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Casting aside barriers

Like Obama's campaign the parties in the UK should encourage minorities, immigrants and the young to participate in politics, writes Simon Woolley

There was little fanfare for last month's announcement by cabinet minister Harriet Harman of a Speaker's Conference - a parliamentary committee - to '... make recommendations for rectifying the disparity between the representation of women and ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons'.

That lack of fanfare may not, in itself, be a bad thing. Often big political announcements making claims to solve huge problems fail to live up to expectations. I do hope, however, we do not lose the potential to effectively tackle the problem of an unrepresentative parliament because we could also inspire a dramatic change in the way we do politics. That will be exciting, particularly if we are to learn anything from how Barack Obama, a little-known Senator from Illinois, achieved America's highest political prize in less than four years.

In setting up the Speaker's Conference, all mainstream parties acknowledged that our national seat of governance, Westminster, is unrepresentative and certain groups are disproportionately held back. The acceptance that barriers exist help us cast aside the myth that, in politics, meritocracy reigns supreme. We can begin to focus on those changes that will make a difference.

I am on record as supporting the present 'all-women' shortlist and the proposed 'all-black' shortlist. I stand by that. I feel that in the short term it is the only way to readjust the deficits whilst we dismantle the barriers. Putting shortlists aside for the moment, I hope this parliamentary committee will explore fundamentals within party structures, which if reformed could inspire a new generation into political activism.

The main problem with all political parties is their staleness: they have an ageing membership base that's predominantly white, and which continues to conduct its business, particularly at the local party level, in a manner that holds little interest for those who could potentially be active citizens.

Here the Barack Obama experience shows us that even if you can't reinvent the wheel you can bring it up to the 21st century: target and speak to people you haven't spoken to before; listen to what they have to say; and invite them to be part of the solution. Obama did just that and as a result he ensured many more millions of voters voted, a clear benefit for him and American democracy. Equally important was his role in inspiring hundreds of thousands to get involved, become active party members, and perhaps one day follow in his political footsteps.

During one of the most sophisticated and dynamic political campaigns ever seen in the US, Americans began to ask themselves: "What can I do to make a difference?" It's blindingly simple. By putting faith and confidence in ordinary individuals they are inspired to do extraordinary things. Also, the blame game, which is often felt because of a sense of powerlessness and usually aimed at those least able to defend themselves - immigrants - dramatically diminishes.

Generating renewed interest in actively solving local community problems could be a lifeline for political parties, whilst at the same time nurturing a new generation of political leaders. Key to this change is a robust recruitment drive, particularly towards those unrepresentative groups. Party bosses, not normally known for the shyness, should boldly state, "we work better when we are more inclusive, more representative. Join us now!"

Running parallel with a systematic recruitment drive, political parties will need to think about how they retain members. This may involve reforming procedures to ensure greater relevance and maintain interest. Finally, the Parties could have a programme that enables them to spot and promote talented new members, affording them roles such as a participant on selection panels, local policy adviser, head of youth, women or Black and minority communities.

These collective changes will enable local parties to have an infrastructure that is both inclusive and representative. From that a new political class will emerge which is more grounded on local community politics, more respected by their peers both inside and outside the party, and ultimately more confident to stand and win in a selection and election race.

All of these ideas and more should be discussed during this particular Speaker's Conference, if we are keen to nurture our own Barack Obama, male or female. Black or White.