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LOCAL ELECTIONS: 'POSITIVE ACTION NOW VITAL TO TACKLE UNDER-REPRESENTATION OF ETHNIC MINORITIES'

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In the week of the local elections, major new IPPR research shows that a change in the law and a new attitude by al...
In the week of the local elections, major new IPPR research shows that a change in the law and a new attitude by all the main political parties is now vital to addressing the under-representation of ethnic minority communities in our political system.

The report, 'Our House? Race and representation in British politics' by Rushanara Ali and Colm O'Cinneide, was launched today.

current under-representation

There are currently only 12 black and Asian MPs: 1.8 per cent of the total. Of these only two are women. There are 530 (2.5 per cent) ethnic minority councillors out of a total of 21,000 (a decline from 3 per cent in 1997) of which only 5 per cent are women. There are four ethnic minority members of the European parliament (MEP) out of a total of 87. There are only two out of 25 Greater London Assembly (GLA) members from minority ethnic backgrounds and none in the Scottish parliament or Welsh assembly.

If our democratic institutions were more reflective of Britain's ethnic diversity, there would be some 47 black and Asian MPs, including 20 from London constituencies. There would be around six black and Asian GLA members and some six per cent of local councillors would be black and Asian.

The main recommendations of the report include:

Government should:

- provide state funding to support a prestigious cross-party leadership programme to ensure there is a continued supply of successful and suitable candidates from different groups for the parties in the future.

- widen the circumstances in which positive action is permitted by amending Sections 37 and 38 of the Race Relations Act;

- clarify the Race Relations (Amendment) Act to give parties greater clarity and legal certainty about the extent to which parties are covered by the Act;

Parties should:

- implement rigorous goals for minority representation both nationally and in specific regions. Clear targets should be set for a proportion of those seats reserved for wo men candidates to be filled by qualified female minority candidates;

- give guidance to central and regional structures on the selection process must provide clear rules setting out how local parties can ensure they do not directly or indirectly discriminate against ethnic minorities and adopt formal monitoring of ethnic minority membership and the number of candidates seeking selection;

- place qualified minority candidates further up party lists in PR elections such as those for the GLA, Scottish, Welsh and European elections;

- establish units to ensure that candidates receive support. Such units should have the role of actively promoting equality of opportunities, mentoring and advising candidates and implementing change across the party machinery. There should be a designated staff member providing support, advice and assistance for ethnic minority candidates, and a senior official and political figure with responsible for driving forward a programme of reform to tackle ethnic under-representation;

- give greater recognition in selection procedures to the political and community activities that minority ethnic candidates take part in outside the obvious mainstream party structures.

- increase the number of ethnic minority employees working within their central and regional headquarters, as has been done within some Government departments;

Author of the report, IPPR Citizenship and Governance research fellow Rushanara Ali said:

'It's clear that existing legislation has left parties trapped in a legal straightjacket and confused about the extent to which they can use positive action to address the problems each party is facing in selecting ethnic minority candidates. This ippr research shows from the experiences of prospective candidates that a change in the law is now vital to give parties a right to use limited positive discrimination.

'It's now down to all parties to challenge the inaccurate perception that ethnic minority candidates can only succeed in areas with large ethnic minority populations.'

The IPPR report has been welcomed by all the main political parties:

Charles Clarke, Labour Party chair and minister without portfolio said:

'I welcome this report as an important contribution to our knowledge of how to increase representation of ethnic minorities within our political system. It shows clearly the extent of the task ahead, and provides many valuable pointers about how to proceed. '

Gary Streeter, vice-chairman, Conservative Party said:

'The Conservative Party is changing. We are putting in place practical steps to reach out to all black and minority ethnic communities and hope to have several Conservative MPs from these communities after the next election. We warmly welcome this report and believe it will make a positive contribution to creating a fairer political system that is more representative of society.'

Navnit Dholakia, president of the Liberal Democrats said:

'For too long we have talked about representation of ethnic minorities in our political system. It is time to act. This excellent report points the way forward. It points towards an inclusive political system for all our citizens.'

Notes

- The authors of the report are:

Rushanara Ali is a research fellow at the IPPR working in the citizenship and governance team. She has worked for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, as research assistant to Lord Young of Dartington and parliamentary assistant to Oona King.

Colm O'Cinneide is a lecturer in the Faculty of Laws at University College London. He was formerly legal assistant to Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC. His main research focus is on human rights and equality.

- The authors interviewed 34 candidates who have sought selection for one of the three main parties and as well as officials and politicians in each of the parties.

The full report is available here.

Executive summary

The purpose of this report is to argue that the political exclusion of ethnic minorities raises a major question about the true plurality of our system. Its aim is to consider why there are so few elected politicians from ethnic minority backgrounds and why political parties have failed to achieve change thus far and what barriers exist to their entry into politics. Most importantly, it aims to identify what parties and government can do to remove those barriers and the legal options that might be useful in helping to increase the number of black and Asian people in politics.

