Ageism in the Liberal Democrats

Let me begin by saying how proud we all ought to be of every single Liberal Youth member who got up on stage during our party’s recent conference. Each one of them, whether I agreed or not, had a lot of incredibly thoughtful points to make, and points this party ought to take heed of. Whether they were commenting on fracking, the economy, on cannabis or on electing diverse MPs, it should come as no surprise that it is these individuals who will likely be the future of this party.

That’s why it comes as such a surprise to me that this party continues to be as awful as ever when it comes to ageism towards its younger members. Year after year without fail, one can guarantee disrespect towards Liberal Youth’s members in one debate or other where we ought to abandon our principles, our evidence, and our opinions in favour of the aged and experienced. One young member, a civil engineer, was told pointedly during the fracking debate that his thoughtful contribution to the debate, laden with evidence though it was, ought to be ignored on the basis that he is “naïve” and “young”.

And, it gets worse. During the week-end’s most controversial debate concerning AWS and ADS, a number of young women went up on stage from both sides, recounting the numerous occasions on which women have been sexually harassed or assaulted in the party, and are told either to ignore the unwanted advances, or to simply stay away from them. “Oh, he’s fairly nice but watch out for him when he’s drunk”, young members are often told. Avoidance is not a solution to a problem that has largely been left alone by our party.

The cases are too numerous to retell in this article, but shockingly our story doesn’t end there. I am not surprised that women in the party are keen to remind Liberal Youth’s young women that their attitudes will change with age and experience, and that it is their youthful naivety which leads them to oppose AWS. They’re wrong of course, and in the process of being wrong serve only to remind young members that they will always face the patronising scorn of their elders, even in a party which saw a tremendous growth in young members last year. But, worse than this, there were cases of older women informing young members that they are plainly wrong about the sexual harassment in the party which these same young women have experienced.

Online, one tweet helpfully reminded the brave young women who went up on stage to talk about sexual harassment that they hadn’t in fact experienced true sexism in the party, hence why they found themselves opposing AWS.


I’m afraid to say that the young women who spoke in that debate know all too well the levels of sexism which pervade this party.

In short, I’m disgusted by our party after this conference. For all the leadership’s talk about taking young people seriously, of valuing us as full members of the party in our own right, nothing has been done to tackle the patronising disregard of young members’ views, and nothing continues to be done about the scornful contempt party staff have openly articulated towards Liberal Youth.


It’s clear from the young members I’ve spoken to that the Liberal Democrats must learn to love and accept its young members, or the party’s future and its lifeblood will look elsewhere for its representation.


8 thoughts on “Ageism in the Liberal Democrats

  1. As an ageing former MP I voted for all women shortlists and did last time. I also felt that Liberal Youth made a very strong case but although I wasn’t convinced about the proposals I like so many others came away with a lot of respect for the quality of the argument. What was great about the sexual harassment issue, which perhaps didn’t belong in that debate, was that immediate action is being taken, and I’ll reiterate what I said elsewhere that it must be reported without fear no matter who the perp is and how important.We now have ways of dealing with this that weren’t there before, and I suspect there’s hardly any women who haven’t experienced this at some point and who in the past didn’t feel able to complain. Its not a crime having the odd drink. It is wrong if someone comes on to you inappropriately.

    These days as a returning officer I spend a lot of time beating up any shortlisting committee showing any bias which is irrelevant to the qualities of a candidate, including sacking a complete panel. We want to see people coming forward who are able to do the job, based on their talents and abilities only.

    For what its worth, my personal disagreement with the status quo is that where a returning officer says that at least one candidate should be a woman, far too many women applied in good faith, took time off work, spent money visiting the seat, only for it to go to favourite son.

    LY may not have won on this occasion but they certainly brought some excellent points into the debate. Oh, and the reason I said don’t forget older women too is that women have a portfolio life – career/politics/ poss kids/housing issues etc and sometimes don’t have the freedom to throw everything into winning until a bit later. For other women its different. We have a great pool of talent across all the age groups, and certainly the current cohort of people quite a bit younger than me has a lot more ability and talent than I did at that point.

    1. For the record, I meant that I was proud of all Liberal Youth members who spoke at that debate (and others), regardless of which side they were on. I’m disappointed that sadly a lot of the stories they told were written off as “wrong” by some members of the party.

