Equalities: my keynote conference speech

Here’s my keynote speech to the Liberal Democrat Bournemouth conference:

My fellow Liberal Democrats – what a moment in world history for equality.

When we were last here in Bournemouth, the Presidential Campaign in the US was drawing to a close. I don’t know about you, but I can still hardly believe it. Who would have thought it possible … there is now a black man who is president of the United States of America.

The message of hope and optimism, and the potential for change could not be clearer. On that historic day when he made his inauguration speech, the words of our own party constitution kept repeating through my mind: “That no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

So conference let’s today be ambitious as Liberal Democrats.

Let’s agree right here and right now that anything is possible whether by small practical steps or by great leaps of inspired Obama-like faith.

Because if a black kid in America can rise above the noise, the prejudice and the class divides to become the President of the United States – then anything is possible.

But as all Liberal Democrats know, and as President Obama himself said, idle aspiration alone is not enough. On Monday morning I went to Moordown St John’s Primary School – here in Bournemouth – with Trevor Phillips from the Equality Commission.

Now the children had been asked to draw pictures of politicians – needless to say – the pictures were almost all male and almost all pale – just like the House of Commons! These children captured Parliament perfectly with the skills of the best sketch writers.

One comment on one drawing said: ‘I have drawn a man because I think that men can stand up and talk better to a crowd than a woman can’. Another had written: ‘I have chosen a male MP because I have never seen a woman MP’. He has now! And I’ve had a word with him.

That’s the power of the role model, the power to challenge our preconceptions and to bring hope alive.

In my constituency I see kindness and cruelty; fierce intelligence and shocking ignorance; the struggles and successes; the love; the bitterness and the bias that make up the sum of all our experience.

But in small corners of that experience I have seen a shift.

Children for whom the halls of Harvard Law School, or for that matter Oxford or Cambridge, have seemed no closer than the moon can see the possibility.

This new generation pregnant with that possibility should not – cannot be let down.

And for many, far too many, President Obama’s triumph remains as irrelevant as the more distant figures in our history books.

That’s why we need action – the practical steps – because education and opportunity are the ways to blast away the old order.

The Liberal Democrats offer the bold approach to tackling inequality. Our pupil premium delivers a life-changing opportunity at school by injecting funds where they are most needed. Our name blank job application policy will open doors previously closed for that young boy – or girl – when they come out of education and apply for a job.

Name blank job applications is a simple idea. Just as we give a number for children to write on their exam papers so there can be no bias in the marking – so job applicants can use their National Insurance number. It costs nothing – and by removing the name from job application forms – we remove from that very first sift the unconscious prejudice that sadly can lurk in all of us. And I am proud of our party passing this on Saturday.

Now, you probably already know that 80% of MPs in the House of Commons are male. Lord knows – I’ve mentioned it often enough!

Even more shockingly, of the FTSE100 companies 88% of the directors are male. That’s right – take the 100 biggest listed companies in Britain, and you’ll find only one in ten directors, here in 2009 – are female.

Do we really think that if we trawled through to find the best people for the job of running our top companies, we’d find nearly nine in ten are male? Or if we hunted out the very best people to be our MPs, that eight in ten would be male?

Friends, I want to set you a task today.

I want you all to conduct some detailed research. Extensive research. Perhaps at the Highcliff Hotel. Perhaps this lunchtime – perhaps in the bar – perhaps at a fringe.

I suggest that you look at all the representatives there and you ask yourselves this simple question: if you hunt out the best people to be MPs – will 4 out of every 5 of them end up being men?

I think not.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love men. I’ve consulted with them – consorted with them – and even – on occasion – cavorted with them. But they are not the only answer – nor necessarily the right answer – and they are certainly not the right answer 88 times out of every 100.

I sometimes wonder if we really understand the scale of the inequality that women suffer financially?

The Equal Pay Act was sparked by the gender pay gap. For every pound that men were paid at the Ford Dagenham car plant the women earned only 85 pence. So on June 7th 1968 the women went on strike – and when they were joined by the women and men of the Ford car plant in Liverpool the company caved in and the Equal Pay act was spawned.

But the law has not been effective. And at the high end of the pay spectrum – it’s no different.

We see the highest paid female director of a FTSE 100 company took home £3.8m last year – but it is a figure dwarfed by the highest paid man – who took home £36.8m – almost ten times as much.

