Black shortlists 'would create political apartheid'

Black and Asian Labour MPs have attacked plans by the Government to bring in "all-black" shortlists to boost the number of MPs from ethnic minorities.

Some MPs have warned that the idea by the Commons leader, Harriet Harman, would create "political apartheid" and set back the search for a "British Barack Obama". Their intervention could help to kill off the proposal.

Ms Harman, a leading figure in the drive to increase the number of women Labour MPs through all-women shortlists when local parties choose parliamentary candidates, now wants to boost the number of ethnic minority MPs. There are only 15 out of 646 MPs.

She pledged to campaign for "four times more" during her successful campaign to win Labour's deputy leadership last year and is drawing up plans for all-black shortlists with the Operation Black Vote pressure group.

But several black and Asian MPs have now come out against the idea, warning it could lead to segregation and "colour coding" if they represent only constituencies with large ethnic minority populations.

Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Perry Barr, said: "This smacks of a colonial attitude that divides our population into different blocks and allocates representatives accordingly." He said black-only lists would be "a form of political apartheid which will encourage division and segregation."

Sadiq Khan, the MP for Tooting and a Labour whip, warned that such lists could lead to the "ghettoising of politics." He said: "The ends are noble but the means of getting there are important. The danger of all-black shortlists is that only people of a certain race or ethnicity can represent constituents of the same race or ethnicity."

Other MPs with doubts are said to include Parmjit Dhanda, a junior minister at the Department of Communities and Local Government and MP for Gloucester. Another is Ashok Kumar, whose Middlesbrough constituency is 98.6 per cent white.

"Now future Dhandas and Kumars fear being packed off to Leicester or Ealing and told to wait for one of 'their seats' to come up," said Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society. "Many believe minority-only contests would put the focus more on their ethnicity – and which community's 'turn' it is to win a seat – than the candidates qualities."

Writing in today's issue of the New Statesman, Mr Katwala says: "Barack Obama has insisted on a generational shift: breaking the 'black politician' mould to become a viable presidential candidate, not defined by race. By contrast, all-minority shortlists risk ghettoising Britain's next generation of non-white politicians, and derailing the new politics of equality that we need."

Mr Katwala said the real issue was class. A level playing field in candidate selections would benefit people from non-white communities most, but not exclusively. Black-only lists would offer a "leg up" to black and Asian Oxbridge graduates who did not need extra help.

However, some black MPs support all-minority lists. They include David Lammy, the universities and skills minister, who is a strong supporter of Mr Obama, and Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Mr Vaz has introduced a Bill to exclude candidate selection from the 1976 Race Relations Act but it is unlikely to become law because of lack of time.