  2. New members who are ‘too old’ to be a telegenic candidate are also often ignored!

    I heard that Nick Clegg took most of his advice from his peer group of 40 somethings and ignored much advice from older ‘past it’ Liberals, that Paddy Ashdown advised him not to sign the tuition fee pledge etc, and he didnt take much notice of old extreme liberals like Tony Greaves !

    I still think of myself as Young Liberal!

  3. I can only speak for myself, having sat through both the Fracking debate and the AWS one. Nothing I have experienced (albeit as a 69-yr-old white male who joined Liberals in 1964!) supports the claim that we are a sexist or ageist Party. But I’m NOT saying the claim is unfounded, just that it doesn’t match my own experience or that of my wife and three LD member children. However I was appalled at the patronising put-down of the young engineer by an older woman speaker – and the reaction she deservedly got probably indicates her words did HIM no harm!
    As someone who voted against AWD in the equally good debate in 2001, I was really ‘swinging’ throughout this one. I really admire the young women who continue to oppose AWD because that is the TRUE Liberal position. But in the end I voted FOR AWD, rather ashamed that I did – but if it is ONLY for one GE and results in a Parliament that votes for PR (lack of which will always make the profile of our MPs a lottery), then it is a descent from Liberalism that may prove worth the sacrifice of principle. There’s nothing I want more from our democracy than MORE Liberal women in power.

  4. With great respect Sue, I think you, like Sal and others miss the point when you say that the points about sexual harassment “didn’t belong in that debate….”. It was a stark illustration of problems in the culture of the party. The whole issue of AWS, the point that advocates give, is that there is sexism in the party at selection procedures and this is why women are overlooked as candidates. Is that not your argument in favour of AWS? Well sexual harassment is all part of the same thing, not to mention bullying too actually.

    The point LY members were making is that this underlying culture will not be fixed by AWS. It’s a sticking plaster. It will cover the surface but does not treat the problem. It requires direct action on the culture of the party – training, mentoring, education, not blatant discrimination.

    How ironic that you say “We want to see people coming forward who are able to do the job, based on their talents and abilities only”. No you don’t. You just voted to select people based on their gender. AWS says nothing about the quality and skills of the person – the only requirement is that you are female. By it’s very nature it tips the balance in the other direction and creates more sexism. I see it creating resentment quite frankly. Rather than have an experienced local well known man you are willing to have a woman parachuted in from god knows where on the basis of her gender. A great way to lose seats.

    And the argument I found most distasteful was that “It works in the Labour Party and the Tory Party”. You all miss the point again. The Liberal Democrats are supposed to be DIFFERENT and not like the other parties. We don’t have Safe Seats. The same principles that work for Labour and Conservatives do not always apply the Lib Dems. I can’t believe the naivety of those who argue for AWS and the blind support for something that directly violates the constitution you stand on:

    “we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality”

    You might as well stir up the constitution.

    Some of the comments I’ve seen from some come across as so patronising to to those LY members who spoke in that debate. Dismissing their comments as not belonging there. They see the underlying culture first hand and see that that is what needs addressing for the future. AWS will not achieve that.

    And this thing about it being temporary for 2020?? Are you kidding? Now that it has been adopted I would bet it will not be dropped. Those that want to cling on to AWS will no doubt practice the same tactics when it next comes up for debate. High profile members speaking for it on a stage before the debate even took place – in their own speeches, at the rally, in fringes etc. When Sal made a speech on stage and pushed AWS ordinary members were not allowed to put the other side of the argument until the debate on the Sunday. How is that fair or democratic when only one side of the argument is presented for TWO DAYS in the run up to the debate. And not to mention all the interventions being FOR. It was by no means a balanced argument.

    Personally, I would NEVER stand in an AWS seat. I will NEVER support someone standing under AWS. And I will NEVER campaign for someone in an AWS seat.

    The cultural argument needs to be addressed, but isn’t. AWS will not solve the problem you are trying to fix with it. Open your eye and listen to those LY members. For me, they gave me the only spark of hope in that whole hall.

  5. Not really experienced anything untoward since I joined the Liberal Party in 1966 apart from the usual type of banter one experiences now and again in society at large. Sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never harm us so my advice to young and old is – learn to rise above it.

  6. With respect, Galen, I’d rather fight for change than merely put up with it. At least then, when I stop being a young member I know for sure that others won’t have to put up with it either.

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