Libdems / Labour should drop ethnic short-lists

12:31 pm - March 29th 2008

by Sunny Hundal    

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The Labour party is considering them and Libdems have expressed their support, but I think they’re a bad idea. The idea is this. In an effort to boost the number of black or Asian MPs, in certain constituencies the parties will only put forward candidates for selection of a black/Asian background.

It sounds good on paper and Operation Black Vote, who have been pushing this, say it would only be applicable for about 20 years before being gotten rid of. Those who complain this form of positive discrimination won’t let people through on merit are either not acquianted well enough with our current crop of politicians, or understand how nepotistic and unfair the system is anyway.

No, my objection is that it racialises our politics. As I said in my CIF article yesterday:

One of the many reasons to support Barack Obama is his attempts to overcome divisive race politics of the past and that of “community leaders” speaking for groups who never elected them. He ignored “black leaders” who endorsed Clinton but were later forced to accept that African Americans supported his united vision more than their communal one.

We have seen examples of that play out here, too. During the Southall by-election last year, when the Tories attracted five (factional and divisive) Labour councillors to join them, I said it was a boon for Labour, since it wouldn’t impact on voting. Blogger Iain Dale chided me for spinning it, but the Tory modernisers got sucked into the worst of communal politics by securing the block defection of five Sikh councillors but not the voters the councillors claimed to speak for.

By inevitably creating a situation where black, Asian or Muslim candidates would only speak for those of similar backgrounds, we only perpetuate this divisive communal agenda. Militant Sikh groups, for example, would start demanding that only turbaned Sikhs represent them, as they did in Southall, and so on.

Short-lists let them off the hook.

This is more about a deeper problem: why do mostly middle-class white males mostly get selected and promoted in politics? Why else is there so much gender and class disparity?

James Graham has written a few times asking why the Liberal Democrats aren’t doing more on diversity, while Nick Clegg has said they need to do more. But for the Libdems and Labour, ethnic shortlists are a quick-fix and easy solution which won’t do much to deal with the wider problem.

[Sunder Katwala of the Fabians has also written against it in the New Statesman and there was a piece in the Indy on Thursday, with some Asian MPs also against it.]

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Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments

The lib dems have repeatedly said no to gender shortlists; I don’t think they are seriously considering ethnic shortlists. Clegg is saying more needs to be done because the campaign for gender balance has been able to provide all sorts of support for female prospective MP’s while the equivalent body for this issue, well, I would have to look up the name it is so underfunded. Given the party, especially near the top, is so very white its clear more needs to be done; its just the Lib Dem record of doing more doesn’t include shortlists.

Hm, but Clegg has said he’ll consider gender shortlists, if we haven’t made the running on gender balance by the next election. I was at the London hustings before he got in when he said that and you could have heard a pin drop. Not good. And it could easily spread to BME as well.

I can think of one good reason why they might want to adopt them. It’s a messy issue and I haven’t really got supporting evidence, but anecdotally what happens currently is that decent BME candidates get enthusiastically taken up by the Lib Dems and promoted fast because we’re so short of good BME material at the top (or throughout, for that matter). Not unnaturally some of them form the view that they’re being treated like this because they’re the best thing since sliced bread. This does sometimes lead to a fall-off in quality, not because the field is smaller or because the candidates aren’t any good, but because they haven’t had to put in the same amount of graft as a lot of activists and thus haven’t learned as much as, perhaps, they should have done before being put in positions of prominence.

Then if, for whatever reason, they don’t get whisked straight onto office, they get disgruntled, sometimes to the point of defection. Saj Karim is the recent high profile example. And I know of a couple of others who I think may be wavering. None of it helped by the fact that the Tories can see perfectly well that this is happening and they’re actively targetting them.

BME shortlists would reduce the incidence of that. I’m horribly afraid that this is why the party is tempted by them. Meh.

How in the world do you tell if someone qualifies for an “ethnic” shortlist? By far the most clearly defined minority ethnic group that I have encountered in Britain is the Hassidic Jews. They don’t seem to be what people mean when they talk about these lists. On the other hand, many people whom I know whose origins are in countries of the old British Empire who have become very clearly ethnically British/ English/ Yorkshire etc., apparently are included. Some of them are Muslims, some Hindus, one or two Bhuddists, rather more are Christians or non-aligned – religion is a non-starter in defining ethnic differences in Britain.

