If TV can’t reflect Britain, what chance has politics got?

Cringeworthy stuff from Gavin Whenman on the topic of positive discrimination again:

To elaborate: Discrimination, of any kind, on a criteria which bears no relation to your ability to do the job, is wrong. It is fair to award party posts, such as PPCs, on the basis of merit only. It is not fair to award it on the basis of skin colour or ethnicity. To say that black or other people aren’t good enough to be MPs unless they have help from the white man is possibly the most patronising, shameful position we can take on this issue, and I hope Nick Clegg sees sense soon.

None of which is particularly inaccurate or misleading (even if it is intemperate), but it doesn’t get us very far, leaves us with a woefully unrepresentative party and begs the question: what would you do then? Clegg hasn’t backed positive discrimination – in fact he’s called a moratorium on imposing such measures within the party for at least two parliaments. What he has done though is back a system of training and support that will receive significant funds, warn the party that if this isn’t made to work then the debate on positive discrimination will need to be revisited and, today, backed enabling legislation to allow political parties to introduce all-black shortlists if they wish (just as we already have enabling legislation to introduce all-women shortlists).

How political parties select their candidates ought to be by and large a matter for them surely? If people feel they are having a candidate imposed on them there will be a backlash, as Labour discovered in Blaenau Gwent. Surely deregulation is a good thing in principle? Why does Gavin feel white guys need such stringent protection?

By backing this legislation, Clegg is supporting deregulation in principle and making a political point about the importance of parties doing more to recruit ethnic minority activists and politicians. I’m amazed that either of these things are regarded within the party as being a bad thing.

The bottom line is party politics is looking alarmingly white, male and middle class these days. In many respects we appear to be going backwards. The Lib Dems have particular problems. We have a few Asian activists and I can probably mention a token member of most established UK ethnic minorities, but within the black community particularly we are a joke.

But its the anger this all provokes that irritates me. I’ve got quite worked up about this myself in the past, and the establishment of the Campaign for Gender Balance was a result of a number of us trying to come up with an alternative to all women shortlists. But at least we were talking about alternatives – and now CGB is regularly cited by some with no sense of history as part of the positive discrimination agenda it was established to bypass.

We shouldn’t be blind to the enormity of our task though. If the television industry struggles to recruit visible black faces, as Lenny Henry was bemoaning last week, what chance has politics got? Expecting it to sort itself out however is simply ludicrous.


  1. I don’t deny that the party is woefully unrepresentative, I’m just extremely uncomfortable with a position that is essentially the same evil we’re supposed to be working against but which operates the other way. Instead of discrimination against BMEs, it’s discrimination against non-BMEs and I can’t help but feel that this is just as unfair.

    My solution (or at least, the way I would rather work towards a more representative Parliament) is contained in the same press release Nick Clegg used to announce his support for Vaz’s bill:
    “… the creation of a diversity fund; the employment of dedicated staff to increase candidate diversity; and plans to establish a Leadership Academy to give targeted assistance to candidates.”

    Can’t we bring in more of these “soft” options, rather than the drastic, nuclear one which positive discrimination represents?

    PS. I like your point about deregulation… except the piece of regulation in question is the Race Relations Act 1976 – arguably the cornerstone of our equality legislation. By allowing political parties, and only political parties, to opt out of this Act, aren’t we undermining the rule of law and encouraging the exceptionalism which you have argued so virulently against recently?

  2. But we’re doing the ‘soft’ options and NOT doing the hard options. The only proviso Clegg is insisting on is that if the former doesn’t work within 6-7 years we must re-evaluate.

    I have to admit, if we don’t make minimal amounts of progress on this in that time period, my patience with this party will have well and truly run out in any case. Consider it to be an incentive.

    Regarding the RRA and “exceptionalism” (I thought someone would bring that up) – this doesn’t hold water. It was not the spirit or the intention of the RRA to legislate about how political parties can select candidates, which is a vastly different process to recruiting staff. Indeed, until the late 90s and Labour’s first stab at all women shortlists, it wasn’t even clear that such employment law did apply. It’s the law of unintended consequences again. You also forget about the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 which gives public bodies a statutory duty to promote race equality. Political parties are not public bodies, but it seems perverse not to allow them echo the spirit of that law in their own practices if they choose.

    I’m not proposing to exempt political parties from the HRA or anything fundamental; I’m (that is to say, we are) proposing a specific law change. It isn’t exceptionalism any more than it is to argue that charities should be treated in law differently from unincorporated associations. And finally I’ve repeatedly stated my support for liberalising measures to enable people to live the religious lifestyle they choose, such as legislating for Islamic Mortgages for instance. I don’t therefore think you can make the case that I’m contradicting myself.

  3. The question I would ask is that if you fund your way in to a more representative party how does that guarantee you the best party? Do the Lib Dem’s want a party that looks right compared to the census or does it want the best one to win elections?

    If the two converge then there’s not really an issue here, but then it wouldn’t be discrimination either.

    That said there has to be a point where we have to look at our society and certainly at how the public perceives politicians and wonder if simply being the best at the job is *really* being best for the job. This isn’t like ASDA hiring an asian manager to make up it’s numbers despite a white or black guy being there longer, what qualifies an MP for the job is surely being best able to represent and engage with their constituents?

  4. Richard: That’s a fun hypothetical which gets us precisely nowhere. Here goes though.

    I don’t have Vaz’s bill in front of me (I’m mobile at the moment) but I’m guessing it only allows such lists in the interests of promoting racial equality. Even the BNP will struggle to claim the ‘white race’ are underrepresented in Parliament.

