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Does Selection of ‘white’ BAME Politicians Make a Difference for Visible Minorities?

Posted on the 25 January 2013 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

LaylaThe selection of Layla Moran for the Liberal Democrats in the target seat of Oxford and Abingdon is welcome. As welcome, in fact, as the selection of any Liberal Democrat candidate anywhere. But last night, at a private meeting with equalities ministers, Jo Swinson twice insisted that we – a small gathering of BAME party activists – should be particularly celebrating her selection, as Moran (pictured) is an ethnic minority. Suddenly I had a flashback.

At the turn of the millennium Labour suddenly found itself with a ‘diversity issue’ in London, the most multicultural of cities. The Black and Asian people were conspicuous by their absence on newly created London Assembly. So suddenly three ‘new’ BAME politicians appeared as if by magic. Step forward Assembly members Toby Harris, Nicky Gavron and Len Duvall.

This came as somewhat of a surprise to some BAME Labour activists who were familiar with this trio of big-hitters, and aware of their Jewish heritage, but had never previously associated them with being ‘black’, politically-speaking. Indeed the trio had not identified themselves as such to anyone’s knowledge. But Labour spin doctors nevertheless reckoned pinning brand new BAME badges on them would help the party out of a hole it had found itself in because of the lack of visible minorities.


Harris, Gavron and Duvall

Harris, Gavron and Duvall

It’s that word ‘visible’. Looking at Duvall – who has since proved himself a highly effective assembly member not afraid to raise issues bugging Black communities – you can just about see he has some ‘ethnic’ part of his heritage. The other two? It’s very hard to tell. So why does this matter? The answer, according to the gospel of Lester Holloway, is that it doesn’t really. Except where ethnicity is used and abused for political expediency. Where it is used as a tool or tactic used to pacify BAME political activists who are fuming about a lack of visible minorities.

I have no evidence to suggest that Labour’s class of 2000 were complicit in marketing themselves as BAME. My guess is they were probably blameless. But it raises some interesting questions. The first is that there are more politicians than we care to imagine, from every political party, who could conceivably claim to be ethnic on ground of their family background. There are at least 24 Jewish MPs in the House of Commons who are not generally regarded as minority ethnic, and neither do they demand to be.

Add in a kaleidoscope of other ethnicities – Armenian, Russian etc. – and we’re talking a hell of a lot of MPs. Even Boris Johnson, with his bright blond mop, told an Asian radio journalist “you can’t out-ethnic me!” while boasting about his diverse genes, including Turkish.

No-one has tried to out-ethnic the London mayor. But as a white man he cannot lay claim to truly understand the experiences of the capital’s visible minorities, only listen to them and use his power to act against discrimination. And his record suggests he’s not doing that.

I have always firmly believed in the right of self-determination of ethnicity. The London assembly trio and the current mayor are perfectly entitled to call themselves ‘ethnic minorities’ if they so choose and I, for one, am not going to object. However it is worth noting that some politicians who are not obviously a ‘visible’ minority choose to declare that they are BAME, while others do not. They have a choice. Don’t mention it and few will notice. Do mention it and they will.

The difference between visible and other BAME people is that many of the latter could ‘pass for white’ in most environments. There might be a clue in the name or the dark eyes or hair, but essentially they are highly unlikely to suffer the casual racism of those who dislike people based on skin color. If someone appears to be white they are equally unlikely to truly understand the everyday experience of people of color. They can be angry about racism and discrimination, they can be passionate about race equality. But then so can politicians who have no claim to themselves be BAME.

Indeed some of the strongest advocates of race equality in parliament – from Jeremy Corbyn to George Galloway – are white. There are many MPs who got into politics because of a strong belief in equality or because they campaigned against fascism. And that’s to be celebrated. Clearly you don’t need to be from a BAME background to work to better the condition of BAME communities by tackling racism in all its’ forms and dismantling the barriers to opportunity and racial equality in practice.

So what does this have to do with Layla Moran. In fairness I don’t know too much about her. She is described as being born to a Palestinian mother and English father and works as a physics teacher. She comes across as educated and professional. I have no idea about her life experiences or whether she has ever suffered racism. I believe she is a paid-up member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat group.

What I do know is that a few years ago she proposed a motion to the Lib Dem’s London regional conference to abolish the only positive action measure for BAME communities the party had – for ‘zipping’ the London Assembly top-up list to ensure a BAME candidate is in the top four places. The motion was later dropped after I kicked up a fuss.

I think it is fair to say that in most professional environments and under most lights Moran could pass for a white professional woman. I don’t know how she identifies her class, if at all, but some would say she appears middle-class. Of course none of this is in any way a criticism. Who she is is who she is. And nothing from her background should hold her back. I’m sure she won the selection entirely on merit and will no doubt make an excellent MP should the voters elect her in 2015.

And if she wishes to self-identify as BAME that’s great too. But her record of championing the cause of race equality is, as far as I can see, a chapter yet to be written. Therefore if her selection as a parliamentary candidate is being held up as a great step forward for Black political representation – as it appeared to be last night – some of us can be forgiven for saying ‘hold on a minute!’

Hold on, Britain’s Black and Asian communities – many of whom criticize the Liberal Democrats for having an all-white team of MP’s – are unlikely to be popping champagne corks at Moran’s selection. And if she ends up being the only ethnic minority Liberal Democrat elected to parliament, the question as to whether the party still has an all-white Commons team (ie. the absence of visible minorities) might get slightly more complicated but certainly won’t go away.

I welcome the selection of Moran but believe it is quite problematic for figures in the party to be imploring BAME activists to start celebrating the news. I will celebrate when I want to and my champagne is definitely still in ice.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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