What ‘Candidates should be chosen on merit.’ really means.

At Liberal Democrat Conference in York, delegates will have the opportunity to vote on a set of proposals which will put in place and instigate a series of approaches to tackle the lack of diversity among candidates and elected Liberal Democrats. The announcement of the proposals has caused debate right across the party with, in my view, deeply worrying attitudes, responses, and reasoning for rejecting the more controversial proposals (which include AWS and ‘zipping’).

These proposals include a number of approaches that seek to address long term imbalances in addition to taking action in the short term. They ensure support for candidates and potential candidates, they tackle culture, address and review processes, they’re intersectional (meaning that oppression and oppressive institutions are interconnected and cannot be viewed as separate from one another), and take affirmative action to address the under-representation of women and disabled people in our party. We need to take action now to address our own situation, whilst working to challenge the underlying cultures and behaviours which contribute towards creating barriers for oppressed groups. Nobody is suggesting that these are problems for Liberal Democrats. They’re societal problems that we should be expected to lead and tackle head on.

Our previous leader laments the growth of identity politics, and I’m glad that Tim Farron is changing that. I believe that one of the ways in which the party’s fortunes will improve is through bringing together our messages being wary of excessive power, of giving power back to people and communities, and how putting power in the hands of (a diverse) people ensures better politics.

1. We don’t live in a meritocracy. 

A meritocracy is a political philosophy which states that power should be vested in people according to merit, that someone’s ability should determine whether they are right to hold power (in whatever form that ‘power’ may take).

In a range of discussions a number of people have suggested that 2015 shows that we’ve fixed our problem with electing women candidates, proving that we don’t in fact have a problem with selecting women and that we select based on merit. Some have drawn on local examples of council groups and candidates – an “I’m All Right Jack” response. Local practice and examples are great, but it doesn’t prove very much.

Implying that we’ve fixed our problem by fielding more women candidates in 2015 still doesn’t address the fact that none were elected. It’s also naive in that what we appear to be saying is that we’ve got it right and therefore we can wash our hands of taking action. The proposals will evaluate what role the PPC plays (including the support available), recognising that it’s not just how we select our candidates, but also what expectations and stereotypes we have of candidates (which are typically characteristics of able-bodied, financially secure men). It’s not just about AWS.

When we talk about merit in terms of electing someone to a position of power (what ever form that power may take), particularly electoral power, we’re talking about merit as being characterised by stereotypes that we’ve been fed and subconsciously accept and fail to challenge. Those characteristics are shaped by people who have dominated power structures.

I find it deeply worrying that for a party which values diversity and the positive effects of diversity, that some are suggesting that AWS and zipping would not find incredible candidates to lead our party. We’re told that it’s patronising. Overall, 92.4 per cent of professors are white, while just 0.49 per cent are black. Only 15 black academics are in senior management roles. Are the 92.4% of white professors in UK Higher Education there based on merit? Are the 70% of male MPs that make up the House of Commons there because of merit? Are we really saying that black people are only qualified enough to make up 6% of MPs?

2. It’s all about identity 

A number of responses have often sounded like a retaliation to an attack on their own personal identity. What about group x or y? Taking seats from qualified men? Discrimination against group d? It can be uncomfortable, but we all have to recognise that those of us who don’t define into these groups which face oppression, benefit from the status quo. We have to keep checking how our own identity contributes to an oppressive society and do more to speak with people who face oppression.

As a party we fundamentally believe that people and communities make the best decisions and that they should be empowered to deliver change for themselves. Politics is at its best when we have multiple and diverse voices around the table. In fact it wasn’t until Labour got more women into government that we started to see far greater progress on issues linked to maternity leave and pay, and childcare. That’s why this motion seeks to tackle the under-representation of all marginalised groups, and why it’s patronising to suggest that we should value the contribution of BME, LGBT+ and women to politics and society based on some patriarchal stereotype of what it is to be a leader, as told by those who have long held power – also known as merit.

Any government, parliament or decision making space full of people who look, sound, behave and share similar experiences won’t deliver the type of country that we want to see as Liberal Democrats. We’ll never deliver on that preamble.

If current trends continue we won’t see equal gender representation for another several hundred years, and I dread to think what that the figures look like for the representation of disabled, black or low socio-economic people. I’ve hardly seen any discussion of the representation of non-binary and trans people in politics, which perhaps suggests that we still have a long way to go in really tackling marginalisation and oppression.

Our party’s approach has to be intersectional. Arguing about whether we’re better off targeting the under-representation of people from low socio-economic backgrounds rather than women misses the point entirely. It’s not one or the other. These proposals will drive efforts to address the under-representation of all under-represented groups, tackling culture, process, and the support available. AWS and zipping are just one part of the proposals, and are proposals because legislation doesn’t allow similar action for any other disadvantaged groups.

Can we not throw the baby out with the bathwater?

3. ‘I don’t see race or disability or gender.’

I’ll quote an article that I read a while ago to sum up my thoughts on this well-intentioned but misguided response;

Race is such an ingrained social construct that even blind people can ‘see’ it. To pretend it doesn’t exist to you erases the experiences of black people.

What is meant to be well-meaning and well-intentioned response to issues of diversity – and reflecting on what our own identity means in relation to the oppression of other peoples in society – is actually fairly damaging to those who define into those groups. Giving ourselves a pat on the back because we don’t ‘see’ these inequalities makes no difference to the lives of other people, and serves to reinforce oppression.

We have to recognise that our own ‘whiteness’ our own privilege and our own identity are all part of an oppressive society. We have to take action ourselves; speaking with people who find themselves marginalised, calling out our own and other’s prejudices and subconscious attitudes and behaviours. As people who want to see a fair, free and equal society, we have a responsibility to call out prejudice and oppression wherever we see it – including in ourselves.

I’ll finish with this article on not ‘seeing’ race.

I hope that conference has a nuanced debate about identity and diversity, allows those who define into marginalised and oppressed groups to lead the debate, and ultimately votes in favour of this motion.




3 thoughts on “What ‘Candidates should be chosen on merit.’ really means.

  1. G says:

    Are we really saying that black people are only qualified enough to make up 6% of MPs?

    According to Wikipedia the 2011 census recorded 3% of the British population as black. So assuming merit is equally distributed among black and non-black people, you would expect them to make up 3% of MPs, correct?

    So in fact it seems black people are over-represented among MPs, if they make up 6%.

    (Women, of course, are under-represented by a far greater margin).

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