    But – duh! – in case you haven’t noticed they have all white shortlists anyway (that’s when they have shortlists at all). Arguably, given the fact that you can’t be a member if you aren’t white, the BNP are already in breach of the RRA in this regard. But since no black people are in any hurry to become BNP candidates in winnable seats, it would be hard to test in law. Ironically, its effectively one rule for the BNP and another rule for the rest of us. 🙂

    Lee: I don’t take particular issue with any of that. What I would quibble over is the implication that the current bunch we have in parliament are the best possible.

    The problem we and other parties have primarily is a supply side one. We don’t have enough women candidates and we certainly don’t have enough BME ones. Increase the supply and you increase the competitiveness of seats. That will lead to better, not worse, candidates surely?

    Of course, none of that suggests the solution is quotas and restricted shortlists, but then I’m not arguing for these (that’s Vaz’s and the Fawcett Society’s job). Indeed, I would regard the introduction of positive discrimination to be a crushing failure. I’m not convinced I could remain a party member with them in place. But – and it’s a big but – it’s better than nothing and would open up the possibility of us having genuinely representative and meritocratic (still hate that word, but it is appropriate here) in the future.

  5. I’d largely agree with you James, I just muse sometimes as to how you can perhaps make minorities think about representing the people of their constituency or local area when there aren’t enough showing it can be done in the first place…it’s a little bit of a chicken and the egg I guess. But I too wouldn’t like to see positive discrimination in general as a principle.

  6. It is a chicken and egg thing; we don’t have a great supply but then I haven’t noticed an enormous demand either.

    I want an approach that works and our current one isn’t working. However, there is a lot more that we can do before we need to resort to Postive Discrimination. I too see any requirement for postive discrimination as a failiure. And so in that way, I’m in sort of agreement with you, James, that it is a last resort in the face of everything else not working.

    But, frankly the upside and importance of having a diverse party and legislature is greater than the compromise to our pure ‘meritocratic’ processes, to my mind. I think it is incrediably harmful to men, women, white and BME alike to have a legislature that is drawn from such a narrow group as we have now. I believe that is the greater failure.

    But I suspect I’m slightly more ambivilant about PD that you are James because I find the idea that we currently select PPCs or any of our elected representatives on the basis of merit laughable (depending of course on who defines what is of merit). Try as the selection rules might (and I think they do as much as they can within the current constitution) they cannot overcome under the radar prejudice or barriers to entry.

    One thing with PD, or least any system that is perceived as overcoming prejudice, whatever that might be, is it ability to increase supply because there is a perception of a greater demand. People who chose to do other things, where they had a better chance of being more effective, come back into the supply pool. This is, according to the Finnish MP Johanna Sumuvuori, is what happened in Finland when they brought in PD.

    If you have a bigger supply then you don’t have the risk of lower quality that concerns so many people with PD. I’m sure that the creation of the Tories A list led to an influx of female and BME members, at all levels of the party, who may now think there is a point to getting involved with the Tories now.

    If the problem is with the lack of supply, we have to look at ourselves and see how we can become more attractive rather than just blaming either the women or BMEs!

    (Sorry for the long comment, but I find the topic of Lib Dems and diversity really, really interesting).

  7. I’m no great fan of PD, and would only like to see it as a last resort, but am fed up with (usually) white men immediately coming out and condemning any attempts to make the party more representative. Its the only time we hear something from most people (not you James), on this important issue. In other words, the majority seem very happy with the staus quo. Seems to me they are just not aware of how unrepresentative the party looks and is. I believe, and I’ve put my case to the Bones Commission, that there is a lot more we can do. Mention of Cameron’s A list was scoffed at by many people, but what they didn’t realise was that it sent out, as Jo points out, a strong signal, that the Tories were laying down the welcome mat to BME people. A black woman has been selected in Ann Widdecome’s seat. Cameron tells the black media he has 50 PPCs in target and winnable seats.
    If I hear one more person say ‘we only want the best person as PPC’ each time we talk about the need for more women or BME candidates, I will really throw up! Who really believes that we only have the best people from society representing us in parliament?
    We are under-represented in all levels of the party. A few years ago when I was on FPC, I was 1 of 2 women, and the only BME member out of a membership of around 20. This is the body responsible for formulating policy and at the time the manifesto. The sooner rank and file party members realise we have a real problem, then the sooner we will all take responsibility for doing something positive to address it, before we have to go down the PD road.

  8. Update in relation to my earlier response to Richard.

    I’ve just tracked down the text of Vaz’s bill and can confirm that the exemption it provides is “for the purpose of reducing inequality in the numbers of people from different ethnic groups elected, as candidates of the party, to be members of the body concerned” – i.e. the BNP couldn’t use it to exclude BME candidates (not that they’d have them anyway – see comment above).

    I’ll respond to Jo and Meral’s point later.

  9. For me, liberalism is about being recognised as an individual, not reduced to one of a group (whether that is a racial, gender, or class group).

    In all the times I have canvassed I have never had a single person say “I’m not voting for you because you don’t have many black/women/etc candidates.”

    Voters care about what their politicians do. They don’t give much of a tinker’s cuss or about what they look like.

    I don’t deny some candidates suffer being pre-judged because of their background. I did when I was our youngest PPC in 2001 but once you start talking and demonstrate what you have to offer, that prejudice quickly evaporates.

    If you’re not getting selected you have a remedy- get out there and show people why you should be.

    The same with the FPC. I honestly do not give a damn about the ratio of men and women on it. I’m more concerned about the policy content it produces.

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