Labour told to pick more BME candidates in winnable seats
The experienced MP Keith Vaz says he today told the Labour Party National Executive that it was “deeply disappointing” that Labour hadn’t picked more black and ethnic minority candidates in winnable seats. Mr Vaz pledged to do his utmost to ensure the situation is improved before the general election in April and May.
So far, in the 36 seats where Labour MPs are retiring in May, the party has picked only one BME candidate – Tulip Siddiq in Hampstead and Highgate. The Conservatives, in contrast, have chosen six BME candidates so far in their 34 “retirement” seats.
There are currently 27 BME MPs in the House of Commons – 16 Labour and 11 Conservative (and none for any other party). On the current figures, if results at the 2010 election were precisely to be repeated in 2015, then the two main parties would have equal numbers of BME MPs. “These are very disturbing facts for the party which elected the first four BME MPs,” Vaz told me.
Indeed Keith Vaz was one of those four BME MPs, who, in what was seen as a historic breakthrough, were elected for Labour at the 1987 election. In reality, they weren’t the first ethnic minority MPs since three Asians were elected to Parliament in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (one for each of the main parties).
The Labour Party has gradually increased its black and ethnic minority representation since 1987, but in recent years the Conservatives have rapidly been catching up. And the Conservatives have been especially good under David Cameron at picking BME candidates in seats without a significant black or ethnic minority population – for example James Cleverly who was chosen in Braintree earlier this month, and Priti Patel, elected in Witham in 2010.
Keith Vaz told me after today’s NEC meeting that he plans to use his position as a member of Labour’s late retirements panel to improve the situation in the next few weeks, in particular in two seats where no candidate has yet been chosen and there are large ethnic minority populations – Edmonton in north east London, and Bradford West, the seat which George Galloway won from Labour at a by-election in 2012.
“It is essential that BME candidates are prominent on the shortlists given to the local parties in Edmonton and Bradford South,” he says. Vaz promises me he will “eat his hat” if a BME candidate is not picked in one or other seat, or both. And the long-standing MP, who has sat on the Labour NEC for many years, has had an impressive track-record in influencing parliamentary selections.
Labour can point to the fact that local members have picked about half a dozen BME candidates in the top 50 target seats which Labour hopes to win from other parties. These include Clive Lewis, a black former BBC reporter who is fighting Norwich South, but Lewis is something of an exception.
Whereas three of Labour’s four BME MPs elected in 1987 (Diane Abbot, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant) had Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, it is noticeable that Asians have fared much better in the Labour selection processes in recent years, while Afro-Caribbeans have fared badly.
Quite why Labour has failed to select BME candidates in winnable seats for this election isn’t clear. Keith Vaz observes that BME candidates do tend to perform better in seats where there isn’t an all-woman shortlist (AWS) (though he admits his own sister Valerie was picked from a AWS in Walsall South before the 2010 election.)
In the big push to get more women candidates, other “minorities” may have lost out. There has also been a noticeable trend in retirement seats for selections to go to a favoured local candidate, such as the outgoing MP’s agent or the leader of the local council, which does not help BME candidates secure selection.
The Liberal Democrats still have no BME MPs in the House of Commons, and the situation is unlikely to improve much after May. Their only BME candidate in a retirement seat is Ibrahim Taguri in Brent Central. He faces a tough battle against Dawn Butler, the former minister who is hoping to return to the Commons, and, at the moment, the only other Afro-Caribbean Labour candidate with a good chance of gaining a seat.
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