It may be undemocratic, but we need positive discrimination

Considering the money we have put into the coffers of the three parties, what a dud investment it has been
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The Independent Online

Forty-eight hours at the Labour Party conference was all I could take, not being that much of a party creature, particularly since I announced in this column that I was giving up my Labour membership. I objected to the undemocratic London elections and the Government's populist and punishing asylum policies.

Forty-eight hours at the Labour Party conference was all I could take, not being that much of a party creature, particularly since I announced in this column that I was giving up my Labour membership. I objected to the undemocratic London elections and the Government's populist and punishing asylum policies.

I was nervous about going to the conference, and was much relieved when most people within the fold were perfectly civil. I wasn't hissed at or pointedly shunned. But the debates I was taking part in were more ferocious than last year, when I was still one of them.

While discussing political representation with Keith Vaz, we had a spiky exchange about the asylum issue. I said they were too worried about the response of the Daily Mail; he retorted he was more worried about Independent columnists. Music to my ears. With Paul Boateng the debate was more stormy, and ranged through the issues of race, multiculturalism and the British identity.

And there is much to argue over. At the first party conferences of the 21st century, many black and Asian Britons and other visible groups feel an immense sense of despondency at the abysmal failure of all three parties to promote, include and elect non-whites.

Fringe meetings at all three conferences will (again, 22 years after the complaints first started) serve to ventilate this frustration. Labour - which still gets most black and Asian votes - has nine MPs and asmall number of bright, young researchers and advisers. For the first time in our history we have three ministers too, Boateng and Vaz and Baroness Scotland.

All the MPs in the other two parties are Persil white, although the Lib Dems have their first non-white president in the very able Lord Navnit Dholakia. The Lords has an increased number of black and Asian peers. But considering how much money we have put into the coffers of the three parties, plus faith, hours and commitment, what a thoroughly dud investment this has been.

In terms of our proportion in the population, according to Professor Mohamed Anwar, who calculates these things with immaculate accuracy, we should have 42 non-white MPs. That vastly more of us should be in all the corridors of power and influence in politics and elsewhere is beyond question. But I think that we need to have deeper explorations about why and how and who.

Take the word "representation", for example. I don't believe that you elect such MPs because they represent "ethnic minorities". They represent their constituents, whoever they are. It is important to remember that between 1895 and 1924 three non-white MPs were elected to Parliament by white voters. One of them, the communist Shapurji Saklatvala, was so popular that thousands of white, working-class women pinned his picture on their dresses. MP Ashok Kumar represents a nearly all-white area, and Oona King, who is half black and half Jewish, has shown herself to be a very good MP in Tower Hamlets. Scotland, Vaz and Boateng are British ministers in charge of a wide range of policies and are not restricted to "ethnic minority" matters.

It is ridiculous to assume that only black and Asian voters would vote for their own, or that ethnicity would be the only criterion that would influence their choice, or that these MPs would necessarily be the best people even for black and Asian constituents. Anne Cryer has put her life and career on the line to defend Asian women who are forced into marriages. Marsha Singh, the Asian MP for Bradford, has mostly been conspicuous by his silence on this key human rights issue.

I have yet to understand what people mean when they say they represent the Asian community. Do they mean the old, male, dominating members, the self-selected keepers of the gates, or young British-born adults who have their own views of who they are and what they need? I have met a number of hopefuls over the years in both communities who I pray never make it past any selection process. They are narrow-minded, obsessed with irrelevant problems, such as the war in Kashmir, Sikh independence and old multiculturalism where their values are given protected status.

Then there is the process. How can this increase be achieved within a democracy? I confess I am completely torn on this one. I feel compromising democratic principles is always wrong, and this is why I found the whole business over Wales and the Greater London Authority so dispiriting. But if you leave things to the party selection mechanisms, nothing will change. And sometimes what appears to be a fix by party headquarters turns out to be a very good result indeed.

This brings me to an apology I must make. When the Tottenham seat became vacant after the death of Bernie Grant, I was not prepared to support the New Labour choice, the young black lawyer David Lammy. I thought Labour was going for a trouble-free candidate, who was also black which added bonus points. Sharon Grant was seen as too brash and old Labour. I have since met and listened to Lammy and I think he is one of the best MPs we have in Parliament. I should, I feel, have met him before I judged him.

But back to the how. The list system gave us Lammy, great, but did not improve numbers in the GLA or Wales. People have started to think about this problem seriously at long last. The Institute of Public Policy Research will be producing a policy paper on this soon, and EQ, a Labour Party group, hopes to train more black and Asian candidates so they can perform better during selection interviews.

But perhaps we also need to think the unthinkable. We could legislate to allow institutions to operate positive discrimination for a maximum of five years. Don't all object at once. White middle-class men have positively discriminated to favour each other for centuries. It is only a problem when others want to play the same game.

But then what happens to democracy? And what do we do if we get hordes of the dreaded community leaders? It is all terribly complex,but given the political will, we canand must change Whiteminster, so it becomes a symbol of modern Britain, a beacon, to use the PM's phrase, for the country.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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