The hunt for the British Obama

Will all-minority shortlists produce a generation of British Barack Obamas - or simply ghettoise non

"There are plenty of British Obamas out there, but you will find them in the pulpits and other places of worship, not in parliament." Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote is certain that an "Obama effect" is boosting his drive for positive discrimination to ensure more non-white MPs. Introducing a bill to amend our race equality laws to allow parties to discriminate in favour of minorities, the Leicester MP Keith Vaz hailed Barack Obama as the "poster boy" for integration. How strange it would be if Obama's momentum were to propel British parties into adopting all-minority shortlists for parliamentary seats.

Obama himself has insisted on a generational shift: breaking the "black politician" mould to become a viable presidential candidate, and not one defined by race. In contrast, all-minority shortlists risk ghettoising Britain's next generation of non-white politicians and derailing the new politics of equality that we need.

The real credit for catapulting British minority representation up the political agenda belongs closer to home. Harriet Harman pledged a campaign for "four times more" minority MPs when she was running for Labour deputy leader, and has now commissioned Operation Black Vote to report on how all-minority lists could work. Harman's record on equality makes her a powerful champion. The politics of the issue have been transformed - but with little public scrutiny of the proposed means. The core argument does not amount to much beyond "something must be done", and that something was done for women. "This is not uncharted territory," says Woolley. All-women shortlists broke the glass ceiling. Extending the principle sounds logical.

But the analogy is weak. Women, 51 per cent of the population, can be found almost everywhere in roughly equal numbers to men. It is easy enough to work out who is a woman and who is not. Such factors do not apply to minority representation. The call for all-minority shortlists is rooted in 1970s thinking about "ethnic minorities". This is of ever-decreasing relevance to third- and fourth-generation multi-ethnic Britain (in which mixed-race people will outnumber those of any single minority group by 2015). All-minority shortlists might not be exactly unworkable, but they would take us backwards.

Where will all-minority lists be used? Advocates are clear that any "colour coding" of seats would be wrong. Woolley tells me that "in principle" any seat could have an all-minority shortlist, but that "in practice" the Outer Hebrides would not make sense. A list of the 100 seats with the largest ethnic-minority populations has been drawn up. Everybody anticipates that the top 20 or 30 seats with the most black and Asian voters will be used. That sounds like "colour coding" to me.

"Ethnic faces for ethnic voters" is a depressing step backwards (implying white MPs for the majority community, too). Yet Ashok Kumar has spent a decade as an archetypal hard-working, undemonstrative northern MP for his 98.6 per cent white Middlesbrough constituency. In 2001, Parmjit Dhanda was able to thank the voters of marginal Gloucester for disproving the local paper's prediction that they "lacked the advanced consciousness" to elect a "foreigner".

Now, future Dhandas and Kumars fear being packed off to Leicester or Ealing and told to wait for one of "their seats" to come up. Many believe that minority-only contests would focus more on ethnicity - and which community's "turn" it is to win a seat - than the candidate's qualities.

As Kashmiri Muslims form only the third-largest minority group in his Birmingham Perry Bar constituency, Khalid Mahmood believes that all-minority shortlists could have kept him out of parliament. But his objection is more fundamental: "This smacks of a colonial attitude that divides our population into different blocks and allocates representatives accordingly." The idea that Sikhs should represent Sikhs and Nigerians need Nigerian MPs amounts to "a form of political apartheid which will encourage division and segregation", he says.

In towns facing significant ethnic tensions, MPs - black, white or Asian - must win trust by speaking candidly to all sides. Shahid Malik's task in Dewsbury after the 7 July 2005 attacks would have been harder had he won a minority-only contest. Several non-white Labour MPs believe all-minority shortlists are necessary. Other MPs and candidates have doubts, but are wary of expressing them. Another minority MP who believes such lists would have prevented him getting to Westminster fears seeming to "pull up the ladder". This risks becoming a debate among minorities about minorities, because many white liberals are steering clear. Nobody wants to seem to oppose the goal of increased diversity.

The House of Commons is not a forum for community delegates. If only black and Asian MPs could pursue race equality, Britain would never have been a legislative pioneer. Repre sentative democracy does not mean a shallow "counting heads" multiculturalism. The principle that matters is "Equal chances and no unfair barriers". Significant under-representation of women and minorities should raise the alarm. A more diverse parliament should not be an end in itself, however, but must form part of a broader argument for social justice.

Competitive grievances

All-minority lists will not only hamper British Obamas, they will make it harder to build coalitions for social justice. As equality has returned to the Labour lexicon, the greatest threat to it is a "politics of competitive grievance", setting one disadvantaged group against another.

Advocates of all-minority shortlists claim that more non-white MPs would dramatically increase minority participation and turnout. Professor Shamit Saggar, Britain's leading academic expert on race and electoral politics, says there is "simply no evidence base" for this. Health, education and crime are much greater priorities for non-white voters.

Saggar points out that, viewed from a perspective of the national interest, the priority for a more representative parliament would be for the opposition parties to do much more to challenge Labour's virtual monopoly. David Cameron's Conservatives are making good progress from a low base, but should remember the lesson of last year's Ealing Southall by-election fiasco where, as Sunny Hundal of the Pickled Politics blog notes: "The Tory modernisers got sucked into the worst of communal politics", securing the bloc defection of five Sikh Labour councillors but not the voters they claimed to speak for. Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats seem to be lurching from doing almost nothing to pledging all-minority shortlists. Labour could welcome more black Tory or Lib Dem MPs, not fear them as an electoral threat. Concrete commitments to end child poverty and narrow the gap in schools should be Labour's central pitch to black and Asian voters.

Black candidates are increasingly confident about competing on equal terms. Though Vaz complains that all-women shortlists have yet to select non-white candidates, Rushanara Ali and Yasmin Qureshi won open contests in Bethnal Green and Bolton and are likely to become Lab our's first female Asian MPs. Chuka Umunna, just selected in Streatham, believes that defeating strong opposition from the Lambeth Council leader Steve Reed in an open contest will give him "a credibility boost". Like the Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, Umunna thinks hybrid shortlists - combining women and ethnic-minority men - could avoid legitimate concerns about ghettoisation while tackling under-representation.

For all their shortcomings, all-minority shortlists could have helped the first pioneers break through the steeper barriers 20 years ago. But as they have become politically possible, they have also become unnecessary. They might mildly speed up change between 2010 and 2030. More likely, they will offer a leg-up (with strings attached) to black and Asian Oxbridge graduates and lawyers who don't need extra help to get in.

The real issue - the missing link - is class. A comprehensive audit of selection barriers and action to level the playing field would benefit those from poorer non-white communities most, but not exclusively. The parties should think harder about that, but reject all-minority shortlists. Let's keep that door to a British Obama open.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society

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