Thursday, 28 January 2010

You can't use prejudice if you want to fight it.

The local candidate for MP for the Lib Dems has recently put out a pre-campaign newsletter to the voters. They stand a chance of taking the constituency at the next election, but part of beating the incumbent, under "First Past the Post" counting, is to make sure that they pick up all the anti-Labour votes.

So, as well as criticising the record of the current Labour MP, they also have to encourage voters who were considering any third party candidates to vote tactically for them to beat Labour. So far, the only other declared candidate is for the Conservatives.

So far, this is an inevitable consequence of the electoral system, and unavoidable for anyone who wants to win. Here's some of the text from the anti-Conservative part of the newsletter. It's in bold type in the newsletter - the only text outside of headings, sub-headings, and the first paragraph of articles that is, so it's clearly something they want to draw attention to.

The Conservatives have already shown how little they think of their own chances by selecting a 20 year old student from Hull University as their candidate.

It's a short sentence, but it packs in a lot of wrongness.

It's extremely common for parties to put up candidates in seats where they stand no realistic chance of election, for a whole range of good reasons. It's also, given the demographics of the constituency, previous election results, more recent polling, and so on, true to say that there is basically no practical way that the Conservative candidate can win this seat this year.

However, the sentence above says that the selection of this particular candidate is more of an admission of not being able to win the seat than the Conservatives selecting any of their other potential candidates would have been.

There are only two facts revealed about the candidate:

  • They are a student at Hull University
  • They are 20 years old

One or both of these is presumably the reason believed that their selection is an admission of defeat.

It's fairly clearly not that they're a student at Hull. This is an attempt to portray the candidate (who comes from the constituency) as "not local". The same attempted portrayal has been used by the Lib Dems against the Labour incumbent, too, and they repeatedly emphasise that the Lib Dem candidate is "local". It's most obviously not also a criticism of Hull University, or a suggestion that it provides a bad education, because the Lib Dem candidate was previously a student there too.

So, it must be the age. Selecting a 20 year old candidate would only be an admission of defeat if 20 year old candidates were by definition not serious candidates. I don't doubt that there are plenty of people who do hold this view, of course, whose vote the newsletter is attempting to sway.

Here, of course, is the problem. Attempting to play on voter ageism is a really bad idea. The Lib Dems, at a national level, claim to be against it - their constitution contains "... we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon ... age ... and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality.". It's unfortunate for at least three reasons beyond the obvious "ageism is wrong" that the local party isn't remembering this:

  1. Lots of voters are themselves young, especially in a constituency where around a fifth of the voters are students. Alienating potential voters in a close election is a really bad idea. Presumably they believe they'll win more votes than they lose through this.
  2. It makes it hard to believe that they actually follow the anti-discrimination principles they claim.
  3. The Lib Dems have a lot of very young candidates themselves. Charles Kennedy, their former leader (quite popular and successful; forced out of office due to ableism within the party), was 23 when elected in 1983 - the same age above the minimum age1 that the Conservative candidate is now.

It's with that third reason that I finally get to the point.

Any party that claims to be anti-discrimination and pro-equality, if it actually does anything towards that, will probably end up with non-default candidates (if it doesn't, I doubt its commitment to equality). If, elsewhere, it carries out actions that reinforce the idea that deviating from the default makes one less important or less qualified, it not only reinforces general bigotry, but it makes its own job elsewhere and elsewhen harder.

There should be no place in a party that wants to fight discrimination for the use of discrimination. While privilege makes it very easy to accidentally do so, this was quite clearly no accident, which makes it even more disappointing.

I'm sending the following letter to the local Lib Dems.

I received your latest [newsletter] recently, which contains the following sentence about the local Conservative candidate: "The Conservatives have already shown how little they think of their own chances by selecting a 20 year old student from Hull University as their candidate."

A clear implication of this sentence is that a candidate who is that young is automatically not a serious candidate.

Your own Charles Kennedy, one of your most successful leaders in recent years, was only 23 on his first election to Parliament - the same age above the legal minimum as the Conservative candidate is now. The preamble to your party's federal Constitution states "we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon ... age ... and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality."

I find it very disappointing that a candidate for the only UK party to make a commitment to fight ageism in its Constitution is making use of that prejudice themselves, rather than opposing the Conservatives on their policies.

Could you please confirm that future Lib Dem campaigning in this constituency will be more consistent with the values of the party expressed in the federal Constitution, and avoid the encouraging of prejudice as a campaign tool.

1 It used to be 21, and was reduced in 2006 - as far as I can tell with no opposition in Parliament - to 18.