Colour of skin is probably even further from definng who is a member of an ethnic minority – and that is apart from the fact that about the only skin colours that I have never encountered are black, white and green. ( The lightest skin colour that I have ever seen was a lovely pale ivory; the darkest a handsome pure chocolate with a touch of blue sheen; and even the worst hangover brings out a sort of yellow-gray, not a green.) Colour of shirt? But fascists are not an ethnic group.

Anyway, in this country almost all immigrating groups get absorbed within two generations. In the interim, the rest of us need their fresh perspective which is why we should encourage them to get involved in politics. But exclusive shortlists are daft.

The Libdems have actively decided to support them:

Oh this is just bloody stupid. Evidence from the US PROVES that all “positive” discrimination does is entrench racial division. And speaking as a female, I wouldn’t WANT to be on a purposefully selected All Women shortlist. All that does is say that women can’t compete “properly” so we have to give them special treatment and… GAH. This sort of thing makes me so cross it makes me incoherent.

* insert long rant here *

6. douglas clark

What have you all to say about entrenchment of existing stereotypes?

I agree that positive discrimination contains it’s own foolishness: what is not clear to me is how we overcome the existing wrongs …(if we give up on shortlisting, etc, which I agree contains it’s own contradictions, sort of).

I’d like to think it could be done through education or some such, but whilst I’d vote for Sunny in a General Election, I don’t think that that is typical of white males that are nearly sixty! You can’t force them all to take a daily diet of PP and Liberal Conspiracy.

So, how do you do it?

BTW, am I likely to be the candidate of choice? Old, white and male? And looking for a hobby. If any party wants to take me on, I am sure I could bend my beliefs for 60k +.

I think you’d be surprised at how quickly things can change – after all, it was only in the early nineties Peter Tatchell formed outrage, for example, and we now have civil partnerships… yes, equality has not been achieved for any of the groups which aren’t traditionally privileged, but we’re moving inexorably towards it.

I think the elephant in the room with regards to racism at the moment is religion – ignorant people of the sort who tend towards racism are currently conflating all bron-skinned people as muslims, because it’s ok to demonise muslims…

8. Andreas Paterson

As a white middle class male in a whitle middle class city, I’m not sure how much my opinion on this counts for but…

Jennie, positive discrimination in the form of all women shortlists has done a lot to increase the number of women in the parliamentary Laboour party. The whole point of positive discrimination is to overcome entrenched attitudes (for a good example of this, take a look at the number of old Etonians in the Tory party). Ethnic shortlists would in my view be too minor a thing to really cause any major racial resentment,

Diversity, this is an intersting point and requires more thought and attention than can be given in a comment but I think that any criteria would likely be based around looking at immigrants and the children of immigrants over several generations it might also be worth limiting this by country of origin (Excluding Europe, America, Australia etc).

Sunny, how big do you think the racialisation effect of an ethnic shortlist would be? I’m inclined to think that it’s impact would be relatively minor, constituencies are generally diverse enough to mean that no one particular group dominates things. The racialisation of politics with the domination of local politics by a minority group seems like a separate issue, although I’m welcome to being corrected if this is not the case.

Yes, I know that is what positive discrimination is SUPPOSED to do, but the actual effect it has is the opposite: my local MP has been a very good local MP, but the overwhelming view of the people (mostly, but not exclusively, men) I meet in my work is that she only got the job because she’s a woman and she wasn’t really the best candidate. In my view, that’s bollocks, but because it was an imposed all-woman shortlist…

I’m not against all women shortlists if they happen naturally, but when they don’t, they perpetuate the problem they are supposed to cure. Yes, there are more women in the parliamentary labour party, but that won’t last without the continued imposition of all women shortlists, because the view amongst large numbers of the electorate is that they don’t deserve to be there. The resentment and ill-feeling towards these women is not an example of sexism being cured in the slightest.

10. Margin4 Error

Douglas comes close to the key issue here – but misses it by inches.

Operation Black Vote doesn’t exist to get black people into power. It exists to get black people voting.

And restricted shortlists can help to do that.

In advertising there is a simple mental mechanism to be triggered. You simply aim to convince people that other people like them do whatever it is you are advertising.

