Sunday, 14 December 2008

Every white, middle class male one's a winner

I've promised not to reveal who the Lib Dems in Ross, Skye and Inverness West have selected as their new standard bearer at the next Holyrood election to replace retiring MSP John Farquhar Munro until the party announces it officially tomorrow.

But I can reveal that the winner is a white, middle class male. But that's not exactly giving away a lot, given that all five of the people on the shortlist were white and broadly middle class and four out of five were male.

And that continues a tradition for the Scottish Lib Dems in seats where a sitting MSP is standing down, with white middle class male Jeremy Purvis replacing white middle class male Ian Jenkins in Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale in 2003, and white middle class male Liam MacArthur replacing white middle class male Jim Wallace in Orkney in 2007.

The figures for the Lib Dems are rather shocking. In the Scottish Parliament, we've only ever had two women at a time in our contingent - Margaret Smith and Nora Radcliffe until 2007, with Alison McInnes coming in as MSP for North-East Scotland as a result of Radcliffe's defeat in Gordon last year. In Westminster it's even worse, with Jo Swinson our only MP from a Scottish seat who's not male. And I don't think we've ever even had a candidate in a winnable seat who's been non-white, probably because in the Scottish Lib Dems we have only a handful of members from ethnic minorities.

Now, I'm not someone who thinks that women can only be represented by women or that ethnic minorities can only be represented by ethnic minorities. I think that what matters is the values a candidate has, rather than their gender or ethnic origin. If you're a pro-choice woman on abortion, for instance, someone like David Steel or Evan Harris would be infinitely preferable to Nadine Dorries or Anne Widdecombe.

In selections, I would always vote for the person I considered to be the best qualified as the candidate, regardless of gender or ethnic origin. And that will mean that sometimes the best candidate will be someone who is non-white or female or from a working class background.

But the evidence is that white middle class males seem to have an overwhelming advantage when it comes to parliamentary selections. And in case anyone thinks this is solely a Lib Dem issue, consider this: every single one of the parliamentarians elected by first past the post in the Highlands and Islands region - regardless of party - is a white middle class male. Indeed, the only person who has not fitted that mould since the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999 has been the SNP's Margaret Ewing in Moray. The only female parliamentarians we have are regional list MSPs Mary Scanlon (Con) and Rhoda Grant (Lab).

Now, I don't necessarily think there's any conscious discrimination going on here and nor do I think gimmicks such as all-women shortlists are the answer - the issues surrounding diversity are too complex to be solved by such measures. But I think we in the Lib Dems, and people in other parties too, do need to consider whether there are any invisible barriers we need to remove.

For instance, is what we expect from candidates something which makes it more attractive to men? Is the time involved in becoming a parliamentary candidate something which disadvantages those with caring responsibilities, who are still overwhelmingly women? Do we do enough to attract people from ethnic minorities into our party, and to develop them as potential candidates? How do we attract a woman who's holding down two jobs as a cleaner and ensure she has the opportunity to stand for parliament if she wants? There aren't any easy answers to any of these questions, but we do need to be thinking about them.

I long for the day when a largely white rural seat such as Ross, Skye and Inverness West can be represented by a working class, mixed-race, disabled, lesbian Sikh. But I long even more for the day when all of those factors - class, race, disability, gender, sexuality or religion - are seen as being non-issues in terms of a candidate's ability. But I think we're a long way from that.


Bill said...

I long for the day when a largely white rural seat such as Ross, Skye and Inverness West can be represented by a working class, mixed-race, disabled, lesbian Sikh

Well, there are certainly lots of females around in the area (approx. 50 per cent I imagine) and I'm sure there are at least a few lebians. However, apart from the 'working class' category (which obviously exists locally in abundance, too) I'd imagine that the other categories are relatively thin on the ground in the area. I take your general point, though, even if I do believe local representatives should at least live in the area (even if they come from elsewhere) and not simply be 'parachuted' in.

Stephen Glenn said...

Bernard you can let us all know now, after all the P&J has released the news. ;)

Liberal Democrat Blogs