In case you are in any doubt – I think pay levels like that are insane and obscene.

But the issue is – from the highest earners to the lowest earners – women get the raw deal. It is as tragic as it is shameful that these gaps remain 40 years after the Equal Pay Act.

And it happens – and can happen – because that differential is hidden from public or indeed, the employees’ gaze.

Liberal Democrats would introduce mandatory pay audits. We would expose a company’s overall pattern of pay – not individual salaries – but enough information to show quite clearly where the pay gap lies.

That would put power into the hands of an individual to see for themselves whether they were being discriminated against – enabling them to take forward a case of discrimination -b e that man, woman, someone from an ethnic minority or a person with disabilities.

When it comes to pay, everyone is entitled to greater transparency.

And there are wider inequalities we must tackle.

A primary school child in an inner city constituency is not judged by the content of his or her character or the passion of his ambition. He is judged by the invisible barriers he or she will face because of both the colour of his skin but also his class and family income.

Poverty reinforces class barriers. That’s why in difficult times for the taxpayer Liberal Democrats make our priorities clear.

We will cut taxes for those who are on middle and low incomes – so that no one pays a penny on income tax on the first 10 thousand pounds they earn.

And then there’s religion. In recent years, sadly the spectre of religious discrimination has arisen again. A party born of revulsion at the treatment of Catholics and Non-conformists stands four square behind all those who seek to practice their faith.

9/11 and the subsequent Iraq war has fostered increasing ignorance and prejudice – on all sides. And it deepens apace – as we saw with the fascist demonstrations against the Harrow Mosque on the anniversary of 9/11.

And there has been so much damage done to the image of Muslims with the reporting of news from overseas and here, where so-called Islamic terrorists often feature – but when those fighting the terrorists, or the victims of terrorism, are also Muslim – this often goes unmentioned.

The drip-drip effect of linking the word ‘Muslim’ and the word ‘terrorism’ – but not linking “victim” and “Muslim” in the same way – is pernicious.

And at the same time we have seen a rising tide of attacks on Jewish people too.

It is better to confront and address these challenges before we are at real risk from violent internecine strife or the hideous bile of the far right – especially as there is no doubt that with an economic downturn the far right will be looking to turn the screw on peoples’ fears.

Liberal Democrats believe in cohesion – not separation.

Friends, there is not enough time to talk in one brief speech about all the inequalities that exist today. I would love to have the time to tell you exactly what I think of BBC’s sacking of Arlene Phillips from Strictly.

What on earth are we doing when we throw someone of Ms Phillips experience – one of the world’s foremost choreographers – on the scrap heap in favour of someone young and pretty? No offence to Alesha and I’m sorry she had such a rough ride on her first outing. It’s not her fault – it’s the BBC bosses.

What message do we send out – other that we don’t value what is important but we pay homage to the fleeting, the superficial and the desperate quest for youth?

We believe there should be no mandatory retirement age – something Labour refuses to support.

And I’d love to have time to talk about the severe prejudice encountered by our young people and the many barriers that remain for those with disabilities, I’d like to talk about caste discrimination, and gender identity issues.

So – let’s not kid ourselves that there isn’t discrimination out there – whether it is on the basis of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, age or disability.

Discrimination is still rife. After hundreds of years of fighting against it.

But what I do have a moment for – is to persuade you, to continue your fight against prejudice, to use your powers in local authorities and devolved bodies throughout the land to use your powers as the great campaigners that I know you are. To fight and continue to fight until issues of equality no longer need to be on the agenda.

We are called on, as a party, by our history to fulfill our creed and fight for equal rights.

This is not the politics of single issues that should remain in the province of women, or minority groups.
It is a cause to which all those who hold a liberal world view are drawn.

In facing the scale of that challenge – and the urgency of that need – we have to persuade people that doing nothing is letting entrenched discrimination win.

I want to turn on its head the way we approach campaigning on this issue – I want to reframe the debate – so that we don’t just present issues in a way that appeals to those who already agree – like us – but which takes the argument to those who don’t.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when a company discriminates in its choice of senior staff – and ends up predominantly male – it’s not just the woman who gets overlooked for promotion who loses out – it’s all those who lose their jobs, men and women because the management of the company itself is not up to scratch.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when the police carry out stop and search on black and ethnic minorities. Searches which are out of all proportion to the numbers in the population and crime figures – it isn’t just those who are stopped who lose out, it’s all of us who lose out – from the police wasting time on the innocent rather than catching the guilty.

