Diversifying the Liberal Democrats – a once in a generation opportunity?


Will we finally start seeing more women taking more prominent and influential roles for the Liberal Democrats?

I’ll start with this video of Jo Swinson, which I filmed in Cambridge when she was a minister at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

She’s also written a post-election article at http://www.libdemvoice.org/jo-swinson-writesdissolution-honours-make-the-contribution-of-women-look-invisible-47270.html as has former Lib Dem councillor Daisy Benson at https://englandisthehomeoflostideas.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/alright-lib-dems-at-the-crossroads/

Wiped out at the polls

All of the women MPs the Liberal Democrats had in the previous parliament lost their seats in May 2015. Even Julian Huppert lost his seat in Cambridge on what was a very depressing night for the Liberal Democrats. The scale of their defeat as a party was far bigger than I thought it would be – even though many expected them to take a hammering at the polls. As a result, their new policy spokespeople have had to draw on the House of Lords and beyond Parliament – see http://www.libdems.org.uk/new-lib-dem-spokespeople-announced.

Party conference season – make or break for the opposition parties?

The Liberal Democrats are in Bournemouth http://www.libdems.org.uk/autumn_conference for their conference, having experienced a significant jump in the number of members since the general election. What will the impact of all of those members – in particular those new to politics be? What’s the breakdown of new vs returning members? How will the party respond to the rise of the Labour left under Corbyn? The Lib Dem conference takes place a couple of weeks after Labour announces its new leader. Where the former position themselves relative to Labour depends as much on who the latter elect as it does on the decisions of Tim Farron, Nick Clegg’s successor.

An opportunity to showcase some new faces?

In part it depends on how much media coverage the party gets. While the smaller number of MPs may justify a reduced outlay from TV news, the increase in the number of people attending – in particular first time and/or new members may make this one more interesting than previous ones.

Given the news reports and pictures of empty seats from their 2014 conference, the boost in numbers and new faces could be just what the party needs to revitalise battle-weary members while galvanising and bringing together new members into co-ordinated campaigning units. With a backdrop of such an electoral low point, there might be something liberating about not having to worry about things getting any worse. This feels familiar in the pro vs anti-Corbyn debates inside Labour. For the pro-Corbyn, having lost 2 elections in a row is as bad as things can get towing a moderate line – now is the time to try something radical. For those against Corbyn, it’s the opposite – Corbyn could take Labour even lower. Hence the splits and the risk of even more paralysis should the infighting continue after Labour decides who should be its leader.

The Liberal Democrats as the primary opposition party in Cambridgeshire

They oppose a Labour-led council in Cambridge, a Conservative-led South Cambridgeshire District Council, and are the second-largest party on Cambridgeshire County Council (no overall control) and also the second-largest party on East Cambs District Council…with two councillors to over 30 for the Conservatives. Where and how do local activists position themselves?

In Cambridge, the party got crushed by the Cambridge University Labour Club steamroller that saw Daniel Zeichner MP take the seat from Dr Julian Huppert. The previous year I saw first hand an exhausted council deposed by Labour in an election me & Puffles stood in. As a result, previously high-profile councillors have had a much lower profile, or have moved on completely. I’m interested to see who for the county’s Lib Dems will step forward to take their places. Anecdotally, local activists have spoken positively about the local rise in membership, but I’ve not seen that reflected in local news coverage.

Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats – a lack of women activists?

They’ve lost a couple of high-profile & hard-working women due to graduation, which is inevitable in any student movement in a town with stupendously high house prices. Yet even with those activists, in the run up to the 2015 general election the number of women campaigning was tiny compared to the numbers of men. As with any student political party, how do you encourage people from under-represented backgrounds, communities to get involved without frightening them off or over-burdening them?

There’s also the ‘intellectual bubble’ of Cambridge – something that social media is fortunately helping to break. This is with the organising of events. To their credit, both Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats & Cambridge Young Greens were very good in making nearly all of their events open to the public – inviting me to go along and film/live tweet. While Cambridge Labour were fine with me coming along when I put in a request, the difference in approaches in terms of political culture was that the other two parties seemed that bit more pro-active to non-members than Labour was.

My point is that there are a number of places far beyond university colleges where interested young people are. If only you’d invite them to your events. Not in terms of a tweet or a Facebook link, but going to where they are.

The suggestion I have for Cambridgeshire is a series of ‘campaigns at bus stops’. Look at the Cambridgeshire Guided Bus route: http://www.thebusway.info/routes-and-times.aspx. Pick a school day, pick a stop that lots of further education students use – eg Long Road Sixth Form College on the Addenbrooke’s route, Cambridge Railway Station, Cambridge Regional College and Huntingdonshire Regional College, schedule a stall at both stops from 2-5pm when students are waiting for buses (& will have time to talk to you/have no time to rush off (captive audience), have a specific event to invite them to, and repeat. The reason why CRC & HRC matter is because you get a very different demographic of students to those who might otherwise go onto university to study academic subjects. As students at those institutions tend to stay in their locality after completing their courses, could this help get a greater number of young activists campaigning locally in the long term?

And finally…will the men who have dominated the Liberal Democrats for years let go of the reins?

This is easier said than done – although Tim Farron set out his stall early on with a 50-50 split on gender with his list of party policy leads. The reason is that they only have eight all male MPs. This means that their presence in the Commons can be easily overlooked – especially with voting unless they co-ordinate with the other parties. This leaves their large presence in the increasingly discredited House of Lords – see http://www.libdems.org.uk/peers. Being a party of democrats doesn’t sit easily with such a large presence of appointed legislators. Yet it is in the Lords that they can make the biggest difference in terms of scrutinising, amending & blocking the Government’s plans.

Fast forward five years to a 2020 general election

This for me will be the acid test for the Liberal Democrats: Will they select a critical mass of women MPs in winnable seats given the turfing out of incumbents in 2015, or will they allow former long-standing MPs another shot at Parliament? How many of the former MPs who still have political ambitions will stand aside and instead support and nurture women activists in the party who have the potential to become good MPs? In fact, that goes for all parties while there is still an imbalance in Parliament.


One thought on “Diversifying the Liberal Democrats – a once in a generation opportunity?

  1. It’d be interesting to ask those women who are involved, particularly at a local level, what the challenges are. Is it just about having the hide of a rhino to cope with the carp (anag) that will, inevitably, come your way when you poke your head above the parapet? Is it speaking in public? Is it the (as may be perceived) impossibility of having a work/life balance? etc etc.

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