Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Diversity and other misnomers

In most corporations these days there is considerable emphasis on "diversity training". Most people look on it as a box ticking exercise, like fire alarms or health and safety briefings: a necessary bureaucracy by which the organisation demonstrates compliance with the law.

Yet, as with so many box ticking exercises, there is a core of essential and necessary work at the heart of the exercise. Organisations, like any group of human beings, can create cliques and foster a culture which fails to use each member of the group to their full potential. In short, respect for diversity is necessary if any group is going to fulfill the maximum that it can achieve. The search for excellence needs to embrace a broad range of points of view and a wide variety of experience. This is how corporations gain the best performance from their workers.

What is true for corporations is even more true for a political party that seeks to promote social and political excellence. Thus the heated debate amongst the Liberal Democrats as to why none of its MPs are anything except straight white males. To be honest, given the scale of the 2015 electoral massacre, the fact is that there are very few Liberal Democrat MPs of any description, so the random impact of the electoral dice is not really under the party's control. The idea that any one of these MPs should be stood down in favour of some other "more diverse" candidate is insulting to hard working MPs and also to the supposedly "more diverse" candidate- yet that is what more hot headed figures have seemed to suggest.

The party can, and to a great degree does, seek to put different kinds of candidates in winnable seats. The problem was that last time, we did not win any of them. To my mind, diversity campaigners in the party treat these in much the same way as corporations: a box ticking exercise. We lost genuinely excellent women MPs. We failed to elect MPs from a wide variety of ethnic groups- and despite criticism, this was not through want of trying. Several retiring MPs hoped that their successors would be women- but we did not hold a single seat. All our LGBT MPs lost their seats. So although some argue that we as a party can no longer say respect diversity, the fact is that while we could have done more, and intend to do more next time, we should also respect the talents of all our members- including the straight white males.

The whole point about diversity is not just that we should reflect the society that elects us, we should strive for excellence. The resignation of Kav Kaushik disappoints me because Kav is a genuinely excellent candidate and campaigner. Intelligent and articulate, Kav would have been a great MP- but too many people focused not on what she said, but who she is, and that is about as patronizing as politics gets. No wonder she felt that the Liberal Democrats were demonstrating hypocrisy of the worst kind: several of us were!

Personally I have felt that the party must promote the role of women more than it does. I believe in the principles of feminism and female equality. That for me is a far more urgent problem that some of the other issues in the diversity debate: ethnic minority issues and respect for sexual minorities. Yet across the debate we are simply talking about the process, rather than the goal. It is not just that we should be seeking greater diversity in our Parliamentary party for its own sake, we should be doing this because it allows us to gain higher quality candidates and MPs/MSPs and AMs, not to mention councillors. 

Diversity is not - should not be- a box ticking exercise. It is not a question of putting brilliant candidates into groups- it is the exact opposite: it is finding candidates who are genuinely excellent, regardless of those groups.

In the Liberal Democrat diversity debate, too many people seem to think that the group that people belong to is more important than their individual excellence- and Liberals should make sure that this should never happen. When excellent candidates like Kav feel they have to leave the party, there is something very badly wrong- I trust that there will be some reflection on all sides.

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