Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Selecting the team

Nick Bourne's attempt to recognise the serious deficiency of female candidates and elected members in his party was met by a pretty ferocious response from one of his party's parliamentary candidates. It would be wrong, of course, to see that as a rebellion within the ranks; on my understanding Bourne is not actually the leader of the Conservatives in Wales (although he's often inaccurately described as such) - he's only the leader of his party's group in the National Assembly. His authority, such as it is, does not therefore include the party's MPs, parliamentary candidates or councillors in Wales; they answer only to Cameron.

The spat does highlight one of the problems faced by Bourne in his attempts to adapt his party to a Welsh context, namely that the real authority lies elsewhere. That was certainly one of my concerns about the much touted 'rainbow' coalition - were we dealing with someone who had any real authority to speak for his party? Could he really deliver?

Back to the issue of imbalance amongst candidates, however. Although his authority in the matter is very limited, I do give Bourne some credit for realising that his party has a problem. Only one of their twelve members in the Assembly is a woman (and even that was something of an accident - their expectation was that they would retain Glyn Davies' seat, giving them an all-male team), and they look very much more male-dominated than any of the other parties.

In Plaid, we've had our own problems on the issue, of course. Although the team in the Assembly has a reasonable gender balance at present as a result of a decision we took to prioritise women for the list seats (which is one of Bourne's proposals for his own party), the reality is that if we had done even better than we did in the constituency results, then the balance would have looked very different. Any party that wants to end up with a balance in the Assembly must address both parts of the electoral system, not just the one.

There seems to be no real debate – either within parties or between parties – about the desirability of reaching a position where the make-up of the team of candidates put forward is more similar to the make-up of the population as a whole; the argument is more about the means by which that is achieved. That argument mostly revolves around the question of a formal mechanism to address imbalance - and the most common counter argument is that put forward by Guto Bebb, that candidates should be selected entirely on 'merit'.

For me, there are two major problems with the simplistic 'merit' argument. The first is about how we define and measure 'merit' in a way which is fair and equal – far too many aspects of the selection processes concentrate on a fairly narrow range of skills which are, in my view, indirectly discriminating in favour of a particular type of candidate. And the second is that parties need to think in terms of selecting teams - and 15 brilliant outside halves do not usually make a winning team.

(And that isn't just about achieving a gender balance. It has also to do with a range of other talents, skills, and abilities.)

It means treading a difficult line between taking a more centralised, strategic view of candidate selection, and retaining a strong element of local democracy in the process. I'll admit that Plaid haven't got it right yet; we're still struggling to find the right balance. I think that Bourne faces an uphill battle in his party on the issue – but I'm certainly not going to criticise him for at least trying.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately he is also part of the problem.
he creates a very unhappy atmosphere for women in his team, administration, research etc.
He also played pop when a woman was selected to fight a Cardiff parliamentary seat as it wasn't who he wanted there.
It needs a more seriously enlightened leader to move the Tory party on in Wales

Unknown said...

The SNP appears to have achieved the right combination, with Alex and Nicola a winning team.

Cibwr said...

I have a grudging respect for Nick Bourne, he does seem to have tried to drag the Tory party in Wales kicking and screaming into the new reality of devolved politics. Unfortunately for him the party is digging its heals in and resiting every step of the way.

Devolution has revitilised the Tory party, an irony that will not pass many by, but it still remains (at least the party at large does) highly skeptical if not out right opposed.