Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 4 March 2010

How can we increase the diversity of candidates?

Iain Dale has a post today entitled: "Why Don't the LibDems Select BME Candidates in Winnable Seats?". He makes the argument that the Conservatives have BME candidates in a number of winnable seats and estimates they will have between 11 and 16 BME MPs after the next election. He suggests there will be none on the Lib Dem benches.

In the comments, a number of people have taken him to task about his assumptions. LibCync points out that Operation Black Vote has identified 3 potentially winnable seats for the Lib Dems with BME candidates. He also points out that Nick Clegg has taken action to try and resolve this issue (see here and here).

Iain has rebutted this by suggesting that privately Lib Dem friends of his have expressed concern about the lack of BME representation and that the 3 seats identified are unlikely to be won.

I don't know if the seats cited will or will not be won by the Lib Dems but it is in the nature of the third party within our current electoral system to struggle to win seats. We have very few "safe" seats compared to the Tories who (certainly this year) will expect to have over 300 seats following the election. So comparing the raw numbers is pretty unfair. It strikes me that 16 BME candidates who have a shot at becoming an MP would be roughly 5% of the Parliamentary Conservative Party were they elected. 3 for the Lib Dems assuming we end up with roughly 60 seats again would also be 5% were they elected. Seems about the same to me and hardly a crisis situation.

But taking Iain directly up on his point about the chances of the 3 candidates OBV identified being quite low. That may be the case but it is not the Lib Dems fault that the electoral system is so stacked against it. We want to reform the electoral system to STV with multi-member constituencies. From the Electoral Reform Society, here is the second point from their website on advantages of STV:

With STV and multi-member constituencies, parties have a powerful electoral incentive to present a balanced team of candidates in order to maximise the number of higher preferences that would go to their sponsored candidates. This helps the advancement of women and ethnic-minority candidates, who are often overlooked in favour of a 'safer' looking candidate.

This is clearly an important issue and I am glad Iain is raising it. I wonder though if he might take another look at the benefits of electoral reform (that he has often been quick to dismiss in the past) and how it could help improve the chances of BME candidates for all parties.

UPDATE 14:45: Sunder Katwala has done a very detailed piece in response to both Iain and my posts here.


Joe Otten said...

It is easier to talk of BME candidates in seats you expect to gain, when you expect to gain more seats in the first place.

And it is easier to put BME candidates in held seats when more of your MPs are standing down over dodgy expenses.

Steph Ashley said...

I'd go so far as to say that the Lib Dems don't have safe seats in the same way as LabCon at all. The only seats where we have a comfortable majority are down to dedication and hard work over many years by the candidate in those seats. "Where we Work, We Win".

Another sad fact is, we don't have the money needed to support our candidates as well as the other two.

The tories have Ashcroft's money to burn, AND safe seats where if you put a donkey in a blue rosette people will vote for it. They can throw almost endless cash into campaigns in their marginal seats to put whatever candidates they like into parliament.

In this party, we have a problem with diversity among our candidates because with the financial security and sheer amount of legwork that a PPC has to put in over years to win, our MPs, even our candidates are always going to be predominantly middle class white men.

We are doing what we can to change this, but it's important to note too that we are never going to allow BME shortlists for exactly the same reasons as we're never going to allow all-women shortlists. So-called "positive" discrimination is still discrimination and it's fundamentally wrong. What we CAN do is offer as much in the way of training, mentoring, assistance and support to our minority candidates as we possibly can. So that's what we do. There's been an ongoing debate about what more we could and should do within the party for a long time - it's worth going and reading the comments here.

It makes me sad that La Dale's blog post is now the top google hit for "lib dems bme" :(

Iain Dale said...

Mark, what about the London European slate of candidates. Not a black face among them. Doesnt that undermine your argument about PR?

Mark Thompson said...

"Mark, what about the London European slate of candidates. Not a black face among them. Doesnt that undermine your argument about PR?"

Not really. The Euro elections use the D'Hondt system of list PR (which most electoral reformers including myself do not like). That's a totally different system from STV in multi-member seats and it does not have the same in built benefits as mentioned above.

Sunder Katwala said...


I think the LibDems do need a different approach here. Its a constructive challenge to say that your strategy to diversify the Parliamentary group in 2010 really should go beyond try to (ocassionally) win high minority ethnic population seats like Leicester.

Your comparison of the Tories and LibDems misses how the LibDems have got stuck in a systemic and predictable way since 1992. You often select most BME candidates of the 3 main parties, but are not likely to turn that into seats in any sustainable way while this largely seems to reflect a particular approach to ethnic diversity as 'community representation' which I would challenge as rather outdated and regressive certainly if taken too far.

That approach can't in any event do much for the LibDems or Tories in seeking to challenge the traditional de facto Labour monopoly on BME representation. The political pressure symbolised by the A list did work in unstalling the Tories; you need to find an analogous approach which fits with the LibDem culture. I made one such LibDem specific suggestion in my Speakers Conference submission.

* I am pro-electoral reform, but perhaps STV isn't always the answer to everything. The David Butler coordinated academic technical group (link in this list) reporting to the Jenkins Commission was sceptical about what could be claimed here, and it reported an STV simulation finding minority candidates doing worse.

"Dunleavy et al (1997) found in a simulation that candidates with Asian or other ethnic names seemed to under-perform given their position in a party's slate. For example, when listed as the first name on Labour's slate for the North region, Ashok Kumar received only a third of first preferences for Labour, whereas normally the first candidate on a slate received around three-quarters of first preferences"

PR would very likely have positive impacts on gender balance in representation (women are an under-represented majority group!); it is much harder to judge what its impact on ethnic diversity in the UK might be. What evidence there is suggests that public culture and party methods/cultures may well be more important than electoral system.

Mark Thompson said...

Thanks for your comments Sunder.

I will certainly follow your links and look into them more closely when I get the chance.

Just one quick thing though. The quote from Dunleavy et al mentions party "slates" but STV allows votes for individuals rather than parties so I am a bit confused as to what the experiment was actually doing. Maybe I am misunderstanding the terminology though. Could you clarify?

Sunder Katwala said...

Can't be certain. But my reading of it is that they are simply saying that the experiment found that the first listed candidate for party A tended to average 75% of the first preferences going to candidates of party A (whereas 25% of those giving a first preference to that party voted first for candidates listed below them), but that Kumar's share was much lower.

So I don't think more is meant by "slates" than that the (multiple) candidates would have been grouped together by party on the sample ballot paper.

MatGB said...

MArk, it's ten years since I read the study, but essentially each party was assumed to put up a number of candidates ("slate"), which were, IIRC, grouped on the ballot paper.

Then the test voters voted according to preference. Most voters chose the top candidate on the list for their party first, except where it was an asian name, where the first preferences spread out.

It was an OK study, but I recall having some issues with some of their methodology. However, I'm not sure I even wrote down notes on it, let alone be able to find them.

Other than that, I've commented at the LibCon crosspost and at Sunder's, but I agree with what Steph's said here; we don't have safe seats, and overwhelmingly our selectees are local activists or have strong local links; they need this, as our hold on any individual seat is always tenuous if the MPs personal vote is gone.