There are currently only twelve black and Asian MPs: 1.8 per cent of the total. Of these only two are women. There are 530 (2.5 per cent) ethnic minority councillors out of a total of 21,000 (a decline from 3 per cent in 1997) of which only 5 per cent are women. There are four ethnic minority members of the European Parliament (MEP) out of a total of 87. There are only two out of 25 Greater London Assembly (GLA) members from minority ethnic backgrounds and none in the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly. Ironically, the unelected, and appointed House of Lords has 25 non-white Peers and is more representative than the elected bodies.

If our democratic institutions were more reflective of Britain's ethnic diversity, there would be some 47 black and Asian MPs, including 20 from London constituencies. There would be around six black and Asian GLA members and some six per cent of local councillors would be black and Asian.

In particular boroughs, the number of ethnic minority councillors has increased considerably in recent years. However, the overall numbers of councillors from minority groups is in decline, and given local politics is the main entry point for minority ethnic candidates and as it provides access into other localised bodies including quangos, the overall reduction in numbers is a major set back. Early predictions for the forthcoming local elections suggest there will be a further reduction in the number of minority councillors.

Since the 1970s, the main political parties have actively courted the ethnic vote. The main beneficiary has been the Labour Party, which has, with the exception of 1987, consistently received over 80 per cent of the ethnic vote. However, in the last election the Liberal Democrats and Conservative Party gained a sizeable share of the votes of mixed race people.

Party efforts to increase ethnic representation

Political parties have made attempts to support and encourage black and Asian candidates seeking political office by actively engaging with mentoring programmes initiated by Operation Black Vote and the Commission for Racial Equality.

All three parties have introduced equal opportunities procedures into their selection process at national and local levels, aimed at combating the recurring failure to select female or minority candidates. They also now have national panels of approved candidates for Westminster elections. Similar panels have been developed for the devolved and European elections. Despite these efforts, it remains possible for under-lying or indirect discrimination to continue unabated.

PR Elections and devolved assemblies

The Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly and Welsh Assembly Members are elected under the Additional Members System (AMS). This system has the potential to give greater flexibility to parties to ensure ethnic and gender diversity. No specific measures were used by parties to ensure that ethnic minority candidates were selected for either devolved assembly.

The devolved elections were noteworthy for the use by Labour of the PR format to achieve a much higher level of female representation.

The GLA elections are particularly interesting from the perspective of ethnic minorities, as the GLA area has the highest proportion of minority population in the UK. In response to the failure of constituency parties to select minority candidates for the GLA e lections, the Labour party tacitly used the considerably centralised selection process for the top-up list to select two high profile ethnic minority candidates and place them at the top of the list.

The experience of ethnic minority candidates

Views are drawn from interviews with 34 candidates who have sought selection for one of the three main parties and from meetings with officials and politicians in each of the parties.

The majority of candidates who were interviewed indicated that party selection procedures were generally professional and neutral. The main obstacles, in their experience, did not arise from the mechanics of the selection process itself but from inadequate support, in-built disadvantages, the political culture of local parties and discriminatory attitudes among some selection committee members and more widely among party members.

Many interviewees pointed to the reluctance local parties to pick candidates who do not fit their traditional image of MPs, or who they feel will alienate elements of the electorate. This appears to be a very significant factor in the under-representation of minorities in seats without a sizeable ethnic minority electorate. This tendency means all three parties (in varying degrees) face a major constraint in encouraging the selection of ethnic minority candidates in safe or winnable seats, and that they are necessarily limited in the action they can take centrally to ensure that local parties select ethnic minority candidates.

Labour candidates were particularly critical of the party headquarters for failing, in their view, to act as neutral brokers between candidates and yet failing to intervene in order to address ethnic under-representation even where qualified minority candidates were available.

Achieving equality

The response of the main parties in addressing the barriers faced by minority candidates to getting selected has been patchy and failed to produce outcomes. The Race Relations Act (RRA) 1976 impo ses strong obligations on organisations to eliminate discriminatory practices. The major political parties have been slow to recognise and implement the full extent of their obligations under anti-discrimination legislation. In particular, there has been confusion as to how candidate selection should be classified for the purposes of the RRA and even whether it applies to selection.

Equality measures are rarely effective without the threat of legal sanction to concentrate attention, and the RRA provides this threat of sanction. Anti-discrimination law provides the 'stick' to complement the 'carrot' of public and internal demand for genuine equality for minority candidates.

Overhauling selection procedures in line with the RRA would give genuine force to equal opportunities policies. Getting to grips fully with minority under-representation will, however, require parties to go beyond the strict requirements of anti-discrimination legislation.