Tackling discrimination helps all of us.

Because when so many schools assume that information about children of separated parents should be given to their mothers – it isn’t just the fathers who lose out, it’s all of us who lose out from the damage to our next generation.

Whoever the discrimination is against – even when it is against the less talked about groups such as men – no I hadn’t forgotten you – we all suffer.

On many of these issues there is progress.

Not that long ago it was against the law to be openly gay. Now it is against the law to refuse to register a civil partnership

Conference, this is a call to arms. For each and every generation has the opportunity to shape our society and our communities. In this year, an election year, we accept that challenge.

Liberal Democrats are different – we are the real alternative to failed red-blue/blue-red stale old politics. Liberal Democrats are straight talking – we are prepared to stand up for what is right for people – not what is popular with the tabloids.

Liberal Democrats are ambitious – for change – for every woman who is underpaid, for every child who is denied life opportunities, for every person who suffers the insult and injury of discrimination.

The battle lines are drawn at our childrens’ feet.

Against us – those who can live with – racial hatred, gender discrimination, and homophobia. Those who point fingers but don’t point out solutions. And those who just can’t be bothered.

Ladies and gentlemen: be bold, be brave, be active. History will judge us on our action and our purpose.

The Liberal Democrat purpose is to set our nation free.

0 thoughts on “Equalities: my keynote conference speech

  1. Sp the main discrimination faced by men in 2009 is schools handing information to mothers rather than fathers? You quite clearly have forgotten men if you don’t even know what the main issues are and/or can’t be bothered to mention them.

  2. I am from your constituency and did not know until today that you were your party’s spokesperson on equality. As someone who has campaigned for disability rights for the last 25 years and who believes our borough is probably one of the worst to live in if you are disabled, I am surprised disability was only mentioned a couple of times in passing in your speech. What about the resignation of Bert Massie and Jane Campbell from the Equalities Commission and the criticisms of Trevor Phillips? What about inclusive education? What about independent living? What about local businesses ignoring the DDA? What about children and adults being denied communication aids? I think you need to do a bit of research about the issues facing disabled people, before you can be a spokesperson on equality.

  3. Kate – I am sorry you are upset that my speech didn’t address all the disability issues you raise in your comment. This was a conference speech and is not a complete reflection of the work I do as Youth and Equality spokesperson for the Party.

    I was at a fringe meeting at Conference a couple of nights earlier – a gay group – and warned them that they would only be getting a mention in the speech too – as it is not possible to address all inequalities in a speech.

    Whoever I left out could comment as you have about their particular issues – but if you try and address all of the equality issues in 17 minutes – you end up with a list which still doesn’t even come near to addressing, for example, the serious issues you raise.

    Perhaps, more importantly, if you read the Hansard transcript of the Equality Bill in committee – there you will see some of the real work I have done and am doing around disability issues.

    As for the rumpus at the Equality Commission – not the point of my speech – which was about persuading those who don’t think that discrimination is an issue for them – that it affects all of us. That was the argument to be made – and the issues I chose were to illustrate that point.

    If you are thinking – she left us out therefore we are not important to her – then I can assure you that is not the case. Please watch the speech if you have a chance and I would hope that you would realise that this speech, at this time with this audience was appropriate – even though it left out sexual orientation, gender identity, men, disability, caste etc. I did, as you point out, try to at least include all of them – even if in some cases it was only a mention.

    It really isn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time – but I did want to reassure you that in my work disability issues are very important.

    I know Bert Massie and Jane Campbell – and am shocked by the exodus from the Commission. There are clearly serious issues and I am seeking clarification currently as to just how the disability agenda is going to be championed and furthered by the Commission.

    More locally – whenever you find a non-compliant public service, or local shop which could, but doesn’t, comply with the DDA – please bring it to my attention and I will be more than happy to take this up.

  4. Wow! I had absolutely no idea she was in charge of equalities at the Lib Dems either, I thought she was just the Lib Dems resident middle aged, well meaning (but ultimately rather dangerous) out of touch feminist. The fact she hold that role really is very worrying indeed.

    I think a better indication of Lynne’s bias is the content of this blog rather than just one speech, and that would certainly support Midge’s concerns. It’s clear she is obsessed with women’s rights and thus neglects most other groups as a consequence.

