Submission from the Fabian Society (SC-43)
1. This submission draws on original research
seeking to analyse how far an "ethnic penalty" persists
in candidate selection. This research data consists of all new
candidate selections for the current Parliament in the Labour,
Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties which had been completed
by 1 November 2008 (excluding cases where a sitting
MP was to stand again). As with all Fabian outputs, the content
of this note is the responsibility of the individual author and
does not represent a collective view of the Society.
2. This submission suggests that tracking
progress towards the goal of "fair chances and no unfair
barriers" for candidates depends on looking not only at Parliament
as a whole but paying more attention to progress (or lack of it)
towards broadly proportionate intakes in the proportions of MPs
in new Parliamentary cohorts; and in candidate selections in the
major political parties.
3. Though the position in the three major
parties differs in important respects, the emerging evidence suggests
that the "ethnic penalty" is fast depreciating, and
that it has not operated in the aggregate for Labour selections
for the 2005 Parliament and for the next General Election.
(The relatively small cohorts mean that caution is advisable here).
Most political, media and public discussion about progress towards
fair chances for BME candidates has been too pessimistic, and
underestimated progress since 1997.
4. This is not to argue against further
efforts to increase BME representation: the current progress has
been achieved not by chance, but due to a wide range of efforts
by parties and pressure groups, notably Operation Black Vote and
others. It does suggest that a deepening of current efforts (which
are bringing success) may be more important than believing that
current methods are not working and need a new approach, such
as all minority shortlists and quotas.
5. An important under-explored issue in
academic research and public debate is why the barriers to BME
candidates have been broken down more quickly than those for women.
(This is partly because there is less historic data, and transnational
comparisons are much more complex given different patterns of
ethnic minority population). Addressing this issue could offer
important clues as to how the barriers to fair chances may have
changed since 1997. In particular, that the economic and time
commitments to seeking selection may well now be more important
than direct discrimination or stereotyping as to what a "typical
MP" is like (in part because the large number of women elected
in 1997 may have changed this). This suggests that more attention
is needed to how chances are distributed within the group of aspiring
BME candidates and women candidates, and the importance of how
class, gender, race and disability interact.
Ethnic minority representation: the conventional
wisdom and emerging evidence
1. The fact of under-representation is clear.
There are currently 15 non-white MPs: there would be 60 if
the House of Commons was to reflect proportionately the ethnic
mix of the country.
2. The conventional wisdom on BME representation
can be summarised along these lines:
There has been very little progress since
1987, so that it will take 75 years to have a "Parliament
that looks like Britain" if special measures are not introduced.
Black and Asian candidates face significantly
higher hurdles in being selected because of their ethnicity.
There will be no chance of a level playing
field until similar measures to the all-women shortlists (adopted
by the Labour Party) are introduced, because international comparative
evidence suggests proportionate representation of women
has almost always required positive discrimination or equality
The failure to act demonstrates that
race is not taken as seriously as genderso that BME candidates
fall further behind when progress is made elsewhere.
3. Much of this can be taken as a broadly
accurate description of the situation of fifteen and even ten
years ago, the evidence from recent Parliamentary intakes and
current selections suggests that it is decreasingly relevant or
accurate. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest we may be
reaching a "fairness tipping point" where black and
Asian candidates do not face an "ethnic penalty" which
means the barriers are higher than for white candidates.
4. There have understandably been complaints
that special measures to select more women have not been replicated
for BME candidates. Yet the evidence shows, perhaps counter-inutitively,
that relatively rapid progress is being made on ethnic representation
while a gender penalty for female candidates remains more stubborn.
Much public discussion is too pessimistic about the chances
of minority ethnic candidates and too complacent about
chances for women.
How can we determine progress towards fair chances?
5. Much debate focuses only on the headline
number of black and Asian MPs there are in the House of Commons.
The overall under-representation is clear evidence that it has
been more difficult for black and Asian citizens to become MPs.
But this does not illuminate a central issue: is the ethnic penalty
is being reduced over time, or alternatively, does it remain stubbornly
high so that different strategies are urgently needed?
6. Looking at Parliament as a whole only
tells us so much. The pattern of political careers means that
the number of BME MPs today reflects the results of candidate
selection contests over several Parliaments since the election
of the Father of the House back in 1964: more than two-thirds
of MPs have served for over a decade, and one in twenty since
7. So to get a snapshot of whether candidates
today have fair chances, we need to look at the cohorts
of new entrantsthe class of 2005, of 2001 and so onassessing
whether the extent to which BME candidates or women are elected
proportionately to their share of the population in new intakes.
Because party selection in a winnable seat is overwhelmingly the
almost exclusive route to the House of Commons, it makes sense
to assess progress in each of the major parties. If candidates
had fair chances of selection, we would expect that to be reflected
over time in BME candidates to be selected in one in 13 seats,
and women in half of the seats.
From ethnic penalty towards fair chances?
