Shamit Saggar: Black and Asian MPs must get out of the ghetto

From the Hansard Society Annual Lecture, given by the Reader in Electoral Politics at Queen Mary College, London

Tuesday 31 July 2001 00:00
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Fourteen years ago, the House of Commons witnessed the first wave of black and Asian MPs in the modern era. The four pioneers – Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, the late Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz – were elected as Labour MPs. Their breakthrough, we should remember, came at the height of fundamental disagreements in the Labour Party on questions of black political autonomy. However, this development served as a watershed for the broader issue of getting the political representation of ethnic minorities on to the radar of British politics.

Half a generation on, it is time to begin to evaluate the wider context of race and political representation and recruitment. The past decade has seen a small number of high-profile controversies over race and candidate selection and performance, such as the John Taylor episode in Cheltenham and numerous rows over "ethnic entryism" in the Labour Party. This spring's pre-campaign dilemma – between the "two Johns", Townend and Taylor – was an unexpected reminder of the mistrust and volatility that can be elicited by the race issue in internal party management.

In the years since 1987, several more black and Asian MPs have entered Parliament. The real pioneers here have been Ashok Kumar and Parmjit Dhanda, both of whom have arguably busted through the colour-coded mould of ethnic minorities elected to represent ethnic minorities. At local government level, the number of black and Asian elected councillors has swollen in recent elections, reaching near-parity or parity levels in many cities and in several of the capital's boroughs. Ethnic-minority political recruitment and representation has arguably made many strides during the past 30 years.

Yet there is enormous disagreement over the nature and locus of ethnic-minority political interests. An older, more traditional view has seen these interests as largely anchored in the issue of non-white, Commonwealth immigration and extending domestically only to questions of the formal outlawing of overt acts of racial discrimination. A more radical perspective is that minority interests amount to an additional ethnic dimension found across the full agenda of mainstream political issues such as education, employment, housing, social welfare, cultural policy, and so on.

More than three decades ago, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, declared that he was proud of the record number of women in his Cabinet because this enabled his government to include what he termed representatives of "house and home and domestic life" in decision-making. Today there are, I imagine, few who would put the case in quite the same terms but perhaps many who would share some of the sentiment behind his thought.

In the case of ethnic-minority politicians, it would be odd if we concluded that their sole, or even main, purpose was to be delegates of ethnic-minority communities and narrow issues of immigration and racial discrimination: odd, indeed, but depressingly one of the recommendations of last year's Parekh Report. In the chapter on political involvement, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain concludes:

"Each party should publish plans on how it proposes to ensure that more Asian and black candidates are selected for safe and winnable seats. Parties should particularly aim to include Asian and black candidates on shortlists in constituencies where at least 25 per cent of the electorate is Asian or black."

This is a manifesto for political ghettoisation. It is just the kind of pattern that parties already follow. This recommendation will not and cannot see the point of elected representatives who happen to be black or Asian, other than as umbilically linked to these groups of voters. It is a depressing outcome for such a commission to end up propping up an idea whose time has long expired.

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