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The time is right for all-black shortlists

Annie Keys argues that at the present rate it will take another 600 years for Britain to achieve a representative government.

In 1892 Dadabhai Noaroji walked into the Westminster Palace, elected by the white men of Finsbury Park, as Britain's first ethnic minority MP. In the last 110 years British society has changed beyond all recognition. If Dadabhai were to take a walkabout around his old constituency, he would be suitably appreciative at the visible signs of diverse communities working and living alongside each other. Although Britain may have changed since that era, it is with a heavy heart that we must now accept that the Palace of Westminster has not undergone a parallel transformation. In the 110 intervening years we have gained a mere 11 more Ethnic Minority Members of Parliament. At this rate (and if this years census figures establishes the 10% threshold for the black population in Britain) it will be 2602 until Britain has a representative democracy. These figures are stated not as an indicator of the future but as a measure of how slowly our nation is embracing political equality.

It is time for us to join together and agree some basic facts. Namely, that without effective representation the Black population of Britain will continue to struggle within the confines of a preponderate 'host community'. Last summer, whilst the UK's politicians were on the campaign trail, our northern towns were ablaze with race hatred, fuelled by segregation and 'weak leadership'. Adding insult to injury and then some, the Labour member for Keighley, Ann Cryer, publicly stated that the riots were caused by Asian youths hell bent on trouble. This egregious over-simplification and vilification is symptomatic of a political system unable to comprehend the needs and reactions of its constituents. Bradford was ablaze, but the election went on.

We must also agree that the onus is upon our political parties to encourage and increase the political participation of Britain's Black communities.

The internal structures within, for example, the Labour party do not set out to preclude Black candidates. However, Labour MP Oona King has commented "Overwhelmingly when there are black candidates there, they will [party members] vote for the white candidate again and again and again. That's because overwhelmingly, you know, on the whole, the majority of the Labour party members in most of the seats are white and often vote with your friends or who you are familiar with."

But even without intent, Black candidates are being excluded. Recently one local councillor commented on my good fortune, as an ethnic minority council candidate, for bearing an Anglicised name despite being of Asian extraction, the implication being that one look at me and the voters would flee. That wasn't the case for Dadabhai Noaroji in 1892 nor indeed was it the case for Parmjit Dhanda in 2001. The Labour party must have more faith in the electorate and, more importantly, more faith in its Black candidates.

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report remarked that institutionalised racism manifests itself "in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people". Sir William Macpherson could have easily been holding a mirror up against the Labour Party, the best of all of Britain's political parties in attracting Black members and candidates.

We must recognise that change is needed and action needs to be taken, within the Labour Party, not for the sake of filling quotas and targets but to change the political agenda. I sincerely doubt that a Black Home Secretary would have pointed the finger of blame at the Asian Community's lack of English language skills - immediately after civil disturbances that we witnessed last year. While the Cantle report into the riots had a grand total of 137 recommendations, English Language skills was barely touched upon.

It is apparent that to increase Black participation in the political process we must adopt positive action, at all levels of representation. The democratic deficit is not unique to Westminster. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are wholly white in their make up and the Greater London Assembly has only two Black assembly members out of twenty five. Amongst all the UK's major political institutions, the collective total stands at only 14 Black representatives. Meanwhile, Labour's Black members do not have a voice through a vibrant Black Socialist Society and are denied direct representation on the NEC.

If the Labour Party wants to continue to attract Black members, we may wish to consider monitoring our membership. To ensure we are attracting party members from all of Britain's diverse communities, we must internally monitor applicants for candidate positions, to establish whom we are attracting and what stages they are reaching. We have to ensure our language is tempered, and I would say to the councillor who commented on my Anglicised name, that we must search our souls. Do we really need the votes of racists?

We need to be as progressive with the question of Black representation as we have been with the issue of the representation of women within the party. I do not want to wait until 2602 for a representative Parliament. If we accept that All Women Shortlists will solve the deficit of Women MP's then we must accept that All Black Shortlists are the solution for the deficit of Black MPs.

March/April 2002