Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

Submission from Operation Black Vote (OBV) (SC-2)


Q.  Are problems caused by the unbalanced representation in the House of Commons of different groups in society?

  A.  Yes.

Q.  If so, what are those problems?

  A.  The unbalanced representation of the House of Commons creates a number of problems for the well being of our democracy. Many BME groups talk about a lack of confidence in our most important democratic institution. Some say: "when do our concerns get addressed", others elude to the fact that the majority of Black MP's don't talk about our issues for fear of being alienated by their own party. In the extreme this lack of voice and confidence translates to help nurture a fertile ground in which Muslim extremists can exploit.

Q.  Is there a relationship between these levels of representation and voter attitudes to Parliament?

  A.  Many people talk about voter apathy in the UK, whilst that may reflect some people's feelings many within the Black community are consciously opting out of the democratic process. Voting and registering to vote. Many see it a futile exercise that only colludes with the status quo.

  According to OBV polls there is a direct correlation between non-participation and under-representation. The number one reason given for not going out and voting by 18-25 year olds BME's was the lack of black faces in high places.

Q.  What are the reasons why more women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people do not become Members of Parliament?

  A.  At a very basic level we have to confront society's resistance to change. But it's more than just that. Those in power mainly white able bodied men at times distrust those who doesn't look like them, worse still some often feel a sense of superiority and therefore conscious or unconsciously seek to replicate themselves.


Q.  Why don't more from these groups consider standing for election? Or, if they do: Why aren't more of them selected?

  A.  It is a myth to suggest that BME individuals are not coming forward for selection. The fact is despite the many trails and tribulations that many Black would be candidates face there is not a shortage of them coming forward. At the heart of this contradiction lies a deep desire that many hold to serve their community and wider society.

Q.  Or, if they are why more of them aren't elected?

  A.  In most areas outside of the big cities there still is a question mark as to whether society is ready to accept a Black candidate. Clearly, candidates have to have a specialness to compensate any negativity. Parties must do more to select BME candidates in winnable seats.

Q.  What are the problems and practical difficulties encountered—at any point in the process of selection and election—by members of these underrepresented groups who are looking to become MPs?

  A.  Sadly there are many problems that individuals find during the process of selection and election. BME individuals do not have too much of a problem of passing the entry to become a candidate, the problem is mostly getting selected to fight a winnable seat.


Q.  What actions could be taken by the Government to address disparities in representation?

  A.  The Government must promote and champion more vigorously race equality, diversity and why representation is important for the well being of democracy and wider society. It also must state that it has resisted all-BME short lists to give all the other methods a chance of proving themselves. But if they do not begin to make a dent in this deficit then that discussion must be revisited.

Q.  What actions have been taken elsewhere in the UK and overseas and by whom, to address similar concerns?

  A.  There is no modern democracy with the exception of the US and Finland, that hasn't used affirmative action one way or another—permissive or non permissive—to address the deficit of women. In the case of the US they have affirmative action at the early stages of development ie education, that raises the level of high flyers. In Finland the idea of diversity is so well ingrained that affirmative action is not needed.

Q.  What actions have been, or could be, taken by political parties, campaigning groups and others to address disparities in representation?

  A.  We have attached a document (titled OBV: Changing the face of British political parties) which we would hope all parties would adopt and implement.

Q.  How can the success of such actions be measured?

  A.  Audits followed by targets in all areas at all levels within the political parties.



  This paper sets out a frame work to implement a comprehensive programme that will ensure mainstream political parties become more inclusive, and more representative. Furthermore, and equally important that their policy proposals reflect better the multi-cultural society that is the UK. The papers focus is towards Britain's Black and minority ethnic communities (BME), although such a programme could easily be adapted for other marginalised groups, such as women and people with disabilities.


  Cultural identity and a sense of belonging have become increasingly important factors for BME communities over the last twenty years. Although the majority of BME individuals were born in the UK and/or have lived here for many years, many struggle to feel that society in general and in particularly the nation's democratic institutions afford them a sense of belonging, or an effective and equitable voice.

  The facts bear out that frustration:

    — Of 659 MPs only 15 are from BME communities. Only two of them are women.

