Debate Magazine

All-Black Shortlists Are Achievable and Necessary

Posted on the 14 February 2013 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

Labour’s shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan is quoted in today’s London Evening Standard as pledging that half of its’ key target seats in the capital will have all-women shortlists.

This is admirable from a party that has already used all-women shortlists, initially in the face of much grassroots opposition, to change the face of British politics. More importantly it is a statement that despite progress in getting more female MPs it is not ‘job done.’ While severe under-representation exists then measures are still needed to address the problem.

Khan also raised the continuing under-representation of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities in Westminster. I am pleased that he is seeking to keep the issue on the political agenda. It would be easy to avoid this topic after 27 BAME MPs were elected in 2010, the biggest increase in history. But, as Khan knows, BAME communities are still woefully under-represented.

With the 2011 census showing a non-white population of 14.1 percent the House of Commons would need 91 MPs of color – 64 more than at present – to reflect the society it serves.

Khan was silent on the prospect of all-Black shortlists, although his colleague David Lammy has called for them in the past. But the issue certainly hasn’t gone away in Labour circles. Last November the website Next Generation Labour debated the question, and Robbie Scot writing in Labour Uncut about the Euro elections had this to say on the matter:

All black shortlists were notably absent from the 2009 Equality Bill after the initiative was backed by Harried Harman and Jack Straw. That doesn’t mean we can’t use our own initiative. A firm commitment to equality and diversity… ought to be extended to would-be ethnic minority candidates.”

We will have to see whether all-Black shortlists are raised more seriously by Labour as they begin the process of selecting for key target seats.

For the Liberal Democrats, who disgracefully don’t have a single MP of colour, the issue is much more pressing. But the instincts of the Lib Dems have always been to shy away from positive action never mind positive discrimination.

The overriding emotion from grassroots members is ‘discrimination is bad and illegal’ with hardly any mental effort given to what alternatives they might suggest to deal with the issue of chronic under-representation of Black communities. I’ve tried debating many times with members but mostly I feel like I’m taking to a brick wall.

I say to them let’s stop thinking ‘positive discrimination’ and start to realize that the playing field is currently uneven and the goalposts are different sizes. In order to level the playing field we need short term action to guarantee and ‘normalise’ change.

There is nothing stopping us having unofficial all-Black shortlists for target seats. Labour had shortlists that happened to be all-Black in Brent South and Southall. We have all-white shortlists all the time and they don’t need to be legislated for.

All that is required is a change to the way particular constituency selections are handled, and that certainly doesn’t require a change in the law. The party simply needs to pick shortlists for certain target seats centrally, as they do for byelections. And there is a strong rationale for doing this if the target seat has a small party membership or its’ membership is unrepresentative of the constituency as a whole.

In such a scenario some shortlists will have a mixture of women and men, white and BAME hopefuls, and others will just happen to be all-BAME.

Although the Lib Dems have a tradition of local democracy action it is clear that needs to be taken where that democracy is failing for the greater good of the party at large and its’ reputation and image amongst the British public in general.

In 2009 Nick Clegg said that if the party fail to make progress “by the election after next” he would seriously consider introducing all-Black shortlists. That “election after next” is now the next one in 2015. And if the Lib Dems emerge from this election with yet another all-white Commons team quite simply no excuses will cut it; An all-white set of MPs post-2015 means Clegg’s pledge to consider all-Black shortlists comes very much into play.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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