    Edit – just looked it up – to be 100% fair she is the in charge of “Youth and Equalities”, not just equalities, thus I suppose at least she is fulfilling the first part of her role to some extent, though this of course does not excuse her failings in the latter. Hopefully they will have a reshuffle and let someone else do the equality part.

  5. Any time I see a speech or article about equality, I look to see if it’s about equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome. The two concepts are radically different.

    Two things I noticed about your speech. First, all your quoted statistics are to do with outcomes. And second, they were almost all about the top end of the spectrum, not the bottom where most of us are. As a top-earning MP, I’m sure you’re more interested in the richest women getting their share. But what about the gender gap for nurses, for dustmen, for lorry drivers, for admin/secretarial staff, for coal miners, for car mechanics, fishermen, taxi drivers, builders, plumbers, welders, and so on?

    Outcome equality was discredited decades ago. People have different job preferences, make different educational choices, there’s more to reward than salary, many can take lower paid jobs because they have other sources of income (like partners), and there are plenty more men in some of the worst jobs as well as in the best. Talking about outcome equality is like a throwback to 1970s feminism.

    The best cure for inequality is job mobility. If somebody doesn’t pay enough, you can more easily go and work for somebody who will. But if someone is happy with their £3.8m, and doesn’t want to work the longer hours with less family life that higher salaries entail, that should be OK too.

    I also found your take on Obama – that the most significant thing about him was his skin colour – somewhat odd. And your argument about Muslims demonstrates that you don’t know much about Islam. But those are separate debates and more difficult.

  6. Well – firstly to Harm Man – the reason the focus has been on women is that in the Equality Bill they are the big losers. Whilst most equal rights issues are moving in a positive direction – womens equality is declining with worsening pay gap, representation etc.

    The argument about too much emphasis on the high end earners from Lumberjack is valid – which is why the Ford workers were in the speech. However, the high end gap because only recently exposed by the Equality Commission work into the financial sector gender pay gap is current and illustrates the point better in a keynote speech. If the speech were longer (and if you look at my speech at the Unison Fawcett fringe) there are very great problems in terms of valuing womens’ work usually at the other end of the pay scale as you point out. Which is why in the Equality Bill I have been arguing for pay audits, representative action and hypothetical comparator.

    On Obama’s skin colour – on the equality frontier – this is the issue. It’s funny really – I go out and do another speech ‘where is the British Obama’ and sometimes it’s about his policies and vision,, and sometimes it’s about his campaigning techniques. Each time I do those – and I don’t dwell at all on the colour of his skin – I get criticised for not mentioning it.

    I doubt whether either of you wanted a serious answer – but I persist in believing that reasoned argument may win the day – one day!

  7. Lynne,

    Thanks for the reply. I would actually prefer serious answers, but I was not really expecting any. Partly because you will be too busy to get into an extended debate with the likes of me, and partly because our political views are probably too different not to result ultimately in misunderstanding and conflict. I commented mainly with the intention offering you feedback on how a segment of the population that I thought you were hoping would hear your message would react to your speech, and to explain why we wouldn’t be persuaded by it. We’re well aware of the outcome/opportunity distinction, we had already recognised that the Equality Commission report was misleading for this reason, and knew that such outcome-gap statistics do not support the conclusions about an opportunity gap people have been drawing from it. To put it bluntly, we’re not fooled. We would hope and expect that you wouldn’t be, either.

    Obviously it was a speech principally to your own party, I know that politicians cannot always speak directly as they believe, and you have to tailor it to your audience. But being open to a wider world, it showcases your policies to employers too.

    Regarding the other end of the spectrum, I’d like to note, along the same lines as HarmMan does above, that you said “there are very great problems in terms of valuing womens’ work”, when as an equality spokesperson I would have expected you to say there was difficulty in evaluating people’s work. There are examples of gender bias that go both ways. It may well be that there are many more one way than the other, but if you do not acknowledge that discrimination against men ever occurs, it clearly isn’t about equality.

