Saturday, 19 June 2010

Labour's unheralded achievement - and our outdated debate - on race and representation

The exhaustive leadership hustings tour today's sees Labour's would-be next leaders take part in a BAME Labour hustings ('Black Asian Minority Ethnic Labour') event in Leicester.

Black and Asian party members will no doubt want to quiz the candidates about a wide range of issues, such as public spending and cuts, education, health, crime, immigration, foreign policy, both in their own right and for the impact these can have for Britain as a society of equal opportunity for those of different ethnic backgrounds. The candidates will also expect to be challenged on how they could speed up progress on BME representation.

This is an important theme: as a party of equality, Labour must believe in fair chances for all, and breaking down barriers to this. However, much of the debate about this - at all levels in the party, and in public debate beyond it - is conducted on misleading premises. Political debate will always legitimately involve different ideas about how to reach a goal. We are all entitled to different opinions about that, but what we should be able to agree about are the facts which we are debating.


And the facts demonstrate an unheralded piece of good news. Labour is the first party in western Europe to show it can defeat any aggregate "ethnic penalty" in the selection and election of new Parliamentary candidates. It has been more successful, more quickly, in providing fair chances to non-white candidates than has yet been achieved for women. And this has encouraged the Conservatives to make unprecedented progress too, which is important if ethnic diversity in Parliament is to be entrenched as the unremarkable norm.

This has been missed. The debate almost always looks solely at the number of MPs in the House of Commons as a whole, or on the Labour benches. Here are the proportions of Labour BME MPs after the last seven General Elections:

1983: 0 (0%)
1987: 4 (2%)
1992: 5 (2%)
1997: 9 (2%)
2001: 12 (3%)
2005: 13 (4%)
2010: 16 (6%)

These are important indicators, but they do not inform discussion of what I think is perhaps the most important question:

is the ethnic penalty is being reduced over time, or alternatively, does it remain stubbornly high so that different strategies are urgently needed?

Looking at Parliament as a whole gives us the aggregate pattern of selections and elections over the last 15-20 years, given the pattern of political careers.

To take "snapshots" of whether we are making progress towards fair chances for candidates today we should also look at the cohorts of new entrants — the class of 2005, of 2001 and so on — assessing whether the extent to which BME candidates or women are elected proportionately to their share of the population in new intakes.

Here are the outcomes for the most recent Labour cohorts.

Labour elected 183 new MPs in 1997. Only 4 were non-white (2.2%). The class of 1997 was no more ethnically representative than the pre-1992 Parliamentary party. The increase in Labour MPs from 5 to 9 was simply the result of a larger party, not of any progress on BME representation in the party. (Labour had only 13 BME candidates at all, including the 5 returning MPs).

But Labour's class of 2005 contained 3 BME MPs out of a new intake of just 40. (7.5%). The proportion had been 5% in 2001. It was three times more likely than in 1997 that a new Labour MP would be non-white.

In 2010, the 65 new MPs in Labour's class of 2010 include 7 BME MPs. That is 10.7% of the intake.

If a group of under 10% of citizens achieve 10% of selections, there can be no aggregate "ethnic penalty" in that round of selections. Labour has reached the tipping point of a "level playing field" and fair chances for BME candidates as a whole now. It is good news, which should be celebrated.


This is also an important challenge to the conventional wisdom in this area. As I set out in my submission to the Speaker's conference on representation, it is very common to hear points made along these lines:

The conventional wisdom on BME representation can be summarised along these lines:

— There has been only very slow progress since 1987, so that it will take 75 years to have a "Parliament that looks like Britain" if special measures are not introduced.

— Black and Asian candidates face significantly higher hurdles in being selected because of their ethnicity.

— There will be no chance of a level playing field until similar measures to the all-women shortlists (adopted by the Labour Party) are introduced, because international comparative evidence suggests proportionate representation of women has almost always required positive discrimination or equality guarantees.

— The failure to act demonstrates that race is not taken as seriously as gender—so that BME candidates fall further behind when progress is made elsewhere.

That seems to me a fair summary of Diane Abbott's argument, and of groups like Operation Black Vote and BAME Labour who have advocated all black shortlists, to emulate the progress made on gender. This has been more broadly accepted as the broad account of "where we currently are" by most opinion formers on this issue.

For example, Ed Balls speaking at the Fabian hustings last Monday said: "The Labour Party has not made the progress we should have done on ethnic minorities and maybe we should look at the lessons from how we have pursued women's representation".