8. In the Labour landslide of 1997, four
new black and Asian MPs joined the five already in Parliament,
all representing Labour (as the sole Asian Conservative lost his
seat in the landslide). The number of black and Asian MPs rose
from six to nine. But this increase was solely a consequence of
Labour strength and Tory weakness in the new Parliament. This
obscured the lack of progress towards diversity in the Labour
Party in 1997. Labour had elected 183 new MPs to Parliament
in the 1997 landslide. So only 2.2% were from ethnic minority
backgrounds. Strikingly, Labour fielded only 13 non-white
candidates (including the five existing MPs) out of 639. Less
than 2% of candidates who were not already MPs were non-white.
Neither the Parliamentary intake, nor the pool of Labour candidates,
were any more diverse proportionately than the pre-1997 Parliamentary
9. In the two general elections after 1997,
the number of Labour BME MPs has risen from nine to 13, and Parliament
as a whole from nine to 15. But this apparently slow rate of change
obscures how much progress towards fair chances for BME candidates
has sped up.
10. In 2005, Labour elected only 40 new
MPs. This time, three Asian and black MPs made up 7.5% of the
group. Labour fielded 32 BME candidates in all (5.1%). And
that rose to 8% in selecting candidates who not already in Parliament.
Both new candidates and new MPs were more than three times
more likely to be non-white than had been the case in 1997,
though with Oona King losing her seat, there was only one more
non-white Labour MP than in 2001 and only four more than
11. In this Parliament, Labour had held
26 selection contests in seats which the party already holds
by 1 November 2008. In four cases (15.4%) it has selected
non-white candidates. It can be confident of winning each of those
seats: the least safe would require a 9% swing for the Conservatives
in Streatham. Labour is also likely to regain Bethnal Green and
Bow following the implosion of George Galloway's Respect party.
Overall, in this parliament Labour has been selecting BME candidates
at a rate of 10.5%. (This rises to 16.7% in marginal seats where
Labour is within 10%, and falls to 8.2% in unwinnable seats).
12. Those figures show that Labour can claim
to be defeating the ethnic penalty in Parliamentary candidate
selections of all kinds (Labour seats, marginal seats and unwinnable
seats) this time around. The evidence does not mean that
unreconstructed attitudes have been eradicatedbut that
they can be outweighed by a commitment to equality from party
leaderships and members.
13. Just as importantly, this is the first
time good progress is being made in more than one party. This
is essential if the presence of black and Asian MPs in Parliament
is to be entrenched, rather than vulnerable to changes in the
fortunes of particular parties.
Conservative progress and the specific LibDem
14. The Conservatives had an all-white parliamentary
party after 1997 and 2001, having had one Asian MP (out of
336) after 1992. The 2001 Conservative intake consisted of
37 white men and one woman. However, they did elect two non-white
MPs in the 51 strong class of 2005. They made up 3.9% of
the new intake and 1% of the Parliamentary Party as a whole.
15. Now, in 32 selections replacing
retiring Conservative MPs, the party has selected 3 BME candidates
(9.4%), two of them women, Helen Grant in Maidstone. Kent, and
Priti Patel in Witham, Essex. The party has selected seven further
BME candidates in its 175 target seats (4.3%), three of them
in the top half of the list. Overall, the party is selecting BME
candidates in 4.9% of new selections so far. These figuresstrong
progress at the top, and less further down the candidates listreflect
the "top down" way in which the Conservative leadership
has tried to catalyse change from a low base. This may not yet
fully reached the grassroots.
16. The LibDems will probably not elect
any BME MPs next time around. They have only briefly had one Asian
MP, when Parmjit Singh Gill won the 2004 Leicester South
by-election before losing it after 10 months at the General
Election, and he is again the only candidate in anything like
a competitive seat. In nine selections in this Parliament in LibDem
held seats, the party selected five women but no BME candidates.
The party does select BME candidates at a slightly higher rate
(5.6%) than the Conservatives but very heavily in areas with high
ethnic minority populations where the LibDems have little chance.
17. The LibDem party needs to select a non-white
candidate when selecting for winnable seats like Winchester, York
or St Ives (and not only for areas with high minority populations
like Birmingham or East London). The LibDems need to work out
how, within their own political culture, they could facilitate
the selection of good BME candidates in a winnable seat. A more
effective route than seeking permission to use all-minority shortlists
(in marginal constituencies with very low ethnic minority populations)
would be to hold a transparent national competition among party
members to find perhaps five highly talented BME aspiring politicians
who the national party would promote to constituencies and party
members for selections for Westminster, Brussels and other elected
18. It is inevitable that (outside landslides),
these are small cohorts. So caution is advisable and the pattern
must be sustained. But this evidence challenge the claim that
there could never be fair chances without "strong" measures
of positive action, such as quotas or all minority shortlists.
It suggests too that the "soft" measures may have been
more effective than is usually realised, particularly given the
evidence of a considerable acceleration of progress between
1997 and 2008, when these issues gained much more prominence
within parties. It was a reasonable hypothesis to suggest that
what has been shown to be true historically of gender would also
prove true of racebut the dynamics of race and gender under-representation
could turn out to be quite different.
