Black activists in the Labour Party reacted with astonishment and dismay to the news that the Government had bootled out of including the all-Black shortlist proposal in Cabinet minister Harriet Harman's 2009 Equality Bill.
We have long campaigned through the Black Sections of the Labour Party movement for a change in the law, which would permit political parties to choose parliamentary candidates from a list made up exclusively of African Caribbean and Asian hopefuls. Political parties would be allowed to use this measure in order to increase the number of Black Members of Parliament. Currently, there are only 15 out of a total of 646. This is a national disgrace.
During Labour's deputy leadership campaign, Harman said she would like to see at least four times the number of Black people elected to the House of Commons than there are at present. At the Labour Party conference in 2007, Harman, who now has ministerial responsibility for equality, announced that she had commissioned Operation Black Vote (OBV) to prepare a report to put the case for all-Black shortlists. And OBV duly advanced the well-argued view that all-Black shortlists could have a significant role in redressing the unrepresentative nature of the Commons.
But when Black activists looked though the draft Equality Bill for the all-Black shortlist proposal, they searched in vain. Was this an administrative error or was something more sinister going on with the drafting of the legislation we asked?
It turned out that the Government was not prepared to include the all-Black shortlist proposal in the Equality Bill because Harman claimed that some of Labour's 13 Black MPs opposed the idea.
While political heavyweights Dawn Butler, Keith Vaz, David Lammy, Diane Abbott and Baroness Pola Uddin have all gone on record to support all-Black shortlists, Birmingham Perry Barr's Khalid Mahmood went so far as to describe the process as "political apartheid". Unfortunately, we a have a long history in the Black community of people kicking the ladder away once they have reached the top, claiming that, if they can succeed without the help of special measures, other Black people should be able to do the same.
But this is to deny the sacrifices that Black pioneers had to make in order to create these opportunities for the current crop of Black MPs. Have some of them no sense of history? Sadly, those politicians who reject all-Black shortlists seem interested only in their own positions and what job the Prime Minister might give them in a government reshuffle.
Harman now uses the excuse that she is not prepared to risk seeing the whole Equality Bill wrecked by a disagreement between Black MPs on one specific issue — hardly a likely possibility. She has pointed out that it was only possible to get all-women shortlist legislation through Parliament because all of the Labour women MPs were united behind it. But other women MPs were bitterly against them. Women-only short-lists, originally the idea of the Black Sections movement in the early 1980s, have worked wonders to increase the representation of women, as MP Diane Abbott points out elsewhere in this publication.
Those who oppose all-Black shortlists have failed to come up with alternative proposals for making the British Parliament more representative of the country as a whole.
Meanwhile, Black Labour activists are at a loss to understand how such a small number of Black MPs are able to exercise such undue influence on Government legislation - or is it just a ruse by Machiavellian party leaders?
Perhaps Barack Obama's stunning piece of history-making in becoming America's first Black President, will spur on our own leaders to think again. MPs must be lobbied to grasp this historic moment to make our parliament truly representative of the country it serves, using all-Black shortlists as a vital political method for change.
* Kingsley Abrams is a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth and a former national officer of the Labour Party Black Section.
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