They’re the only party other than the SNP never to have had female leadership in Scotland or UK-wide (and the SNP would almost certainly choose Nicola if a vacancy appeared just now). Between 2007 and 2011, the Lib Dems elected just two female MSPs from a group of sixteen, an even worse ratio than their current tally of one woman amongst the diminished group of five.
If you look at the betting for the next leader of the Lib Dems UK-wide, you have to go past eight men to find the first woman on the list – Jo Swinson, as it happens – then Lynne Featherstone is the next to feature, many places later. The bookies deem that a less likely outcome even than the return of Charles Kennedy.
But will they do anything about it? No, because it’s a top-down solution, they say. No, because, we’re told by as senior a figure as Paddy Ashdown, gender-balanced selection would be illiberal, although he did say it’d be worth doing if Rennard’s “leadership programme” didn’t succeed, which is one question that’s surely been answered.
The Scottish Greens had a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale, during our first Holyrood heyday. We elected seven MSPs, much to our surprise: five men and two women. And as a result, we decided to introduce gender balanced selection principles. We, in this case, means the membership. Not the leadership. One member one vote at Conference – that’s where gender balance was won. There was nothing top-down about it whatsoever. It was the will of the party, and it would have been undemocratic not to move in that direction.
Given the number of Green incumbents in 2007, those principles were first tested nationally in 2011. Sure, it’s easy with two MSPs, you might say, and other factors come into play, but more or less however large a group we’d elected in 2011 it’d have been roughly gender balanced. And the effect has been clear, as discussed in 2009: more women are coming forward for selection, and that is definitely at least in part because they see other women being selected and winning.
Is it suspicious of me to think that the reasons the Lib Dems oppose this as “top-down” is because the party rank and file are either impotent to bring it into effect or because they couldn’t be trusted to vote for it? Either way, surely they have to change now.
It’d be wrong to sneer at proper programmes designed to support women candidates and prospective candidates, though, obviously provided such schemes are not run by unaccountable men for their own benefit. Those are something the Greens have only had limited capacity to establish, and there’s definitely more we could be doing here.
People have long snickered at the Lib Dems, and even now the phrase “Rennard wielded complete power” sounds absurd. He’s a Lib Dem, for goodness sake. But the boys’ club is in power now, or at least they put the Tories into power and themselves into office. The idea that women intrinsically make better or more progressive decisions is sexist bunk, but a party where women are just as able to progress would undoubtedly be one with a healthier political atmosphere.