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Opportunity lost

leaders-speakers-conferenceA once-in-a-lifetime chance to overhaul the way MPs are selected was missed today as party leaders offered platitudes

By Lester Holloway

Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg appeared before a Westminster committee this morning to explain what they were personally doing to increase the numbers of women, Black, disabled, gay and lesbian people in Westminster.

But while Cameron caused waves by promising to introduce all-women shortlists, none of the party leaders favoured all-Black lists. MPs on the special ‘Speakers Conference’ appeared to give Brown, Cameron and Clegg an easy ride with none of them questioned about why the positive action measure was fine for women but not for Black people.


David Cameron

The Prime Minister and Labour leader, who has previously resisted pressure from activists in his party to introduce all-Black shortlists, proposed a halfway house by suggesting that shortlists to select candidates could comprise of “a majority” of Black hopefuls in “relevant constituencies.”

Brown appeared to favour a measure to guarantee that in seats with a high BME population, at least half of the aspiring politicians who go forward for the final ‘hustings’ and vote are of BME background.

However Labour MP Diane Abbott criticised Brown’s proposal, saying this would not be the most effective way of ensuring that local Labour party’s did not still pick their “favourite sons” who were mostly white and male.

Brown’s position is likely to cause dismay among campaigners who will point out that in seats like West Ham and Hackney South, Labour members have picked a mostly Black shortlist but still selected the white candidate.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown

Brown’s weak proposal will only “raise expectations” but not deliver better Black representation, according to one observer.

Cameron began his evidence at the ‘Speakers Conference’ this morning with a frank admission that the Conservatives had in the past struggled most to accept a diverse range of candidates for safe or winnable seats.

The Tory leader spoke of his many, and continually changing, initiatives to “encourage, cajole and push” the rank-and-file to select more Black MPs.

These included the so-called ‘A-list’ of priority candidates, headhunting talent, open primaries, community panels, and shortlists jointly drawn up between local associations and Conservative Central Office.

He admitted there had been some resistance, but he was trying to “strike a balance” between forcing change and allowing associations a degree of autonomy. He was also trying to make his party “proud” of the progress they had already made.

Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott

However campaigners will be disappointed that Cameron did not pledge to bring back A-lists, which were successful in helping to select the likes of Wilfred Emmanuel Jones, Priti Patel and Helen Grant. The Tories ditched A-lists following pressure from the right-wing media.

An activist said: ‘He’s kicked the A-list into the long grass, and it’s difficult to see more progress unless this is resurrected.’

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said he was confident he had BME candidates in place who were capable of winning at the next general election, and that his party had introduced mentoring and support schemes to nurture future stars.

He favoured a “sustainable solution” rather than top-down dictates from above. The party had set up a new diversity unit and a New Generation programme to train young ambitious BME hopefuls who would be “leading candidates in the election after next.”

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg

Lib Dem MP Andrew George asked whether the party’s decentralised nature had been a “handicap” in selecting a more diverse range of candidates. Clegg replied that he was proud of the grassroots culture.

Campaigners will want to press Clegg to introduce “more substantial” measures and not rely too heavily on an organic approach.

The Speakers Conference was set up last year after Labour’s failure to agree on all-Black shortlists, with most MPs of African and Caribbean origin and Keith Vaz arguing for the positive action measure, while some other Black MPs and the Fabian’s Sunder Katwala claimed it wasn’t necessary because party’s were making progress.

Harriet Harman, leader of the Commons, asked Operation Black Vote to write a report on how all-Black shortlists could work in practice, and OBV’s Simon Woolley believes this fully addressed the concerns about how it could work in reality.


The Speakers Conference

The all-party Speakers Conference, whose members include Diane Abbott, Parmjit Dhanda and Khalid Mahmood, have already taken evidence from a range of groups – including OBV – and are expected to report before the end of this year.

Overall there are currently 15 BME MPs, 13 from Labour and two Conservatives. The Lib Dems do not currently have any visible minorities in the Commons. Harman has said that parliament needs “four times more” Black MPs to accurately reflect the society it seeks to serve.

There has been a slight improvement on the number of Black candidates so far, with the total Black MPs elected next year expected to number anything between 26 and 36.

However Labour and Tory activists expect a rush of last-minute retirements, which could provide a golden opportunity for many more talented Black hopefuls to get through.

Khalid Mahmood

Khalid Mahmood

As it stands, Labour have selected six new Black candidates in seats they currently hold and will most likely see between 15 to 18 MPs of colour returned at the election.

