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MPs back all-Black shortlists for party selections

A committee of MPs is set to back Operation Black Vote’s call for all-Black shortlists to select general election candidates.

Exclusive by Lester Holloway

The cross-party review gave the green light to a proposal allowing political parties to pick shortlists made up of visible minorities for winnable seats, as a means for tackling the current levels of under-representation. You can see the report here.

Simon Woolley, OBV’s director, who evidence to the Speakers Conference last year advocating the introduction of all-BME shortlists, welcomed the report.

The Sunday Times reports that the committee, chaired by the Commons speaker John Bercow, is also backing mandatory quotas for women candidates “unless there is a significant increase in the number of women MPs at the next election.”

The 116-page report containing 71 recommendations, concluded that a new law was needed to allow political parties to use all-BME shortlists without fear of being taken to court under race laws. The MPs felt that the measure must be time-limited and subject to periodical reviews.

Leaders give evidence to Speakers Conference

There have been unofficial all-Black shortlists in previous selections Labour selections, resulting in Dawn Butler and Virendra Sharma being chosen as candidates. Both won their seats in Brent South and Ealing Southall respectively.

But if the Government introduce ‘enabling legislation’, that could open the way for several more all-Black shortlists, with Labour most likely to take advanage of the opportunity.

Woolley welcomed the report, saying: “This is a complete vindication for our efforts and persuasive argument. The all-party committee firmly concluded that legislation should be changed to accommodate ‘all-BME’ shortlists.

“This committee took evidence all over the country, from those such as Sunder Katwala of the Fabians – who have been vehemently against  the measure, and organisations such as ours who have consistently argued that while racial prejudice remains a key feature in the  selection of candidates, all-BME shortlists like all-women shortlists, will be necessary.

“I hope the party leaders will now positively acknowledge this important recommendation.”

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was the first out of the blocks, saying: “We welcome the Speaker Conference’s report to encourage a more representative Parliament.

“We are committed to making the changes to ensure that Parliament and politics beyond Westminster is reformed to better serve all communities.”

Clegg has said he would ‘consider’ all-Black shortlists for the election-after-next, if other actions his party were taking did not bear fruit. Within Labour, a number of MPs such as Abbott and Keith Vaz, support the idea, but it is opposed by Mahmood and the Fabian Society.

OBV previously produced a detailed study showing how the measure could work in practice, alleviating concerns about how constituencies could be picked, and how the terms ‘black and ethnic minority’ should be defined.

The Speakers Conference – which included Diane Abbott, Parmjit Dhanda and Khalid Mahmood as members – rightly noted that black and Asian MPs should not only stand in seats with a high BME population.

Dhanda, who represents Gloucester, Ashok Kumar in Middlesborough South and East Cleveland, Adam Afriyie in Windsor and Shailesh Vara in North West Cambridgeshire, all represent seats with a very low percentage BME residents.

However OBV’s study, commissioned by equalities minister Harriet Harman in 2008, shows that all-Black shortlists can work by choosing a variety of constituencies.

At the time, Harman was not able to get universal agreement on all-Black shortlists being part of the Equalities Bill, however the Speakers Conference was set up instead.

The committee report, launched today, says: “We believe that enabling legislation could be created to allow all-BME shortlists to be used, if and when political parties judge that their use would be reasonable, in order to achieve greater parity of representation for BME communities in the House of Commons.”

The Speakers Conference believes that improved citizenship classes in schools and youth projects will improve ‘political literacy’, and that public sector bodies need to do more to appoint people from under-represented groups.

Parties should draw up a checklist of actions to promote diversity, the MPs recommend, as well as making diversity awareness training, advice and support available to party members involved in candidate selections.

The report adds: “It remains more difficult for a candidate who does not fit the “white, male, middle-class” norm to be selected, particularly if the seat is considered by their party to be winnable, means that the case for equality of representation has not yet been won.

“We recommend that all political parties appoint national and/or regional community champions for women, and people from BME and LGBT communities, and disabled people.”

This afternoon Conservative assembly James Cleverly came out against the idea of all-BME shortlists, declaring that he would never apply for selection if the contests “via an all ethnic shortlist.”

He acknowledged that the Commons was unrepresentative in many ways, which he claimed was the result of “pull factors”, such as the liklihood of laywers to seek office, and “push factors” like unsociable hours and the time and expense incurred seeking a nomination.

But this overlooks the fact that very many talented BME candidates from all parties have accepted the challenges of trying to get into the Commons but have failed to win selection contests.

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