I'm writing this in the wake of a battle that has been lost, you might say. The main reasons for my opposition to All Women Shortlists, and the general principles of my alternative approach, were set out a while ago in my previous blog post here - I don't propose to revisit those arguments in too much detail again here, but I do want to expand on the system a little (which I will do later in this post), and mention a few things that have struck me during the debate about the issue. While the party has now voted for AWS as part of the otherwise excellent motion on 'Diversity', I still think it has got it wrong - I believe that AWS is actually potentially damaging to overall diversity. It would appear that we are going down that road as a party, and I sincerely hope that I am proved wrong on that, but in either case AWS cannot be a long term, ongoing solution. It can only really be a temporary 'quick fix' to solve an immediate problem of improving gender balance - I think it is the wrong solution to use, but I can still see the genuine good intentions behind it (note to self: ....don't mention 'road to hell'.... don't mention 'road to hell'.... don't mention 'road to hell'....!).
I still think we need to find a long term solution, or solutions, to the diversity issues in our party and its representation - not just in parliament, but in every institution where we are represented (or stand to be represented), and indeed in internal party offices and positions too. What worries me now is that people will pat themselves on the back a little after passing the motion, even thinking somehow that we've 'solved diversity'. We haven't, and there is very a long way to go before we can call ourselves a truly diverse party with truly diverse representation at all levels.
It is unfortunate that there seems to me to have been some mis-characterisation of arguments within the process, and this saddens me. I have seen opponents to AWS accused of wanting to 'do nothing', or being 'laissez faire' about diversity and gender issues. I've not seen a single suggestion of either 'doing nothing' or 'supporting the status quo' from those opposed to AWS, and that misrepresentation is deeply unhelpful to holding a reasoned debate. I have even seen opponents of AWS being accused of 'just wanting to preserve current privilege (consciously or unconsciously)', but frankly I will treat such contemptible comments with the contempt they deserve (and, quite apart from anything else, most of the most vocal opponents of AWS that I have seen are far from being the 'straight white men' who they would presumably be trying to 'protect'). I'm certainly not suggesting that all AWS supporters have been guilty of such things, but some certainly have, and it has not been at all helpful to present the issue as 'support AWS or do nothing' or 'this is the only way we can do it', 'we've tried everything else', and 'you don't support diversity if you don't support AWS' (I'm also not claiming that every opponent of AWS has presented their arguments impeccably during the discussions, of course).
The other side of this mis-characterisation coin, of course, is the suggestion that alternatives have not been forthcoming. Other approaches have been brought up and suggested, by Liberal Youth among others, such as Unconscious Bias training - something that the party desperately needs to roll out as widely possible and as quickly as possible, in my opinion, and that should be considered as a mandatory requirement for everyone who is to be involved in the candidate selection process. Another suggestion that I think can be explored is the idea of a 'blind' element to the selection process - there is, I agree, a case for pointing out that it won't be truly 'blind' if everyone involved knows the applicants, as is often the case in a local party, but with that in mind I think the party should consider the idea of a 'neutral voice' being more closely involved in selection processes in an advisory capacity in some way, and doing so in a 'blind' way, and such that a local party has to show that they have fully considered and responded to the advice given. There are other ideas (viable and not, I suspect) out there, I'm sure, but I'm not going to attempt to list and assess them all here - suffice to say that I do not agree that AWS has been the only possible option on offer.
One particular phrase that I have seen several times has struck me, though, so I'll mention it here. That is the suggestion that those objecting to the 'positive discrimination' of AWS don't object to the same principle in the Pupil Premium. They don't, for a very simply reason - they are not the same principle, and are indeed quite the opposite of being the same principle. Pupil premium seeks to level the playing field of opportunity by helping those who are disadvantaged, not by simply stopping those who have supposed advantages - that is the opposite of AWS. The equivalent of AWS in such an educational context would be the improving of the balance of children attending top universities by simply banning the supposedly 'advantaged' to applying for places at some of those top universities. Yes, it would have the desired outcome as a 'quick fix', but I hope that most people would agree that it isn't the right way to go about it.
Anyway, on to the alternative, or at least an alternative - a longer term way of addressing the fact that a particular over-represented group has a tendency to succeed in actually getting chosen as candidates through the selection process, even though others may also have applied (and been short-listed). As I said previously, I believe that there is a type of possible solution to helping to improve candidate diversity (in conjunction with other measures to improve recruitment, training, support, etc.) in the short-listing system that can be applied universally to every seat, and for the long term. Without going too far into the details of the concept contained in my previous post again, the basic idea is that people self-identify as falling within certain basic group definitions via a simple diversity form (of the type that is commonly used in job applications and the like), and that short listing is essentially limited to one representative from each group. Nobody is excluded, and everyone obviously has to fulfil the basic 'approved candidate' criteria of being suitable for short-listing, but the actual short list ends up being as diverse as the range of applications allow (and I fully agree with the idea of seeking out more diverse candidates and so on, of course), and with a level playing field between all represented groups of applicants.