    Part of the point I was making with my examples was that there is more to a job than pay. There is also the question of whether the job is safe, comfortable, indoors, social, caring, not stressful, powerful, not highly responsible, part-time, flexible, secure, allows a family life, publicly popular, enjoyable, and so on. You have the question of experience, training, and talent. And you have people’s personal circumstances to consider in what they decide to do. If people have more savings or less expensive lifestyles, they will be willing to take lower paid, nicer jobs. If they need the money, they’ll be forced to push for higher paid, harder or less pleasant ones. That applies as much to predominantly men’s jobs, like miner or fisherman, as it does to women’s, like schoolteacher or nurse. It’s not the whole story, but outcome-gap analyses ignore it totally.

    And I’m afraid we have relatively little sympathy with the poor women who have to settle for a measly £3.8m. (Or the 20% of women MPs on £65k/yr + expenses.) We have rather more sympathy with fishermen, nurses, and soldiers, for who small differences matter.

    It’s a complicated issue and you cannot fit it all into one speech. But given the rare opportunities you have to speak to the wider public, it seems to me a waste to concentrate on issues that were argued out decades ago. You would have done more good to have pointed out that the Equality Commission report had missed the point, and the LibDems as a party had moved on to a more sophisticated understanding. That would have been truly impressive.

  8. Lumberjack – some great points. I particularity liked how you highlighted Lynne’s lack of gender neutral language (though she’s still much less sexist than some) and the really big point in your previous post differentiating between equal opportunities and equal outcomes. That issue really can’t be emphasised enough.

    Finally, something else I agree with strongly is your well rounded view of a career compared with the the 100% obsession with money we get from Lynne all the time (I suppose to be fair you don’t get to be as wealthy as she is without a bit of that, she could still tone things down a bit though).

  9. Lynnne – if i didn’t want an answer to a point I wouldn’t bother posting here. I really must take issue with your answer too – it really shows your intense bias. “the reason the focus has been on women is that in the Equality Bill they are the big losers”.

    Lets get this straight – a government legalises sex discrimiantion (which is clearly going to impact men more than women) yet women are the big losers? The only way one could argue such a point would be that positive discrimination ultimately harms which ever group is supposedly benefiting from it due to the resulting increase in poor quality recruits and the stigma (quite rightly) associated with not being there on merit, though I know you support this discrimination, so I doubt that’s the point you were making.

    If women are such big “losers”, how come they get their state pensions five years earlier than men? How come that get so much maternity leave yet men get the least in Europe? How come men represent 97% of work place fatalities (if it were the other way round we wouldn’t hear the end of it!).

    More importantly, if you were truly interested in equality you’d be highlighting the core underlying issues in society which cause it, rather than just supporting a token bit of discrimination. For example, you always go on about how the “Equality” bill will help to recruit more male teachers but the fact is they won’t be up to the job if they’re not there on merit – and there just aren’t enough men wanting to enter the profession. This has almsot nothing to do with teacher’s pay, the fact is that you’ll only get more men wanting to teach where they’re most needed when we end the way we demonise men in society, pretending they’re all potential sex offenders (and the corresponding way we seek to excuse women of such crimes and/or ignore such offences). Even companies now happily spread negative messages about men though sexist policies suggesting they’re all sex offenders (and that women are angels) – whether it be at holiday camps, in airlines or even at museums.

    I don’t know if anything in the Equalities Bill will tackle such key issues, but men are almost inevitably going to be the losers if the problems they face don’t even get mentioned let alone solved. The only reason you’re pretending women are losing is because you thought the bill was going to do slightly more for them than it does when of course it has totally ignored men right form the start. They’re not losing, just winning 8-0 rather than 10-0.

  10. I thank you both for your comments. I re-iterate – this was a conference speech not a magnum opus on the whole equality agenda. I happen to agree that men have a whole raft of issues that affect them too – but they are the subject of a separate piece of work if I get the policy opportunity.

    I say women are the big losers – because the Bill was an opportunity to make real progress on financial inequality for women and Labour flunked it completely. On the whole, outside of this issue where I believe Harriet lost the argument with Mandelson, the Labour government has a reasonable record on equalities.

    We are not going to agree on all things – but I thank you both for the discussion.

  11. My disabled graduate daughter would be glad to have any job. And she’s only a graduate because we rejected special school who told me I should not expect her to achieve at the same level as her non-disabled peers, a special school that is still telling its pupils the same thing.

    She is denied access to about 90% of the shops in our area, has to pay for her own voice and gets precisely nothing in the way of support from our local borough.

    So women are the big losers are they?

  12. Thanks for the reply Lynne, looking forward to that future work on other groups (though no “positive” discrimination in it please!)