Lib Dems back diversity drive

The Liberal Democrat conference has today supported tough new action to improve the party’s representation among women and ethnic minorities.

Delegates in Brighton voted overwhelmingly to back a motion put by the Lib Dem leadership for extra funds to support ethnic minority and female candidates, and to consider diversity when deciding which seats to target in an election.

Members rejected the idea of ethnic minority and female quotas at last year’s conference, causing embarrassment to then leader Charles Kennedy. His successor, Menzies Campbell, has survived a similar fate today.

Lib Dem president Simon Hughes opened the debate, saying the motion represented a “significant step” and was not so much about political correctness but “political engagement”, allowing the party to reach more voters.

Out of the 63 Lib Dem MPs only nine are women, and none are black or from ethnic minorities. This morning Sir Menzies announced a £200,000 fund to support ethnic minority and female candidates in parliamentary selection process.

“We cannot possibly preach community politics unless we practice it.we want to reach more people, we deserve to reach more people,” Mr Hughes told delegates.

He added: “Political realities may seem harsh and they sometimes are. But real and lasting diversity does not happen by accident.”

However, opponents argued that the Lib Dems had already passed motions calling for greater training to help minority and female candidates get selected, and this should now be the focus – not more initiatives.

“This motion offers merely warm words and floaty remarks but not actual measures,” said James Graham of the Finchley and Golders Green Lib Dems.

He noted that the main problem was the lack of suitable ethnic minority and female candidates to stand, not any underlying discrimination among party members or the public, and urged delegates to support existing motions to tackle this.

“Voting against this motion would be a positive vote for our existing policy and would end procrastination and allow us to finally start acting,” Mr Graham said.

Mike Simpson of the East Surrey Lib Dems warned that the motion urging the party to consider diversity issues when deciding which seats to target would be counterproductive, and questioned how the extra funding would distort this process.

“Members of the local party level should focus on selecting the best candidate as they see it and we shouldn’t seek to divert them from this in a hope of a cash injection,” Mr Simpson argued.

But Watford councillor, Rabi Martins, countered that the debate was “not about money – it’s about representation – what we as ethnic minority members are calling for is an equal playing field to get selected into target seats”.

“Until we as a party are bold enough to say we cannot go on with our ethnic deficit then we do not deserve to win,” he stressed.

Mohammed Shafiq of the Rochdale party also argued passionately in favour of the motion, warning delegates: “We have to get real.for too long we have had these debates and in the end there are no results.

He added: “If we seriously want to be the party of government we have to be representative in parliament.”