19. Warnings against complacency should
be listened to. Progress in Parliamentary selections does not
seem to be being reflected in local politics. But complacency
is not the only risk. With too little effort to quantify the scale
of the ethnic penalty now, we have risked hearing the most vocal
advocates for increased BME representaion telling aspiring candidates
that they do not and can not have fair chances and a level playing
field despite the evidence suggesting that they already do.
20. If it did prove possible to sustain
a pattern where BME candidates were selected over time in 10-15%
of cases, that would hardly be something to worry about: it would
simply mildly accelerate progress towards a Parliament
that looks like Britain while still taking some time to overcome
the historic legacy of under-representation. (If fair chances
in selections and Parliamentary intakes could be achieved and
sustained, how quickly this happened would depend on the rate
of retirements and turnover of existing MPs, though many may
feel that this is a secondary issue if fair chances are in place).
21. But will these positive changes go deeper
than extending to black and Asian lawyers and Oxbridge graduates
similar chances to join their white peers in the political class?
That demands much greater scrutiny of how financial and time commitments
in candidate selections prevent a level playing field. A ConservativeHome
survey found would-be Tory candidates spent an average of around
£20,000 trying to get selected, and over £34,000 if
lost income was accounted for too. The time demandscampaigning
across the country to show keennessdemand a professional
job, and make little allowance for family commitments. Women,
working-class candidates of all races, and those outside the elite
are unlikely to get a fair chance.
21. To some extent, disagreements about
proposals for all-minority shortlists among current black and
Asian MPs and candidates (who are fairly equally divided on the
question) may reflect generational perspectives. Those pioneering
candidates who had to overcome much steeper barriers to break
through twenty years ago are sceptical of claims that so much
has now changed. They might well feel that younger candidates
are naïve to suggest they have a level playing field. But
the evidence suggests that they do (though only by standing on
the shoulders of those who made the historic breakthrough possible).
All-minority shortlists may well have made a difference 20 years
agowhen they were not seriously on the agendabut
they have come to prominence when probably no longer necessary,
certainly in the Labour Party. (If there is no "ethnic penalty"
visible, other arguments such as accelerating catch-up or guaranteeing
progress could still, in principle, be pursued).
22. The evidence from the use of all-women
shortlists is that a "ceiling" effect is a danger. Labour
has the largest number of women MPs by some distance, and is the
only party to employ positive discrimination measures of all-women
shortlists. The 2001 Parliamentary intake suggests that there
would be many fewer women without this. And it is striking how
far women remain from having fair chances in all parties. In current
selections of new candidates, each party is selecting women in
only around a quarter of selections (Labour 24.9%, Tory 26.6%,
LibDem 25.8%). Where a party is replacing sitting MPs, Labour
(using a positive action measure) is selecting women candidates
at a lower rate (38.5%, 10 of 26 selections) than either
the Conservatives (40.6%, 13 of 32) or LibDems (55%: five
of nine selections) in selections in this Parliament. While Labour
held 10 all women shortlist selections; in the first 16 open
Labour selections for a Labour-held seat (to 1 November 2008),
only one women was chosen. It appears there is a dilemma here.
All-women shortlists were necessary to make progress, and remain
so, but may demonstrate diminishing returns. Greater emphasis
is needed on combining cultural pressure and change with
such mechanisms, to counter the danger that they are seen as an
alternative to cultural change.
23. There is a need for more attention and
research as to how class, gender, race, disability and other factors
interact, and also to find ways to encourage and facilitate the
review and comparison of successful initiatives on a cross-party
basis. (The Equality Commission might be a good space for such;
Parliament itself might have a valuable role to play in disseminating
such information). Many of those involved in individual party
efforts as well as neutral voices would like to see cross-party
progress would be willing to participate in cross-party exchanges
of information and experience if such spaces existed.
24. It would be useful for Parliament (eg
through the House of Commons research and library service) to
collate better data on ethnic minority, and to publish a data
series on BME representation to ensure a good ongoing evidence
base on the scope or lack of progress towards fair chances in
BME representation. The authoritative House of Commons Library
reports after General Elections suggest a reluctance to collate
information on ethnic background (perhaps seeing this as "personal")
on a similar basis to information on gender, on school and university
background, and occupation. But this would be particularly useful
in enabling a "cohorts" analysis of fair chances to
be sustained. So Commons Library reports rely on external information,
from campaigning pressure groups, which can be sketchier. A robust
data series would add a great deal of value to an evidence-based
public debate in this area.
25. Perhaps the most useful outcome of a
Speaker's Conference could be to push for clear commitments from
each party for a much greater degree of scrutiny of the current
formal and informal factors involved in selection, particularly
as there is reasonable evidence to suggest that these might discriminate
against candidates with caring responsibilities, less economic
means or less professional opportunities to interact with the
"political class" as part of their work. These factors
may particularly affect women, especially working-class women,
and less affluent candidates from BME communities, as well as
working-class men. Combining training and mentoring opportunities
with access to financial bursariesoffered on a competitive
basis for candidates who show talent and aspirationcould
have a particularly valuable impact within this.