    — The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly each only have one BME representative, not from the main stream parties.

    — Despite 1-3 of the electorate coming from a BME community, the Greater London Assembly still only has two BME members.

    — In the whole of Great Britain there is only Two BME chief executive in a local authority, and only two leaders of the Council.

    — In Europe there are 4 BME MEPs

  Most senior politicians are acutely aware of the situation and yet year after year nothing changes. As a result many BME individuals particularly the young feel deeply alienated and cynical that anything can ever change. Their disillusion is often translated in a total rejection of the democratic process:

    — 24% of BME's are not registered to vote, this compares with 6% in the white community.

    — More than 53% of Africans in the UK are not registered to vote

    — Those that are registered are still less likely to vote that the white electorate

  The alienation of so many BME individuals not only undermines the democratic process, it also creates a fertile ground for extreme religious/political groups such as the outlawed Al-Muhajiroun and Hiz butari.

Addressing the BME deficit

  It would be difficult to find a senior politician who does not want our democratic institutions to be more representative. But one is compelled to ask if there is such a desire why then does little or nothing change? Some would argue that lack of real political will is at the heart of the problem. This may partially true but the fundamental floor lies more in the absence of a systematic plan of action to resolve the deficit.

  Operation Black Vote believes that the programme that includes recruitment, retention and promotion of BME's within the political party structure will in the short, medium and long term pay dividends.

  The motivation for implementing such a programme must be driven in no small measure by party self-interest as much as the moral obligation for representative and inclusive governance. Furthermore, as membership of all political parties dramatically fall the need to rejuvenate them with new members, new ideas, and renewed energy has never been more important.

Implementing the programme

  Clearly the programme has to be driven by the Party bosses, from the Leader to the Chair to other senior members. But equally important to its success will be the establishment of a dedicated team to administer the programme in all areas at all levels of the party. Although this has resource implications, it doesn't have to be overly expensive; secondly a minimum cost would be easily offset by an influx of membership fees. It would also demonstrate to the potential electorate the seriousness of intent.


Recruitment: Recruitment of BME members to the party

  It is a sad indictment of all the political parties that none know how many BME individuals they have as members, staff or elected councillors. It is unacceptable to use the "colour blind" argument when all concerned anecdotally know that in all the above areas the levels are depressing low. A democratic audit of the membership, staff, and elected members would provide a baseline that would help with increasing the figures.

Recruit activists from within the party

  Recruiting activist, particularly, but not exclusively BME party members to be at the frontline of any recruitment drive will serve a dual purpose: with this new responsibility they themselves become more empowered by the role they have within the party; secondly they increase and widen the membership. It is very important to stress that this role should not be the exclusive domain for BME members. It is the responsibility of all members, furthermore, some BME members may not want to, "wear their ethnicity/religion on their sleeve". The role for white members recruiting could be in the mode of, "I don't want to speak for you. We want you to speak for yourselves and/or your community but under our political umbrella. That's why we want you to join our party.

Realistic national and local targets must be made.

Draw up a local recruitment plan

  Obtain a list of the BME organisations in the constituency. Organise recruitment meetings. They might be entitled, "Modernising the local party", or "Changing the face of the local party". You may bring in invited guest such as Party big hitters or outsiders that may talk-from a non-partisan position about the need to get involved.

Producing materials specific for BME communities

  Recruitment drives in the USA by both the Republicans and the Democrats have had great success by specifically targeting materials towards African Americans, Latin Americans and women.

  The overall message should be a simple one: "Your contribution, your dynamism will help modernise this party"

  Prizes and other incentives should be given to local parties that increase their memberships, stories could be related the Party websites, local press, meetings and conferences. A member of the month could articulate why they joined, what they want to achieve.


  Retention of BME members particularly new ones must be thought about simultaneously as the recruitment plan is being implemented. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant volume of new members leave after the first year because they find local party procedure boring and irrelevant. Often more damage is done if large numbers join and then leave because due thought has not gone into accommodating new members.

  Some ideas:

    — Think about where you have all your meetings. Places where alcohol is served may not be conducive for some faiths.