In hotel rooms this can be seen with the ‘recycle towel’ cards – studies of which show that if you ask people to put used towels in the bath and leave unused towels on the rack, only so many do – but if you tell them that two thirds of people staying at the hotel do it, almost everyone then does.

minorities don’t vote in as big numbers as whites partly because to their minds people like them don’t do politics. The same is increasingly true of working class whites as they rarely see even their local councillors in jeans but only in suits*, and so think of them as not the same.

So if lists are not the way to get more people from ethnic minorities to think that politics can is for them – then what alternative verifiably works?

* simplification

11. Andreas Paterson

Jenni, I disagree, for two reasons the first is that there are very few alternative measures, there are none that have anything near the impact of positive discrimination.

The second is that I think you are equating a natural decision with a rational decision. I think it is wrong to assume that the decision of a candidate to stand and then the final choice made by a selections committee will be 100% qualitative rational judgments. I simply don’t think that is the case and believe that people’s predjudices reinforced by existing stereotypes will influence these decisions.

But I’m not talking about the candidates, or the parties, I’m talking about how this is percieved by the electorate.


I’m less worried about how it is ‘perceived’ by the guys who stand drinking at the bar (I’ve worked behind a bar and my experience was that they weren’t entirely representative of the electorate as whole) but am rather more interested in ensuring that entrenched prejudice is leapt over and that the great benefits that can be brought to both sexes by having more women with political power are experienced not in 200 years time but in my life time at least! (Please!!!)

No national parliament in the world has achieved either 30% female representation without resorting to some form of quotas. Establishments don’t give up power easily; you have to loosen the grip finger by finger. It’s no good railing against positive discrimination until you can come up with an alternative that actually works.

I would just love it if our society was less prejudiced and we could get a diverse and representative legislature in just naturally; but it is not so. Instead we have a situation that anybody who is not that classic white male type has to turn themselves inside out to try and emulate that traditional stereotype and then be twice as good at it! Postive Discrimination is never a first choice, it is just, to my mind, the least bad option.

If you applied your arguments against positive discrimination (ie that mostly men where you work don’t like it) to capital punishment we may well bring back the death penalty. I rather expect that men down the pub in 1918 weren’t unamiously in favour of giving women over 30 the vote either! Your MP may have the people you work with saying she only got in because of the shortlist but the fact is that she did get in, she has the right to legislate, to sit on committees, to represent peole. In my experience women don’t need to be part of a quota to be pilloried for being a woman; look at Hillary Clinton; she can’t move without people making personal, sexist comments about her!

Back to the topic of the post:

Ethnic Minority shortlists are a more difficult concept than AWS – for many of the reasons already stated by others. Defining an ethnic minority is hard: is it colour or do white ethnic minorities count too? Is a second or third generation Pole an ethnic minority? My understanding is that in New Zealand, where they have reserved Maori seats, that that is the case; you can be 1/16th Maori and still form part of a Maori quota if you choose.

Secondly there is the concept of representation : there is broadly an equal spread of men and women across the country. That is not the case with Ethnic Minorities and so I can just imagine the rows over where EMSL will be in place!!

That said just becasue something is hard to measure or define is not a reason not to try. The fact that so much traditional women’s work (house work, vegetable production, childcare) is unnaccounted for in so many countries is often explained away by econominsts as being the only option because it is ‘too hard’ to define what is and what isn’t an econominc contribution.

As to whether it racialises poliitcs, I see the dangers that you’re talking about Sunny but isn’t what we have at the moment just a very white, very male kind of politics?

Lastly, Sunny, on your point that Liberal Democrats are actively supporting Ethnic Minority Shortlists – we supported the legislation to allow political parties to have them, just like we supported the legislation to allow all women shortlists; that is very different from actively supporting them in our own party, I’m afraid.

If we changed the voting system to STV (the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies) — which was the Lib Dems’ preferred system, last time I checked — all of this business about ethnic shortlists, women shortlists, etc. would, at a stroke, become entirely unnecessary.

In each multi-member constituency under STV, all the major parties would want to put up several candidates. The voter can choose between candidates of the same party and/or of different parties, rating them all in order of preference. The party would pretty well be forced to put forward a diverse slate, including women and, in areas of the country where it seemed appropriate, various ethnic, religious or other minorities.

It is then up to the voters to choose whether or not gender and/or race etc. is one of the criteria by which they wish to be represented, and vote accordingly.

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