The Tories calculate that if they win a Commons majority of one, they would have between 10 and 15 BME MPs. The Lib Dems will hope to get between one and three Black MPs elected.

Speaking this morning, Brown said: ‘I am committed to diversity in parliament because it’s in the interests of democracy. It is our duty as parliamentarians to lead the way. We are making progress… we will go further in certain circumstances. The principle that we should have far greater representation of black and Asian people is important.’

Clegg commented: ‘I’ve tried to move things along sharply in my time as leader, because we’ve been woefully short of looking like modern Britain.’

In addition to the training and mentoring programmes he has introduced, the Lib Dems are also carrying out an internal review led by the national diversity officer Issan Ghazni, delivering diversity training for local selection committees and have a diversity engagement group chaired by Vince Cable.

Cameron said: ‘It’s a real problem for parliament and it’s been an even greater problem for my party in the past, and I’m trying to do something about it.’ He was still “actively” headhunting talent and would be putting more diverse candidates on the shortlists of seats that become vacant as the general election approached.

Ashok Viswanathan, Assistant Director of OBV said:  ‘The parties are failing to cut to the chase.  There is no telling how many Black MPs may lose their seats at the next election .The only way to ensure that a 2010 Parliament reflects the UK’s diversity more rather than less in this pulpit of democracy is to push through change on positive action.’



One Response

  1. Thanks for the update. The suggestion here that the total will be 26-36 strikes me as somewhat optimistic at this stage, though 10 or more new BME MPs are likely. When I last tried to work it out, it seemed to me that 21-22 was the lowest possible floor outcome, and could go higher with new selections, but that depends on quite a high proportion of new selections to get into the high 20s). A post updating the strongest contenders, the probables, the possibles and the long-shots could be useful, as well as those BME MPs whose seats might be threatened. (On the whole, the pattern of selections seems to mean any electoral swing has little impact one way or another on the total).

    It is estimated that the 2010 intake will be around 7% BME. (The parliament as a whole might therefore still be around 3.5%, or up to 5.5% at the higher rate of your range)

    My claim is not simply that the parties are making progress but that we can see that Labour is selecting BME candidates at a rate which matches their share of the population. In new candidate selections, in this Parliament, BME candidates are winning 10% of Labour selections, and a higher proportion of new selections in Labour held seats (between 10-15%). So the “ethnic penalty” to fair chances for BME candidates (as an aggregate measure affecting the whole BME group) has been overcome in Labour selections (as in Labour’s class of 2005, where new Lab MPs were 7.5% BME) in this round.

    The scale of BME progress since 1997 when only 4 of Labour’s 183 strong intake (2%) were BME is very striking. In little more than a decade, it is five times more likely that a new Labour candidate or Labour MP will be BME. OBV deserve a good deal of credit for helping to both raise the profile of the issue and take practical measures which have helped to contribute to this. (We have seen no similar progress towards a 50% share for women candidates, where the rate has changed from 24% to 26%).

    While the Conservatives have not got that far, they are selecting BME candidates in 5% of selections. This mirrors where Labour was in 2001, and from a very poor base is good progress. The question remains whether it is a one-off event, but I think it will change aspiring candidate’s sense of what is possible.

    The LibDems are stuck. Nick Clegg is being very optimistic in claiming 1 – 3 BME MPs will be elected. The most likely number is again nil. (The LibDems do need to take further action: I do not think the electoral geography of their own or target seats makes all minority shortlists an unlikely route to dealing with their problem: they consistently select high numbers of BME candidates in seats with high BME populations, where the party’s chances are weak, and don’t select BME candidates in seats where the party is strong, where these don’t have high minority populations. That leaves them with all-white national representation in Parliament.

    As the party dislikes top down measures and is pro-local autonomy, so I think a national all-member competition to identify 5 talented individuals , with all members being able to vote, ie to get a democratically selected a-list type group, would help with the problem of getting winnable constituencies to be aware of talent in the party, and to boost the profile of members of the group which aren’t being selected).

    Too much of the discussion stresses the barriers, and often suggests that aspiring candidates will not have fair chances unless new measures like all minority lists are introduced. For example, many people have said we will take 75 years to achieve a balanced Parliament on current trends: if there are 22-23 MPs or more next time, then current progress is triple the rate which that suggests.

    But there is an issue here about what the goal is. I would argue that “fair chances and no unfair barriers” for all candidates is the primary goal. If that is achieved, the representativeness of Parliament follows, though I accept there is a time-lag of 3 Parliaments or so for the progress to work through fully. For me, the primary issue is that we have not achieved the fair chances previously.

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