    — Think about party procedure. Sometimes it is long and laborious. For the first few occasions you may want invite members to social gatherings or interesting debates or talks.

    — Allow new members to have their say. Seek their opinion. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when BME individuals initially join they are warmly welcomed, however, when they raise difficult issues particularly if it's around race they are quickly seen as troublesome and marginalised. Thereafter, many either leave or remain silent.

    — Organising debates and talks with outsider people coming in should stimulate and maintain interest.

    — Getting members involved in organising activities will also help maintain interest.

    — Most importantly offer them specific roles. New members may not want a specific role but to genuinely offer them a role serves a double purpose: first that the party genuinely cares and is supportive about their new member. Secondly, by given them a role within the local party you add value to you team. Roles may include: setting up youth wing, or recruitment advocates for women, BME's, youths and others. Others may want to be part of active campaigning such as leafleting, manning a stall. Some may want to set up a news letter, blog or website


  It should be said from the outset, nobody is asking for the promotion of BME members solely because they are BME; that neither serves them nor the party. Neither is this about positive discrimination; although OBV believes that in the short term it has its place-it is more about positive action.

  Fact is that whether by design or fault BME talent has not been adequately recognised or promoted within the political party structure. Recognising the deficit the Party, both at a local and national level must seek out BME talent that could serve in many areas: organisers, policy officers, public speakers, fund raisers, advisors, party agents, potential councillors, MPs and other elected roles.

  To effectively address this problem we would suggest that the Party have a team of head-hunters locally, regionally and nationally.

  Head-hunters would be able to spot both enthusiasm and talent and then help ensure that talent reaches its full potential sooner rather than later.

  Training, and support must also be part of the development process, it must not however, be another obstacle for promotion. BME individuals have complained that they are told they will not be considered for a winnable seat unless they undertake numerous training programmes.

  Those that have been earmarked as potential candidates need both mentors and infrastructure support. A mentor will impart wise words about the labyrinth of party structure and how ones gets through it.

  Party support will ensure potential candidates have access to financial funds and are adequately trained to deal in areas such as the media and public speaking. When the Conservative Patti Boulaye became a potential GLA candidate the lack of party support and media training meant that she quickly became a liability to her party.

  Once the party has greater awareness of the BME membership and the talent within it, it is much easier to encourage applications for staffing posts and other areas within the party. Other methods should also be used, such as using the BME press and radio stations when positions become available.

  Whether it's staffing positions, panels or list for potential candidates' ambitious but reachable targets must play a key role. We at OBV recognise that some local parties have a resistance to modernise themselves and their make up. Here the party must show leadership and if necessary force die-hards to change. The leadership can also use other methods to ensure candidates come through by placing them high on top up list. Experience has shown that elected politicians in Scotland, Wales and London will not vote themselves out of a post, therefore it is only by political leadership can we expect positive change.

  As and when the local party mentality begins to adequately change less influence from the central is required. Sadly that is some time off yet.

The role of OBV

  The vision of Britain's BME communities playing a full and positive role in all areas at all levels within the UK's main stream political parties is one which is central to OBV's work. Therefore, we have pledged to assist, where we can, any main stream political party that seeks work towards that vision. We will:

    — Give an honest appraisal of proposals that seek to engage with BME communities.

    — Promote—subject to resources—positive initiatives that form part of the party's recruitment, retention and promotion programmes.

    — Host a number of "get to know you" meetings/receptions-subject to resources.

    — Write articles for party magazines or websites about why representation and diversity within parties is important.


  No one pretends that the task to ensure Britain's political parties are more inclusive and more representative is a simple one. And yet with the political will, leadership and a comprehensive programme that can be effectively implemented the task isn't insurmountable. The three key areas are Recruitment, Retention and Promotion of BME's within the party.

  Having a clear programme with short, medium and long-term targets will without doubt pay dividends. The motivation should be both moral: it is good for democracy, and self-interest: an inclusive Party will have a wider public appeal.

  As a non-partisan organisation we at OBV will play our role inspiring and encouraging our communities to play a full and positive role within the democratic process.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 27 May 2009