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  • Who do you want to represent you?

    by guest
    12th April, 2009 at 9:38 am    

    This is a guest post by Yousuf Hamid, as part of Speakers Corner Sundays

    The bitter battle between the local Labour party and their NEC to try and replace John Reid as an MP in Airdrie using an all woman shortlists has ignited the debate in Scotland about the role of under-represented groups in politics.

    The case is always made that a Parliament must represent its people but what is not clear is why a parliament must look like its country to represent.

    I am represented by a white female MP, a white male MSP and 3 white male councillors and they all represent me to varying degrees. Some work exceptionally hard and send me letters telling me their positions on what is going on in the Gaza strip; one even sent me an Eid card this year!

    The point here being that I don’t need to be represented by someone who shares my ethnic group of religion to have my views represented; I can be represented very well by someone who doesn’t look like me.

    So why is it that we are all so obsessed with having a parliament which is a microcosm of society? I would argue that the case for a legislature which looks more like its people is not actually about ensuring that the entire country is represented but rather making sure that everyone feel that they are able to participate in the democratic process fully.

    The same question has to be asked again; do you need to see someone who looks like you to inspire you to get involved in politics? I think that the answer is different this time however. There is an issue when it comes to young people wishing to become in active in politics for the first time.

    Whilst it’s not the case that only an ethnic minority politician can inspire a young person keen to change the world to join a political party and become active there is a problem where there is a feeling that certain actions like joining a political party simply aren’t for “people like us.” This is a clear democratic deficit which needs to be addressed.

    When this happens then when it comes to feeding in the views of a community in formulating public policy rather than talking to swathes of politically active people across political parties plugged in to their communities it is necessary to talk to the variety of quango’s and self-appointed community leaders which Pickled Politics does so well in exposing as often self-serving and out of touch of what their community is really feeling.

    Yet if this problem is to be genuinely changed then a manufacturing of ‘ethnic’ seats will not be effective in removing this democratic deficit, instead it will harm the cause greatly. If we ever attempt to create a list of constituencies where there is a significant ethnic minority population and attempt to create all-black shortlists for these seats then what we will have is a ‘seat for your own kind’ culture which we abandoned as a country some time. It will also lead having MP’s who stop genuinely representing their constituencies.

    Surely it will only be when we are bored by hearing an ethnic minority representative giving a long speech on tax reform that we will genuinely know that we have come a full circle and we will know that we have reached a stage where people are genuinely judged on the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin and crucially that people from all walks of life are able to get involved in politics and feel that they have a place to talk about the issues which they care about and make their case to the British public.

    This is the difference between all-black shortlists and all woman shortlists. There is a roughly equal split of genders in every constituency so there is not this kind of problem which damages equality so much.

    None of this is to say that we do nothing. I would firmly argue that positive initiatives like offering ethnic minority activists in a variety of causes to become interns for a while for various politicians’ offices to get a flavour of what democratic politics is really about would be an invaluable tool to increase genuine engagement and participation.

    Let’s just make sure we don’t go for an easy fix and make the problem so much worse.

    Yousaf Hamid blogs here.

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    Filed in: British Identity,Culture,Media

    10 Comments below   |  

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    1. pickles

      New blog post: Who do you want to represent you? http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/4187

    1. MaidMarian — on 12th April, 2009 at 12:24 pm  

      ‘So why is it that we are all so obsessed with having a parliament which is a microcosm of society? I would argue that the case for a legislature which looks more like its people is not actually about ensuring that the entire country is represented but rather making sure that everyone feel that they are able to participate in the democratic process fully.’

      Yes, but….

      Democracy is not about getting what ‘you’ want or necessarily about outcomes that are fair. The article (which is excellent) seems to slightly conflate outcomes and franchise.

      My view is that civil society, apart from the political/democatic process is more important than the make up of elected bodies. When minorities are denied participation in that, the problem becomes greater.

      No one says that civil society building is easy, but the demicratic process must surely go way beyond elected politicians.

    2. A Councillor Writes — on 12th April, 2009 at 2:26 pm  

      Oooh, big can of worms to open :-)

      The democratic process is more important than the make-up of elected bodies and people from all groups should be involved with the lower levels of it. In my city, we have an network of neighbourhood fora which deal with issue at a lower level, we also have public police tasking groups. For some of those, the people who come to the meetings are representative of the make up of the area by ethnicity (but nearly always not by age), others aren’t very representative - one in my ward had its funding cut because of the way it had behaved towards BAME people who had turned up to its meetings. It’s now got a new committee and is doing very nicely, although it’s still not as representative as it could be, although that isn’t specifically its fault.

      Consultations by public bodies are very important, they should aim to consult widely and specifically with special reference consulting in line with the make-up on the community and to talk to hard to reach groups. This isn’t always done terribly well at times, there is the “community leader” problem.

      The problem with quotas is that they don’t work terribly well, sometimes filling that quota can be mean that you take a candidate who isn’t really ready or may never been ready. We need to judge people on their abilities and what skills they have and what can be developed rather than take someone because they belong to a particular ethnic/gender combination.

      For a number of years, I have been involved in the process of “approving” candidates in my city. I have seen some truly appalling candidates in my time and some truly excellent ones. I’ve approved some real winners - one of which is now a member of the City Council cabinet and some who haven’t succeeded. Generally, I think my judgement has been decent (but I would say that, wouldn’t I).

      I’ve rarely seen a bad woman candidate, I’ve never seen a bad BAME woman candidate - although I’ve seen a couple who whilst they had the skills to make a good councillor weren’t a good fit politically, both have since wandered off to other pastures. I’ve seen a much larger number of appalling male candidates - many of whom have had such large egos that they didn’t realise that they were dropping themselves in it and most of which would fit the “community leader” stereotype or were being promoted by a “community leader”. I honestly don’t care if your family has lots and lots of votes and respect in the community if you are asking for someone to translate for you at your approval interview.

