Saturday 8 November 2008

Trevor P and the politics of No We Can't

Trevor Phillips will never shy away from controversy and public debate. That’s a good thing – and I often agree with him, for example in his recent comments about the need to address disadvantage among the white working-class as well as on grounds of race and gender.

However. today’s comments about the Labour Party are damaging, insulting and out of date. We don’t need the politics of “No, We Can’t” when that flies in the face of the evidence.

Trevor is quoted as saying:

The parties and unions and think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It's institutional racism

(The Times headline perhaps goes further than Phillips intended - Labour 'racism' would block British Obama, though he makes specific comments about Labour's political culture).

But this is out of date. The new analysis the Fabian Society has done of parliamentary selections shows that the conventional wisdom is wrong: Black and Asian candidates do now have fair chances in the Labour party. That’s a historic achievement. It won’t help us get a British Obama if we remain stuck in the past, telling aspiring candidates that they don’t have a fair shot when we can see that they do.

Just a year ago, Trevor didn’t think that Barack Obama could win the Democratic nomination or the US Presidency. Now he’s telling us there can’t be a British Obama. But Margaret Thatcher said there would not be a woman Prime Minister in her lifetime. Change can happen faster than we think. This is a moment of real hope and inspiration. Barack Obama has changed people’s sense of the possible. Britain is breaking through the race barrier in politics must faster than anybody has recognised.

We need a debate about the facts, not urban myths. In fact, Trevor has picked out the one political party in Europe which can offer solid evidence that it is now defeating the ‘ethnic penalty’, breaking down institutional racism and disadvantage. Labour is the only party in Britain – almost certainly anywhere in Europe too – which is currently selecting new Parliamentary candidates from the ethnic minority backgrounds at a rate which matches their presence in the general population. There may be more to do – in local government, in ensuring sustained progress for black and Asian women too – but when change happens, let’s recognise it and build on it.

How Labour defeated the ‘ethnic penalty’

In 1997, just 2% of new MPs and candidates in the Labour party were black or Asian. (And it was zero per cent for MPs of every other party). Ten years ago, it was three times harder for black and Asian citizens to be candidates or MPs. But that isn’t true anymore.

Labour selected new black and Asian candidates at three times that rate in 1997, getting up to 7.5%. Now it is over five times the 1997 rate, and seven times that in safe seats. Labour has broken through the

Conservatives are now making progress – but they are not doing better than Labour

A colleague has just told me that Trevor said on the Today Programme that he does not think, as the Times reported in his interview, that the Conservatives have done better than Labour.

There is no measure on which the Tories are ahead.

Labour has 13 black and Asian MPs; the Conservative have two.

Labour is currently selecting BME candidates at a rate of 10.5%, the Conservatives at a rate of 4.9% In seats the party holds (replacing current MPs), it is 15.4% for Labour and 9% for the Conservatives.

I congratulate the Conservatives on their progress. It is important they stopped being an all white Parliamentary Party in 2001. If we want entrenched change, we need progress in every party. My view is that the parties should work together, as well as competing, on this.

We should recognise that they are trying very hard to catch up. Their leaders have realised that waiting for gradual change in their party would take too long. So Trevor is right that the Conservatives have had to do it in a top down way: but that is because of their ideology and their history: they have had very few black and Asian members and a low share of the vote from ethnic minority voters. They need to secure those changes across the party.

But Labour is ahead and has got there first because of its strong connection with black and Asian communities; because of the efforts of the pioneering MPs in the class of 1987 and afterwards who broke through tougher barriers and helped bring more people through; and because the children of the 1970s are now confident in our ability to compete on equal terms. And that has encouraged the other parties to see that they must catch up.

We can make progess - and build on it.

Know hope. It can be infectious.

Yes, We Can, Trevor; Yes We Can.

No comments: