The face of British politics is white, middle-aged and male. Scan the benches in Westminster or the committees of your local council and you're unlikely to see a fair reflection of the high street. There are, of course, some high profile exceptions, among them Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Tottenham MP and culture minister David Lammy and Baroness Amos, the leader of the House of Lords. The fact remains, however, that black and minority ethnic (BME) communities remain under-represented in the mother of all parliaments: there are just 15 ethnic minority MPs in the House of Commons when, proportionately, the number should be more than 60.
The situation appears even worse at local level. A 2004, Local Government Association survey of almost 20,000 councillors in England and Wales found just 3 per cent were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. What's more, there is anecdotal evidence that numbers are slipping: the recent local elections stripped a number of BME councillors of their seats as voters turned against the Labour Party, the "natural" home of many BME activists.
This is worrying at a time when the British National Party is making gains (it doubled its number of councillors in the May 2006 elections and now holds 46 seats). BME activists hope the rise of the so-dubbed race-hate party will galvanise young people to get involved in local politics. Councillor Enley Taylor says the presence of the National Front shaped his political awareness while growing up in Handsworth in the Seventies.
"I hope the BNP is equally motivating for today's young people," says the Conservative councillor for Croydon.
The decline of BME participation in local politics raises other concerns. Local government has long been a training ground for Westminster: cut off the supply of black and Asian councillors and representation at national level will suffer.
"Being a councillor gives you a good political grounding and develops your personal and political skills," says Fiyaz Mughal, chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats. "You cannot get into Westminster unless you are a polished candidate and that polishing happens at local level."
He worries that the main political parties at local level are out of touch with the communities they are meant to represent. "Most local authorities have Chairs that don't understand the changing demographics of their areas," says Mughal. "They may pay lip service to diversity but it doesn't follow through in terms of practical support for BME candidates."
It doesn't help that, outside of escalating council tax bills, few young people have little interest in or contact with local government. Yet this is the frontline of community politics. The issues that make a difference to your quality of life on a day to day basis - from housing and road congestion to sports facilities and access to health services - are the bread and butter work of local councillors.
Councillor Taylor says it's vital that local government and parliament reflect society as a whole so that all members of the community feel they are represented. "It's about fair play," he says. "There are real issues about BME access to services like education and healthy, where there are some real inequalities."
Daniel Bessong, 23, a newly elected councillor for Wembley Central, says it's a privilege to be in a position to make a difference. "Some of the main issues around here are council tax, the roads, crime and the loss of playing fields," says the Lib Dem councillor. "It's important to listen to people about the things that matter to them."
There are all sorts of ways to get involved. First, register to vote and, having done that, make sure you exercise the right. Check out one of the 500 youth councils in the UK or join a political party: they are all crying out for young talent. Students should contact the National Union of Students ( www.nusonline.co.uk), which campaigns on many issues that matter to young people.
If you're interested in a career in politics, then take steps to arm yourself with the skills and information to make a difference. Check www.ucas.ac.uk for details of politics-related degree programmes or set up a debating society to hone your public speaking skills.
Operation Black Vote ( www.obv.org.uk) runs an excellent shadowing scheme that provides an inside look at the corridors of power. It already has a proven track record, having launched a number of political careers. Ealing councillor Sonika Nirwal is a graduate of the scheme and credits it, and Slough MP Fiona Mactaggart, for helping her get ahead. The Labour councillor, now 30 and in her second term, says she first really got interested in politics during her student days.
"I realised that if you want to make a change you have be able to make a noise in the right way so people can hear you," she says. "Politics is difficult to get into whoever you are and coming from an ethnic minority background you do have to be quite thick-skinned. But it's so rewarding to be able to make a difference to people's lives."
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