      I’d like to encourage more young BAME candidates, I’ve seen some excellent ones, but my party needs to develop a better mentoring process for them. Fighting elections can be gruelling and unless you are very lucky (or come through a different route[0]), you don’t win the first time because you probably won’t get a safe seat to fight. I’ve seen people with a very high potential do fairly well the first time but not win and then fade away very fast.

      One of the important points is of the nature of political parties. They are to a certain extent a necessary evil and they require their pound of flesh as well. If I had a pound for every time I’ve had to explain to a hopeful that:

      a) Yes, you have to be a member
      b) Yes, we do require you to have been a member for at least six months [1]
      c) Yes, we do require you to have done something for the party (such as deliver a few leaflets, or knock a few doors)
      d) Yes, we do require you to have some record of community activism
      e) Yes, we do require you not to support candidates of other parties in public.

      then I’d be able to afford a decent night out at least.

      There’s still a long way to go before no-one gives a toss about the gender/race/sexuality/disability status of their candidates for elected office and judge them completely on their merits, but I have some hope for the future based on the calibre of some of the people I’ve been seeing over the last few years.

      Before anyone asks, we don’t have different standards for BAME candidates, it’s the same basic set of tests. What I do find is that BAME candidates are usually very clear passes or very clear fails, which worries me that I might be doing something wrong.

      [0] I came through a different route, I’d been active as an agent for six years before being offered a chance at selection in a safe seat and active for five years before that in another city.
      [1] Yeah, we can waive this one as well in special circumstance, but it generally isn’t advisable.

    3. billericaydicky — on 12th April, 2009 at 8:01 pm  

      I was looking at the OBV financial scam site today and there is a picture of the “shadows” of MPs from 1999. Can Mr Wooley tell us how many of them became MPs? I think this is important because he has just managed to sam the Home Ofiice for yet more money for the same hustle ten years down the line. They reckon there is one born every day and it seems that that is true and they are all in the Home Office.

    4. Rumbold — on 12th April, 2009 at 8:11 pm  

      This is an excellent piece. It manages to combine the importance of treating people as individuals, while at the same time recognising that minority role models can play a big part in energising people from groups who have traditionally felt marginalised.

    5. ashik — on 13th April, 2009 at 9:47 am  

      I find this article to be somewhat disjointed.

      The author makes some good arguments against all-black candidate lists but fails to advance any ideas about increasing minority participation and representation in politics other than to suggest they ‘intern’ with political parties!!.

      As long as minorities believe they have no chance of being elected on their merits in ANY constituency in the UK they will always fall back on constituencies with high proportions of their ‘own’ people. Hence all-black lists like all-women lists are the way forward.

      I also suspect that many members of PP are not well disposed toward all-black lists as they are toward all-women lists because PP’ers tend not to be close to their particular communities.

    6. Shamit — on 13th April, 2009 at 10:33 am  

      I think it is a bogus idea to have an all ethnic minority list and my arguments are here:


      “I also suspect that many members of PP are not well disposed toward all-black lists as they are toward all-women lists because PP’ers tend not to be close to their particular communities.”

      That’s another typical Ashik moment which deserves no comments — this guy never changes

    7. Ashik — on 13th April, 2009 at 11:36 am  

      PP’ers generally tend to try and minimise importance of identity politics (whether ethnic, religious etc) while the evidence is (even from the number of identity-politics related articles on PP!) that identity politics is very important in the wider minority communities in Britain. In that sense the replies on this thread against such lists are to be expected.

      Whether or not we have ‘official’ all-black lists some constituency parties are de facto nominating according to a preconceived list. A good example of this is Bethnal Green & Bow where Rajnara Akhtar (Labour), Abjol Miah (RESPECT) and Ajmal Masroor (Lib Dems) are of Sylheti Bengali ethnic origin.

      As Labour discovered after their defeat to George Galloway in 2005, it is better to acquiesce to local demands rather than parachuting candidates in.

    8. Rumbold — on 13th April, 2009 at 11:51 am  


      We don’t try and minimise the importance of identity politics, but we want to weaken it, by encouraging people to vote on issues (i.e. to act as individuals).

      As an aside, were you at the Brick Lane Circle talk on Forced Marriage? Someone asked a question and what they said sounded very similar to your views.

    9. A Councillor Writes — on 14th April, 2009 at 7:40 am  

      Ashik @ 7

      I can’t speak for Respect, but the other parties in Bethnal Green & Bow have nominated via their standard party procedures. Btw, the Labour candidate is Rushanara Ali. This will have involve asking for nominations from those on the approved list, drawing up the shortlist and then having a vote of the membership.

      Memberships can be very varied and may not be in kilter with the make up of the consitituency and also can be subject in some areas to manipulation. I remember one contest in a Birmingham seat where the LibDem membership went to over 300 for the selection contest and within a year was back down at its usual level of 110 or so. The LibDems have changed the rules very slightly[0] because of some contests like this.

      [0] As a summary, you must be a member for over a year to vote in a selection contest, you must be over 14 and you must have renewed your membership yourself. Oh and postal votes are now up to the discretion of the returning officer not an absolute right (that one will tested in court at some point, I’m sure).

      However, in this cycle, all three parties have been selected BAME candidates for reasonably winnable seats that do not have a heavily BAME make-up. The LibDems probably have the worst record for this, this time, probably because we have fewer good, approved BAME candidates and less winnable seats. This is why Nick Clegg has been talking about how we can push forward on this issue.

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