Politics: Few black faces in the corridors of power

LONDON is the capital, not only of the country, but of Black Britain. Yet one of the few places you will have to look hard for London's ethnic minorities is in the city's corridors of power.

At present a little more than 10 per cent of the capital's 700-plus councillors are black, and none head local authorities - despite making up a quarter of the population. Under the present system - and that proposed for the mayor and the Greater London Authority - there is little chance for a change.

For London's black population, the ever-growing gap between population and political representation leads to a spiral of little political representation, followed by disenchantment, followed by low voter registration and finally by the frustration of a minority unable to master its own destiny.

Too apocalyptic? Not according to a survey for Time Out, the London news and events magazine, of 18- to 35-year-old black people. It found last year that only half of those questioned were registered to vote and one in five would not turn up on election day. The reason for staying away was "they felt excluded from a white-dominated political process".

Interestingly when asked what would change their minds, nearly 45 per cent replied the strongest motive to vote would be "more black candidates".

The net result is that although more than 85 per cent of Afro-Caribbeans and 70 per cent of Asians cast their votes for Labour in the last general election, the effect is diluted because the reduced number of ethnic minority citizens likely to vote.

Why does this happen? In a word, discrimination. It is not just that white electorates are reluctant to vote for ethnic minority candidates, but party hierarchies stymie black politicians' progress.

This analysis was used to promote another minority - women in politics. The Labour Party introduced "women-only" short lists before the 1997 election and saw the number of female MPs rise from 63 to 120 last year. It was only stopped because the courts declared it illegal.

In the United States, a more radical move in 1990 was initiated by President Bush's Justice Department. Officials baldly stated that racism made it impossible for blacks and Latinos to get elected without help.

So a programme of gerrymandering was sanctioned - creating congressional districts with "minority majorities". It got results. The number of black Congressmen and women rose from 22 to 39 in 1992. Again the judiciary intervened and re-drew the boundaries.

Spin doctors may not prescribe them - but these bitter pills may be the only way to treat the electoral malaise of under-representation in London.