Zehra Zaidi and Loanna Morrison are Directors of DiverCity is Right and former Conservative candidates.
We refer less to the classic lines from the Scarlett Pimpernel (yes, they seek us everywhere) but more the lyrics from the Kinks song “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”. Diversity is trending. Not a week goes by without a media commentator bemoaning the lack of diversity within the Conservative Party. As two former candidates, who also happen to be women and of ethnic minority background, we can attest to representation within the rank and file of the Party. However, there are reasons – some not entirely unknown – why the pipeline stalls, and there is lack of recognition and progression.
Politics has become so professionalised – and men tend to be more collegiate and share many common connections. The political merry-go-round of special advisers/think tank guru/news editosr/lawyers and PR advisors is often equally as male, Oxbridge, middle class or white. The Westminster Village is truly as small a group of inter-connected people as that term suggests, and a Home Counties dominated one at that. The need for candidates to be connected and “seen” creates barriers of entry to those who lack knowledge and access, especially from the regions.
And then there is the cost of candidacy. If only we talked of the need of bursary schemes with half as much passion as all women shortlists. The representation of women, ethnic minorities and those from poorer backgrounds cannot progress without this conversation. Bursaries could provide autonomy. Using shortlists and quotas risks creating enforced restrictions that stunt competition, reduce quality and have unintended inequalities.
Those on lower incomes (more often women and ethnic minorities) can attempt one electoral cycle, usually in their local constituency in terms of time, effort and money. This is never recouped unless they win (but the first attempt is often in unwinnable seats). Another attempt becomes less attainable as the responsibility of family reasserts itself and the focus returns to career. Political involvement is reduced to social action, in the hope this will be attributed to the political arena, keeping the channels open for re-entry.
70 per cent of the Conservatives’ candidates’ list consists of men, suggesting women are already in short supply at the starting post. Ethnic minorities are fewer still. This problem stretches across parties and is not confined to politics. It is replicated in business and boardrooms and other influential areas of British life. Is this a good enough reason – and is it fair one – to give women an advantage solely based on gender? Ethnicity and gender are not qualifications. The Left indulges women with shortlists by asking that they conveniently suspend their belief in equality, something they have been loudly vocal on, resulting in all-women shortlists dominating media debates. Why are Labour selection methods the only party in town? Because their agenda is about women; not capable women.
On the doorstep, we need candidates who can speak authentically on supporting elderly parents, securing pensions, starting successful enterprises or turning around failed businesses, discussing education outcomes and the benefits of apprenticeships vis-a-vis universities and so on. That is representative of the realities that voters face.
How will we attract new talent if the Conservative Party cannot hold on to these authentic self-starters; with political experience, an understanding of how things work and have normal lives beyond the realms of Eton? More importantly, shouldn’t those experiences be valued over as much as gender and ethnic diversity?
Lessons can be learned just as well at the Association Executive level – like the Westminster village, they are also lacking diversity. Indeed, there are some local associations in inner city London with no ethnic minority members!
There is another element of political life whose importance has been waning dramatically under the Conservatives: the voluntary party. ‘The Big Society’ concept has actually worked but it no longer has an owner. The social action culture embedded by the party in the run up to the 2010 general election is thriving across the country.
Too much importance is given to central politics. More support and innovative thinking needs to go into building and maximising local associations to widen and harness their talent pool and membership base. Centralisation is risk averse and alienating. Input is narrow. Development programmes are way better than quotas and shortlists. Creating them in local Associations provides career pathways. That is just good business.
Diversity is right and for the next generation, it has already become a way of life. Achievement will be about competition, not colour or gender. The Conservative Party needs to own the diversity debate by looking at the problem from a general standpoint rather than being held to ransom by the emotive rhetoric that finds resonance in socialist sentiment.
Don’t let us down by falling for Ed Miliband’s cheap gimmick at PMQs with women strategically placed like models for a photo shoot. And for the women both left and right, for allowing themselves to be herded like cattle for the camera angle.
The Conservative Party has always valued what the individual brings, not patronising ploys. But it needs to do a Martin Luther King – to shout unequivocally about its desire to create a nation where people ‘…will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’ (King). Add the rest too: not judged by their gender, age, sexuality, but by their talent, creativity and commitment.
There are natural strengths of conservativism that we are failing to maximise. Take immigration, wrapped up in a story about numbers. In terms of gaining the votes of settled migrant communities, we are the party who value our trading links with the diaspora across the Commonwealth. We are the party of freedom that under Thatcher helped unshackle Europe from communism. So why are more small businesses from Asian and Black communities not naturally voting for us? Why are Poles more likely to vote for Labour? Because we are failing to promote the one thing they are all coming here for – the way that British tradition lives comfortably with freedom of the individual. Anyone from anywhere can follow their dream without the prescription of socialist authoritarianism. They are disappointed in our lack of conservatism. They ‘got’ Mrs Thatcher.