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Making headway in ethnic minority representation is not solely Labour's responsibility, says Sadiq Khan ...
Making headway in ethnic minority representation is not solely Labour's responsibility, says Sadiq Khan

The Institute for Public Policy Research has made a number of excellent recommendations to remedy the dearth of ethnic minority MPs and councillors (LGC, 3 May).

Hopefully, there is now almost universal acceptance of the under-representation of ethnic minorities -and, for that matter, women - in government and of the reasons why it is crucial to rectify this major flaw in the British democratic system.

But the dispute comes with regard to methods and ways of achieving a level playing field. It is interesting that the two camps in this debate tend to consist of white, middle-aged (and often, middle-class) men lecturing the other camp on the importance of 'merit' and trying to avoid 'tokenism'.

A senior Conservative councillor in Wandsworth LBC told me the local Tory party had internal discussions about what to do with a good Asian candidate.

It was 'accepted wisdom' that candidates with a 'foreign name' lose votes. The Tories could allow him to be a candidate as his surname began with a B and would be high up the list of candidates. This, he believed, meant the votes he would gain for being the first Tory on the ballot paper would balance out the loss of votes resulting from him being from an ethnic minority.

I also recall speaking to disgruntled and bitter white men shortly before the 1997 general election complaining about the Labour Party's women-only short-list policy and the fact it meant the 'best candidates were not being selected' and it would lead to a second class of MPs made up of token women.

We are all aware the Labour Party's policy led to a record number of female MPs being elected. Who would now argue that those MPs are in any way second rate?

Yet it is unfair and unrealistic to leave the responsibility for making government more representative solely in the hands of the Labour Party. What have the Tories ever done for better ethnic minority representation in government? What have the Liberal Democrats done to improve the inaccurate perception that ethnic minority candidates only succeed in areas with a large ethnic minority population?

Of course I have views about discrimination, social justice and the British National Party but I, like others from ethnic minorities, also have views on the environment, transport, housing, education, crime and other matters.

Why does the issue of under-representation of ethnic minorities in government only hit the news after well-publicised race problems? Why is the Commission for Racial Equality only able to persuade political leaders to sign up to pledges in the weeks preceding a general election - and even then, some rather begrudgingly?

What is needed now is a cross-party consensus on a method to improve the representation of ethnic minorities - and women - in government.

Positive discrimination should not be viewed as patronising or wrong. Significant change is required not just to do justice to ethnic minority communities but because this is the right thing to do.

Sadiq Khan (Lab)

Tooting Ward, Wandsworth LBC

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