Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

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 guarantees.

    — The failure to act demonstrates that race is not taken as seriously as gender—so 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 before 1979.

  7.  So to get a snapshot of whether candidates today have fair chances, we need to look at the cohorts of new entrants—the class of 2005, of 2001 and so on—assessing 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 party.

  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 in 1997.

  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 eradicated—but 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 barriers

  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 figures—strong progress at the top, and less further down the candidates list—reflect 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 posts.


  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 race—but 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 demands—campaigning across the country to show keenness—demand 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 ago—when they were not seriously on the agenda—but 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 bursaries—offered on a competitive basis for candidates who show talent and aspiration—could have a particularly valuable impact within this.

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