Positive action measures are intended to remedy disadvantages suffered by particular groups in society. The most extensive positive action measures introduced in the UK have been undertaken to remedy the under-representation of women candidates. The obvious question that arises is whether such positive action measures should also be used in the context of minority under-representation. Whilst all-minority shortlist are problematic in the context of race, it is possible to introduce other limited forms of affirmative action to address ethnic under-representation.

For example, a policy of placing qualified minority candidates further up party lists in PR elections such as those for the GLA, Scottish, Welsh and European elections may produce excellent results. When a central body selects and orders the list, as is done by Labour, this is relatively easy to achieve. Where the order of the list is determined by a free vote, as with the other parties, prioritising minority candidates becomes much more difficult.

Any general policy of preferr ing minority candidates, as distinct from promoting certain specific and qualified individuals, as was the case with Labour and the GLA elections, will not satisfy the RRA as the law currently stands. Consideration will need to be given to amending the RRA to widen the circumstances in which measures in favour of minority candidates are permitted.

Parties have to ensure that minority candidates are encouraged to come forward and are provided with a genuine level playing field. A good model for how to promote equality in this way would be the positive duty to promote equality imposed on public authorities by the new Section.71 of the Race Relations Act. Monitoring and consultation should be implemented within parties by central equality units, which can be separate, self-contained units or part of a larger equalities unit as long as a particular focus remains on the special issues thrown up in the ethnic minority context. The need for officers and units within parties to act as contact and information points for minority candidates should form a central part of this plan.

Selected recommendations

- To enable parties to have greater freedom to address ethnic under-representation on race, the Government should give consideration to amending Sections 37 and 38 of the Race Relations Act to widen the circumstances in which positive action is permitted. This amendment should be framed in general terms, permitting parties to discriminate in favour of certain under-represented groups, providing that under-representation is clearly demonstrated and that any discriminatory measures are proportionate, necessary and limited.

- The Government should consider clarifying the Race Relations (Amendment) Act to eliminate the risk of unnecessary litigation and to give parties greater clarity and legal certainty about the extent to which parties are covered by the Act. This legal clarification should make clear that parties are required to refrain from negative discrimination.

- Guidance to central and regional structures on the selection process must provide clear rules setting out how local parties can ensure they do not directly or indirectly discriminate against ethnic minorities.

- Parties implement rigorous targets for minority representation both nationally and in specific regions. Clear targets should be set for a proportion of those seats reserved for women candidates to be filled by qualified female minority candidates.

- To achieve such targets, parties should consider some degree of regional co-ordination directed towards ensuring local parties agree to select certain minority candidates.

- As part of these measures, parties should adopt formal monitoring of ethnic minority membership and the number of candidates seeking selection.

- Parties should consider placing qualified minority candidates further up party lists in PR elections such as those for the GLA, Scottish, Welsh and European elections. The freedom to do this will be greater for the Labour Party which has a more centralised selection process for top-up list seats. However, the other parties should increase awareness among their party members of the need to take similar action. Failing that, consideration should be given to reforming the existing means by which the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Party select candidates for their top-up list to take greater advantage of PR to achieve diversity.

- Whilst political parties are not covered by the duty to promote equality under Section 71 of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, parties should give serious consideration to introducing strategies that actively promote equality in order to address ethnic under-representation in politics. These positive action measures should be designed to eliminate cultural and procedural obstacles that contribute to ethnic under-representation.

- The viewpoints and perspectives of minority member s and candidates should be fed into the supervision and design of selection mechanisms. Ongoing formal reviews of selection procedure should continuously assess to what degree existing procedures deny equal opportunity.

- Special equality units should be established by parties to ensure that candidates receive support. Such units should have the role of actively promoting equality of opportunities, mentoring and advising candidates and implementing change across the party machinary. There should be a designated staff member providing support, advice and assistance for ethnic minority candidates, and a senior official and political figure with responsible for driving forward a programme of reform to tackle ethnic under-representation.

- Greater recognition should be given to the political and community activities that minority ethnic candidates take part in outside of the obvious mainstream party structures.

- Parties should take steps to increase the number of ethnic minority employees working within their central and regional headquarters, as has been done within some Government departments.

- State funding should be used to support a prestigious cross-party leadership programme to ensure there is a continued supply of successful and suitable candidates from different groups for the parties in the future.

- Parties should help develop funds to support minority candidates as was done by Labour's Emily's List.

- Trade unions should take more proactive steps to encourage and support minority ethnic candidates, including developing funding and mentoring programmes.

NOTE

The main focus of the report will be on candidate selection for parliamentary seats, local councils and the Greater London Assembly elections although the report will draw on lessons from other elections, and will focus on the three main political parties.

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