The Conservative Party looks younger and more diverse than at any time in its history. In large part that’s a testament to David Cameron’s determination to build a modern and inclusive party. But as the dust settles there remain real questions about the best way to build on these successes for the future.
Many of us have deep misgivings about creeping positive discrimination. Recent reports about the appointment of a new House of Commons chaplain only add to these concerns.
Canon Robert Wright, the outgoing Commons chaplain, will be remembered for his measured tones in public and supportive pastoral voice in private. He is respected because he is visible and conducts his work in an open and accessible way. This is exactly the kind of openness that must underpin Parliamentary and public appointments.
The Speaker selected the candidate he thought best for the job. Some will be alarmed by rumours of positive discrimination; others will be cheered by the selection of the best candidate.
I have little doubt that Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, now confirmed in her new post, has the ability to make an excellent chaplain, as has Canon Andrew Tremlett, who lost out in the race. But I worry that the temptation to make appointments in pursuit of a covert agenda of positive discrimination – or the old school tie, for that matter – is on the rise. I fear that our Parliament and our politics would then be setting a regressive example to society.
An appointment made in an overtly political way might serve the political interests of the appointer while demeaning the appointee. Not only could the candidate be forced to question their own abilities – which may be ample and sufficient – but they may also be regarded by others as something of a charity case.
It would be understandable if a person felt humiliated for being offered a job purely on the basis of a physical attribute (such as gender or skin colour) that is irrelevant to the job. The same argument applies to the selection of party candidates. Moves to impose candidates on the basis of such irrelevant characteristics have occasionally incensed local activists and offended promising local candidates who stand to lose out through no fault of their own.
In the interests of an open and inclusive democracy, our political leaders must continue to encourage a diverse range of people to serve in public life, but they should resist the temptation of creating resentment and dividing society by embedding ‘groupism’. They must stop short of the well-meaning but divisive approach which insults individual talent.
From my own experience, the best approach would be to recognise that first generation pioneers may need additional support, advice and coaching to rise in an unfamiliar political world. But the key is for this support to be informal and unofficial so that it neither skews the selection criteria nor disadvantages other candidates.
That’s why I am urging the new Government to ensure that Labour’s amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, which legalised all-women shortlists, be allowed to lapse in 2015. The selection of candidates based on personal characteristics – that are arbitrary or merely in vogue – should not enjoy legal force if we believe in equality of opportunity. The ability to do the job should take precedence.
I am also urging the Government to drop plans to force Britain’s hard-pressed businesses to manipulate the longlist for corporate directorships to ensure that half the candidates are women.
I am an advocate of positive action, not positive discrimination. I welcomed steps taken by the Financial Reporting Council to ensure that employers pay attention to diversity when making decisions, but were not bound to deliver quotas. Clogging the job market with new red tape would be unnecessary, not to mention counter-productive, in the current economic climate. As a self-made entrepreneur I know that the best employers are simply looking for the best talent. After all, talent is what matters – in the pulpit and the boardroom.
The elitist creep is always a worry, even when it stems from good motivations. It is time to value merit over elite patronage and recognise that we are stronger as a society when we respect each other as individuals. We can achieve a more diverse democracy through a firm commitment to meritocracy.