The Lib Dem problem with women

New research indicates that the Liberal Democrats could end up with zero female MPs after the next e

If current poll ratings continue, the Liberal Democrats could end up with no female MPs at all after the next election, according to research by the Fabian Society.

The party already has the smallest number of female MPs of any of the parties, with just seven women out of its 57 MPs (12 per cent). The next Fabian Society report shows that these seven include five in the party's ten most vulnerable seats.

There are no women at all in the party's safest seats (those where it holds the largest majorities). The research notes that the combined majority held by all seven of the party's female MPs put together (17,224 votes) is only just bigger than Nick Clegg's majority of 15,284 in Sheffield Hallam.

Sunder Katwala and Seema Melhotra, the authors of the report, say:

If the current polls were even half right, not a single Lib Dem woman MP would survive. An early election where they held four out of five seats (a result they would bite your arm off for) could mean 43 men and two women.

How has this happened? The party has long opposed positive discrimination on the grounds that it is illiberal – a rather self-defeating argument, given that it trails behind the other parties in equal representation. However, Clegg last year made noises about the party being "too male and too pale".

It has now created a "leadership programme" to get more female and ethnic-minority candidates to become MPs, which has produced a list of 50 candidates who will get strong support to stand in safer seats. The programme stops shorts of all-women shortlists, supposedly because the structure of the party is such that central office cannot impose decisions on local parties. However, it will be stipulated that if one candidate from the programme is asked to stand, the local party must also choose another candidate from the programme.

This should go some way towards upping the number of candidates from under-represented groups, though past example (Labour under Tony Blair and the Conservatives under David Cameron) show that aggressive action is needed to up the number of MPs from these groups. It is not enough to introduce all-female shortlists (which the party has stopped short of doing anyway) – they also need to stand in winnable seats. Given the battering the Lib Dems are taking in the polls, there are not many of these.

Katwala and Melhotra suggest all-women shortlists in the two or three constituencies that are certain to return Lib Dem victories, or even that party stalwarts such as Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy give up their safe seats. This seems unrealistic: given that the Liberal Democrats fear annihilation at the next polls, it is unlikely they will take the risk of eliminating their few recognisable faces.

So it's a bleak picture. The reduction in the number of MPs is also likely to be a retrograde step, as new intakes are typically more equal in their gender split – primarily as a result of positive discrimination. The marginalisation of women in the 2010 election campaign showed that there are serious steps left to take across parliament.

The Lib Dems may feel they have bigger fish to fry, but they would be advised to tackle this problem head-on. Electing zero female MPs may be the final nail in the coffin of their claim to be "progressive".

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.