Yet the evidence suggests it would make more sense to ask whether or not there were any lessons from the progress we have made on BME representation to inform progress on gender.

The other leadership candidates also seem likely to similarly accept this broad framing of the debate, with David Miliband wanting to set a target for BME representation, "to move ethnic minorities from the margins to the mainstream".

Again, that seems to me to reflect a once-true and still dominant yet now outdated set of assumptions about where we now are, as I suggested in the Speaker's Conference submission.

Much of this can be taken as a broadly accurate description of the situation of fifteen and even ten years ago, the evidence from recent Parliamentary intakes and current selections suggests that it is decreasingly relevant or accurate.

... The evidence shows, perhaps counter-inutitively, that relatively rapid progress is being made on ethnic representation while a gender penalty for female candidates remains more stubborn. Much public discussion is too pessimistic about the chances of minority ethnic candidates and too complacent about chances for women".

The hypothesis that only equality guarantees could level the playing field is proved wrong. The other efforts of the party, and of external pressure groups like Operation Black Vote, have been successful, and they should be congratulated on the acheievement.

The playing field is a level one, for the BME group as a whole, as it was not in the 1980s or 1990s. We will then get a representative Parliamentary party if we sustain fair chances for candidates, and a Parliament that looks like Britain if each of the parties can emulate this progress (on which there is good news too).

Advocates of greater BME representation can legitimately warn against complacency and the need to sustain this progress. But they also need to avoid giving too pessimistic an account of the facts: otherwise those calling for more BME representation are inadvertently telling aspiring BME candidates they do not and can not have a fair shot unless there are new rules, in the face of evidence suggesting that they already do.

That means dropping Operation Black Vote's eye-catching soundbite that we can't wait 75 years for equal representation, made in 2008, and adopted by acting leader Harriet Harman, NEC member Keith Vaz, external voices such as Trevor Phillips who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and MPs including David Lammy have all adopted

The counter-argument that progress was at least three times as fast as this was borne out at the General Election. The "75 years" trajectory predicted that on current progress we would have to wait until 2025 to have 25 non-white MPs. This suggests that 50 years needs to come off the 75 years projection just 18 months after it was made.


Let me point out that my arguments on this issue are rejected by Diane Abbott and other advocates of all black shortlists in groups like BAME Labour.

Abbott has said, in public debates on the issue, that "all of the same objections" were made to all women shortlists.

I respectfully disagree about that. Nobody was ever able to ask of an all-women shortlists proposal "do we really need to do this when women are already winning 50% of selections without it". That challenge can be put to those proposing all black shortlists.

The proposal to "level the playing field" lacks force, given evidence that the playing field has been successfully levelled (in the aggregate, at least). Anecdotal examples can not trump that statistical fact. And that makes broader philosophical objections to all black shortlists, in terms of challenging their underlying assumptions about representation, more powerful.

Advocates can claim they would lock-in and guarantee progress, but there is also a good chance they could restrict it. Women won a considerably smaller proportion of open selections in the Labour party in 2009-2010 than they did in 1991-92, even if there has been an overall net gain given the scale with which AWS can be used, something unlikely to be emulated in this case.

The better challenge now is whether these positive changes go deeper than extending to black and Asian lawyers and Oxbridge graduates similar chances to join their white peers in the political class?

That has been progress, but perhaps of a narrower kind than Labour should aim for.

That thought would then demand much greater scrutiny of how financial and time commitments in candidate selections prevent a level playing field. It requires an approach which integrates discussion of barriers to candidates in terms of gender, race and social class.

So Ed Balls' positive suggestion of a diversity fund to support candidates might therefore be most effective if directed to all under-represented groups including, for example, non-graduates, black and Asian candidates from working-class backgrounds, and women.

All black shortlists may have made a difference 20 years ago, when it was not on the agenda. If all black shortlists now look more politically feasible, they have also become unnecessary. And I also continue to think that they would carry a significant risk of doing more harm than good for BME representation.

There are many reasons why a party which wants to build broad coalitions for social justice might make a significant shift in how we think and talk about race.

Yet I would want to be clear that the progress of the last decade did depend on the breakthrough made, in very different political conditions, by pioneers like Diane Abbott as one of the class of 1987 20 years ago.

As I wrote in a piece on the longer history of race and representation for Total Politics:

"The children of the 1970s have different life histories and experiences to the children of the 1950s. Some may overstate the case that race is irrelevant; others will engage in a debate on what a 'new politics of race' could or should mean. But it will be worth remembering how the breakthrough achieved by a more traditional politics of race activism provided a platform to make that debate possible".

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