What’s the electoral impact of the Harman “U-Turn”?
The Guardian is running with a story that ‘fear of [a] backlash’ has forced the Government to abandon plans for so-called ‘all-blackshortlists’ in its new Equalities Bill, sponsored by Harriet Harman.
The Bill is already a target for those who would claim the codification of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and Thursday’s close second place for the BNP in the East Wickham ward (Bexley) by-election seems to have been the straw on the camel’s back. The various provisions of the Bill have already engendered warnings from prominent Labour MPs about an alienation of the white working class (particularly men) and it seems that the provision designed to increase BME representation in the Commons is the casualty of those concerns.
- There’s strong opposition from many, including me, to demographically-limited shortlists of any type, not least because as well as irritating a large number of voters, it undermines those selected (who are clearly perfectly capable of becoming MPs) by hamstringing their political careers from the outset – branding them the result of ‘tokenism’ rather than giving them credit for being the best candidate available.
That said, ethnic minorities (and, to a lesser extent, women) are under-represented in the Commons, and to a greater degree than in the Upper Chamber, and it is not difficult to see how this is not the most desirable of circumstances for a body designed to represent the people as a whole.
I wrote once before about Trevor Phillips’ complaint that what was holding back BME candidates from office was not the inherent racism of the voting public, but rather the party machines and the selection process. There is, perhaps, an element of truth here. I cannot see how a group as successful as, say, British Asians of Ugandan heritage – who have excelled in Business and whose children are so successful in education – are failing to win a proportionate share of winnable candidacies unless their is a problem in the process itself.
In applying for work not-very-recently, there was a provision on the form which stated that, if one were disabled and met the minimal essential criteria for the post, one would be guaranteed an interview in person (normally two or more rounds of interview). This seemed to me to be a fair and acceptable way, not of privileging disabled candidates and putting those of us fortunate enough to be able-bodied at a disadvantage, but of ensuring that the early stages of application (which inevitably endure a lighter degree of scrutiny) were not unfairly impeding a certain group of candidates. By ensuring that they were met by a person, rather than discarded by virtue of a tick-box CV processing mechanism, disabled candidates were afforded the opportunity to overcome some of the difficulties that have led to the systemic under-representation of the disabled in the workplace.
It seems to me that it will be measures such as this interview guarantee, rather than the crude and emotive idea of all-something shortlists, that will best help the House to avoid its significant underrepresentation issues (and I only think it an issue where the under-representation is significant). I consider myself a meritocrat, and recognise that a certain blindness to demography is necessary, but meritocracy cannot afford a blindness to inbuilt (and often unintentional) impediments to certain groups that comprimise our requirements for a fair and balanced system.
- Labour have handled equality issues cack-handedly before now – Blaenau Gwent was derided for chauvinism in electing Labour-then-Independent Peter Law over the all-women-shortlist Labour candidate, before demonstrating their ‘chauvinism’ in electing his wife Trish to his Senedd seat upon his death. The rebellion was about the imposition of lists, and the corrosive impact they had on both democracy and on the struggle for gender parity (first achieved by the Welsh Assembly out of all national legislative bodies). The same would have been true if this imposition hadn’t been struck from the Equalities Bill, and although I suspect the reasoning is not yet right, in this instance I think a blow has been struck for both democracy and common sense.
I am a little surprised by the result in Bexley, which elected Conservative James Cleverly (whom, having met once, I rate very highly indeed) to the GLA with one of the largest majorities in British electoral history. I think the successes of the BNP are cause for concern to some of the major political parties, particularly Labour, but that shouldn’t be the reason that the all-black shortlists were withdrawn – rather it is because there are better and less imposing ways to make the House of Commons open to a wider group than at present, if that is (as I believe) a desirable end.
I’d be interested to hear the views of the PB.com community on this, expressed (as always) with respect and civility. Please accept my apologies for the lack of a ‘Saturday Slant’ but I simply didn’t have time to make my own Morph animation about the Heathrow debacle in memory of Tony Hart. Next week it will, with Mike’s blessing, be back.