Friday 7 November 2008

How British politics broke the race barrier

I have been researching how far the British political parties are making progress towards selecting BME and female candidates in proportions which reflect the wider population. An explanation of the findings is here.

The good news is that non-white candidates have had fair chances of being selected in Labour's new candidate selections during this Parliament. While the other parties are still some way from catching up but there is good progress in the Conservative party too. That means there will be a record number of new black and Asian MPs next time, as The Guardian reports, but that is less important than achieving and maintaining fair chances, which would ensure progress is sustained.

It is too much to ask specific individuals to carry the burden of being expected to be Britain's Obama - but the data shows there is no reason at all why we shouldn't have a non-white Prime Minister, as long as we remember that it will take an individual with exceptional talent and luck too, just as it does for any other budding PM to rise through the parliamentary ranks.

Since those of BME origin make up less than 8% of the population, the current rate of success of over 10% in Labour candidate selections (with a better rate still in safe seats) shows that black and Asian citizens have been no less likely to be selected as candidates than white Britons.

That wasn't true a decade ago: Labour's class of 1997 contained less than one-third of the BME MPs that a proportionate intake would have had, as did the candidate list. That could be used to argue that it was, in 1997, more than three times more difficult for black or Asian citizens to become Labour MPs (at a time when Labour was the only party with any minority representation in Parliament at all).

But we can not find similar evidence for an ethnic penalty now. The 'class of 2005' intake and the candidates of 2005 saw BME candidates with a much fairer share, reaching the 7.5% mark: new candidates were three times more likely to be non-white than in 1997. And now current selections show this progress being locked in, and speeding up, particularly in safe seats.

The different rates in different parties shows that politics has made a difference in bringing about change. That reflects the sustained efforts of the black and Asian MPs who broke through first to bring about progress, and campaigning groups like Operation Black Vote who have run important schemes, including the mentoring of new talent, to break down barriers around the political system and to change ideas of what is possible.

There are plenty of reasons to be gloomy about the rate of progress towards equal life chances, and breaking down racism and disadvantage in our society.

But good news shows that change happens - and sometimes faster than we think. And that should be celebrated.

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