, who had put her card in 7th and still hadn't been called.

In the evening I was chatting to another BME female PPC, who said she hadn't put a card in because she didn't expect to be called - exactly - that's what happens, we get into the why bother? syndrome. What is the point of spending hours writing a speech knowing that your chances of being called in an important debate appear to diminish in direct relation to your gender and ethnicity? So whilst of course as women we perhaps need to be bolder in putting our cards in, the system, skewed as it is, has to take the bulk of the responsibility.

For those who missed what I said during FE questions (since the BBC mysteriously lost the sound!) my point was that there was no point publishing stats about diversity when one of our most public forums, namely the televising of the most controversial debate at conference, reinforces an image of a white male middle class party, something pointed out to me by a non Lib Dem female friend who had been watching at home. Simon Hughes in his speech earlier in the day had rightly been bemoaning the fact that we still only have 1 in 6 women MPs, but if our first priority in important high profile debates is to have the "big hitters" namely parliamentarians, who are yes, predominantly male and almost entirely white, getting the first bite of the tiny cherry, WE WILL NEVER EVER CHANGE ANYTHING!!!!! If we always do what we have always done, we'll always get what we always got. Now, credit to Simon, who in my view has done far more than anyone in our party to improve our diversity, but there is only one of him, the responsibility falls to us all. And credit to Nick Clegg, who I know takes the issue very seriously which he has demonstrated by appointing Meral Ece and Fiyaz Mughal as special advisers. But, this has to be a root and branch approach. It is insulting and disrespectful in the extreme to Nick and Simon to allow such a travesty of all we say we believe in and stand for, to take place.

A couple of years ago when walking into the conference hall before the leader's speech with Fiyaz, we were asked to go and sit near the front. This was apparently to be in the eye of the camera, to demonstrate our diversity as a party. Now, frankly, of course we need to be SEEN to be diverse, but please, are we to be treated like Victorian children, wheeled out in our pretty clothes, perpetually SEEN and when it counts never HEARD?

Simon is asking Duncan Brack as chair of FCC to produce a report of explanation to FE, I welcome this. I trust (and will be writing to Simon as chair of FE to ask) that this will result in REAL and meaningful change. If this ever happens again in an important debate I give due warning that I will mount my own one woman demonstration from the floor - as Laurence Boyce would say, don't forget I used to be in the army!


Meral Hussein Ece said...

Linda - 100% agree with you.
I was going to put a card in, but on being told that many had already been submitted, I decided that I had little chance of being called, and sat in the intervention seats next to Jo Swinson, where I knoew I had more chance in being called.
More reason, as I said on numerous occasions, that we need change and equal repretsentation of women and BME members on all partyy bodies.

Steph Ashley said...

I have to say I vehemently disagree with you here, Linda. I think that what people are contributing to a debate should count much more when balancing the speakers' cards than what colour or gender they are.

I believe all people are people and should be taken on their merit, and I don't want to be given a leg-up just because of my gender if it means that I am actually a weaker representative in a position that should have been given to a stronger one, or a dull speaker with nothing new to say in the place of a more dynamic one with a more thought-provoking point of view.

This is why I love the Campaign for Gender Balance and its slogan "better balance through support". We should be supporting and mentoring women rather than blindly promoting them whatever their level of ability, and a similar approach should be taken with ethnic minority and LGBT members in my view. Through peer support, extra training, and patience, we will achieve the balance we want to achieve without resorting to 'positive' discrimination.

Also, I am not normally one to pick on minor details but I am given to understand that the term BME can be found offensive (in its implicit suggestion that somehow black people are more important than other ethnic minorities).

Linda Jack said...

I guess we are going to have to agree to disagree on this Steph. I was at the CGB stand the following morning and Vicky had been inundated with complaints and commented herself that this kind of thing undermines all their good work. It is not about getting a leg up at all it is about fairness and equality, it wasn't even equal based on the number of cards. What is important is that we get a balanced debate, yes, in my view balance is about balance of views and perspectives, you don't get that if you only get one perspective! As for BME I used that term deliberately as there may have been some speaking who were from non visible minorities as there may have been some who had unseen disabilities or were lesbian or gay. Some may find the term offensive, just as some may find the term gay offensive, but I happen to believe it is for people and communities to define themselves. I frankly think we have no right to speak at all if we are not concerned to ensure proper representation. Some people may be poor speakers, or not "big hitters" whoever they are, but they often have more connection with reality than the most articulate, charismatic, barnstorming orator and bring more to the debate than anyone else. I heard many such examples during conference. The problem is that what you see is what you get......

Jon said...

Steph says: "I think that what people are contributing to a debate should count much more when balancing the speakers' cards than what colour or gender they are."

Surely we have not yet got to the point where speakers have to submit the full text of what they are proposing to say? If the chair's role is to balance the speakers, it is to balance them by background, not just by whether they can be trusted to perform in front of the cameras. As it happens, I thought Make It Happen was an excellent debate and didn't spot Linda's issue (being a WMAM). But I've attended many debates at conferences where a "balanced" selection of speakers seems to have had the effect of stifling debate ensuring not too many people speak to the main issues.

I think, however, the intervention procedure is a great innovation. I wonder how long it will last as more and more people rumble how it works.

Duncan Brack said...

Sorry to be late commenting on this thread, but I hope it might still be useful.

Federal Conference Committee has a fairly rigorous training process for chairs and aides, including exercises in how to balance debates. The primary consideration for balance is always the points of view expressed by the speakers (in this case, whether they were for or against the amendment). There are a large number of secondary considerations, including the speakers' background and experience, relevant positions within the party and outside, and regional origin, but gender balance is a very important one.

Almost invariably we call a higher proportion of women speakers than of men, largely because we receive consistently fewer cards submitted by women (fewer proportionately, we think, than the make-up of conference). I haven't yet seen the analysis for this conference, but I would expect it to show the same - with the exception of the 'Make it Happen' debate, where clearly something went wrong. FCC will be discussing this in our debrief meeting later in October, and what we can do to avoid it happening in the future - but all the evidence suggests that this is an anomaly, not the usual pattern.

I'll be reporting back through the 'Conference Call' report-back newspaper, and possibly Lib Dem News and/or Lib Dem Voice.

Couple of other points: we can't balance the cards for BME background because we don't ask people to identify their ethnic background. Obviously in some cases we know them, or we can tell from their names, but not always.

And I love the idea that interventions are an innovation. We introduced them in, I think, 1992!

Duncan Brack
(Chair, FCC)

Hywel said...

Linda - has the information Simon promised in his answer to you been published? I've been keeping my eye open for that (and some similar stuff from the Bones debate) but I've not seen it.

Assessing people's ethnic origins from their names is fraught with problems - eg Yousuf Islam and Michael Holding :-)

Linda Jack said...


I haven't had anything yet, but expect to get something following the next FE, presume next week. Will make sure I blog about it. Yes you are right about the names, I think we just have to give members the opportunity to state their ethnicity on cards.