What I wanted to do was break that idea down with a simple illustrative example of how such a system would operate. Let us say that we have a formerly held-seat vacated by a retiring MP (the system would apply equally to every seat, but those kind of seats are the most likely to get the largest number of potential applicants - we certainly need to encourage more applicants of all kinds to stand everywhere anyway, of course, and to deal with any issues in within the party that are discouraging people from putting themselves forward). Let us say there are 10 reasonably varied applicants for the candidacy - 6 men and 4 women (optimistic, perhaps, but that's where the other stuff about encouraging potential candidates has to come in, with or without using AWS), and all of those pass the usual basic criteria. In short-listing, the first consideration is how the applicants fall into those self-identified groups, so let us say (for the sake of illustration) that we have the following:
1. Male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.
2. Female, BAME, heterosexual, able-bodied.
3. Male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.
4. Female, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.
5. Male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.
6. Female, white, heterosexual, disabled.
7. Male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.
8. Male, white, LGBT+, able-bodied.
9. Female, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.
10. Male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.
Now it's fairly obvious at a brief glance that one group overwhelmingly dominates the applicants list, with half of those applying. They are, of course, the over-represented group. The first part of the process is simply to whittle the list down so that only the best of each 'group' gets through to final short-list. Nobody is barred from the list, but the list cannot be dominated by any single group, and nor can under-represented group applicants end up being removed from the final shortlist in favour of the over-represented group applicants, for any reason. It is absolutely equal for everyone, but candidates from under-represented groups are encouraged and given a more level playing field when it comes to creating the final list - in short, they have a better chance of getting straight through to the final list without having to go through a preliminary selection round, and cannot get 'flooded out' or 'drowned out' by other groups during the consideration of that final list. Yes, they might still be up against a male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied person, but they will only be up against one of them - that gives a much better chance of diverse and under-represented voices being equally heard (although in making final decisions, unconscious bias training is still massively important).
So, after we have whittled down that list of 10, how will the final list look? Well candidates 1, 3, 5, 7 and 10 are all 'Male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied', so only one of them can go through. A preliminary round has to be held for them, and only the best of them selected to go forward to the final list. Candidates 4 and 9 are both similarly 'Female, white, heterosexual, able-bodied', and the same preliminary process would be followed to decide between them (which helps to minimise the sometimes cited AWS potential issue of simply replacing the over-representative white males with similar white females, instead of encouraging true diversity). What we would end up with as a final short-list from that preliminary group would be this:
1. Male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.
2. Female, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.
3. Female, BAME, heterosexual, able-bodied.
4. Female, white, heterosexual, disabled.
5. Male, white, LGBT+, able-bodied.
That's a reasonably diverse list, I think you will agree, whereas before it was very much dominated by one group (it is also more diverse that it would have been had the men been excluded, obviously). Where we had a domination of one particular type of possible candidate, we now only have one of those (the best one). Where we had a 60% ratio of males to females, that is now reversed. Where we had 10% of both BAME and LGBT+ applications, we now have 20% of each in the final list, which is now equal to the 20% of 'Male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied' representation. Each of the under-represented groups now has an equal platform to any other group that is represented, including the formerly and usually over-represented group. No longer can we have a list dominated by one group (ANY group), and no longer can we have a single-group-dominated list along with what looks like a 'token' to show that we have 'done our bit' and 'allowed' them in on a 'level playing field' that really isn't, because they are the 'odd one out' and their voice can seem to be the 'outside' or even 'marginalised' one.
Of course, in a slightly less optimistic and far more common scenario of perhaps four or five applicants from the 'male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied' group plus one other (female, or BAME, or LGBT+), the system would still equally apply, and produce a final shortlist of a 'head to head' contest between the one remaining short-listed 'male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied' person and the 'other' - that still produces a far fairer and more level playing field for the 'other' candidate to be heard as an equally powerful voice, and to compete on equal terms.
The system is, of course, extremely flexible - it can adapt in future to whatever criteria of 'under-represented' the party chooses to include in the diversity form on which short-listing decisions are made, and the way that the criteria are applied can also potentially be adjusted to maximise or minimise the final short-list number, depending on the numbers and balances of applicants. It can be applied permanently and for the long term, because it will always work equally, no matter which groups are involved. It can be applied equally to each and every seat (and other office, including party offices, with the notable exception of a leadership choice between our current sitting MPs, for obvious reasons at this time - unfortunately the preliminary 'run off' stage would have been the final stage in that instance!), because it doesn't exclude anyone. It's also conceptually very simple to understand.
Obviously, no such system will solve the problem of diversity on its own, as I have said. There are many other things that the party needs to do, some of which it is now looking at doing as a result of the conference motion. However, I think we do need to adopt some kind of similar system so that our short-lists of potential candidates are as diverse and as equal as possible, with as level a playing field as possible for EVERY type of applicant, without any possibility of ANY group being able to dominate the others when it comes to the final choice of candidate (and again I will stress here that I believe that Unconscious Bias training is absolutely essential for anyone and everyone involved in the process of candidate selection). AWS deals with providing for one particular outcome, but the issue of candidate diversity is greater and deeper than that one particular outcome, and, regardless of what now happens in the short term with AWS, I think we still need to look at a long term system that recognises that and provides a truly level playing field for all candidates on an ongoing basis.