The Lib Dems should elect a female deputy leader to address their woman problem

With just seven female MPs and no female cabinet ministers, the party needs to raise the profile of its women at Westminster.

While the world feigns indifference at the news that there is to be a new deputy leader of the Lib Dems, following Simon Hughes's elevation into government (pretend all you like, but I know you care really), the party is buzzing with speculation about who will get the nod.

It’s a limited field – essentially Lib Dem MPs who are not part of the government– and already several names are being mooted. The right are pushing Jeremy Browne and already have a #teamjezza hashtag running. The left are pushing the activists' favourite, Julian Huppert. Everyone’s wondering if Tim Farron will have another go (and if he needs the bother). And of course there’s the endless amusement the election of Nick Harvey would provide, given it does appear Nick Clegg is not his absolute favourite person. What fun their daily catch-ups would be.

But all of those folk, and most of the other names getting mentioned in dispatches – Duncan Hames, Stephen Gilbert, Andrew George  - have one thing in common. They’re blokes.

Now, it’s easy to overstate the Lib Dems' 'women issue'. After all, we have numerous highly effective female ministers (Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone, Susan Kramer). We have some fantastically talented women in the party outside Westminster like Kirsty Williams, Leader of the Welsh Lib Dems or Sharon Bowles MEP, the first Liberal to chair the EU Economic and Monetary Affairs committee. And in candidates like Jane Dodds, Kelly-Marie Blundell and Layla Moran, we have accomplished women standing in winnable seats.

But the fact remains that just seven of our 57 MPs are women (two of whom are standing down in 2015) and we haven’t put a women into the cabinet since taking office. We need to find ways of raising the profile of women in the party in Westminster.

What a brilliant opportunity this is take a step in that direction – and elect one of the two eligible women MPs who could stand for the deputy leader role – Tessa Munt or Lorely Burt. Both are highly respected amongst the grassroots. Both would benefit from the boost in profile the job provides (and let’s not forget they are defending sub-1,000 majorities). And in one fair swoop, we’d have a future female leadership candidate in place. It seems a fair swap for the PPS roles they both currently fulfil.

There’ll be a lot of politics going on right now in Westminster, with soundings being taken and promises made. But I hope Tessa or Lorely grab the chance to stand. And I hope one of them wins.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg with Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt at an election rally in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.