The Sunday Times reports that the main three political parties are standing 150 ‘ethnic minority’ candidates in the coming general election; 51 for Labour, 50 Lib Dem and 49 Tories.
However, closer analysis reveals that the vast majority of these BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) candidates to be of Asian heritage, with a much smaller proportion of black African and Caribbean candidates than the national population.
My research has found that out of the 153 BAME prospective parliamentary candidates standing for the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, 82 percent are of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi background, 17 percent are Caribbean and seven percent African. When compared to the 2011 population census the extent of under-representation of black African and Caribbean election hopefuls becomes clear.
The population census shows Asian communities make up 53 percent of BAME groups compared to African and Caribbean communities, who comprise 39 percent of all BAME citizens.
What all these numbers mean is that would-be politicians from an African, Caribbean or black mixed ethnicity are roughly half as likely to be picked to represent a major party as someone whose heritage is from the Indian sub-continent. This raises serious questions about what is causing this imbalance between black and Asian aspiring MPs.
There are two possible factors; first, that political parties may not be doing enough to appeal to African and Caribbean communities, and second that parties might be showing a bias against black hopefuls, or feel ‘more comfortable’ picking Asian candidates.
I reveal these facts not to cause division between communities of colour. The principle of unity between all communities who suffer racism, coming together to campaign around common interests, is a long anti-racist tradition.
Indeed, the struggle for political representation of all people of colour was the bedrock of ‘Black’ political self-organisation in Britain which made significant breakthroughs, including the election of Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz, Paul Boateng and the late, legendary, Bernie Grant in 1987.
Unity of BAME communities has taken us a long way, and has the potential to collectively take Black representation yet further. Yet where significant imbalances occur, such as the one between black African / Caribbean and Asian prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) in this election, it is important that we do not shy away from facing the facts.
125 out of 153 BAME prospective MPs standing for the three main parties are of Asian ethnicity, while just 17 are Caribbean and eleven are African. This should give Westminster pause for thought over whether black African and Caribbean activists are being overlooked.
The proportional balance between black and Asian PPCs in held or winnable seats is slightly better. Of the 53 BAME hopefuls with a good or realistic chance of getting elected, 36 are Asian (68 percent), and 16 are African or Caribbean (30 percent).
I recently wrote in The Guardian that the Conservatives were fast catching up on Labour when it came to fielding BAME candidates in held or winnable seats. However while the Conservatives are just one behind Labour in standing BAMEs in held or winnable seats (19 to 18), Labour are ahead in running more African and Caribbean candidates than the Tories or Liberal Democrats.
Labour have four African and seven Caribbean PPCs in those plum seats – Kate Osamor, Chi Onwurah, Mark Hendrick, Chuka Umunna, David Lammy, Diane Abbott, Lisa Nandy, Sarah Owen, Dawn Butler, Clive Lewis, and Rebecca Blake.
The Conservatives have three Africans and two Caribbeans in safe seats – Sam Gyimah, Adam Afriyie, Kwasi Kwarteng, James Cleverly, Helen Grant – and none in key targets.
So while the Tories are catching up to Labour with BAMEs as a whole it is mostly due to new Asian candidates having been selected in good constituencies.
There is clearly a need for all political parties to raise their game in attracting and promoting African and Caribbean talent. A report I wrote for Operation Black Vote found there were 75 constituencies where Africans were the largest ethnic group, 21 of which were marginal seats.
The picture is slightly more complicated with the Caribbean community, which is the largest ethnic group in six seats, one of which is a marginal. Caribbeans represent more than 20 percent of the total electorate in each of these constituencies. The mixed white and black Caribbean group is the largest in 44 seats, 20 of which are marginal; however, all of these seats have a very small BAME population and the majority are Conservative-held.
It is clear that black African, Caribbean and black mixed heritage citizens can play a major role in determining who gets the keys to Downing Street. There are 3,777 candidates standing in the general election, including 620 each for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. Eight percent of candidates from the three main parties are BAME, compared to a national visible minority ethnic population of 14 percent.
So while the number of BAME MPs who stand to be elected is set to rise from 27 to 40 or more MPs there is still a long way to go. African and Caribbean PPCs make up just 1.4 percent of all candidates for the three big parties, compared to 5.5 percent of the population from these communities. That means African and Caribbean’s are significantly under-represented as a proportion of the total number of Tory, Labour and Lib Dem candidates, well behind Asian candidates. In this context the total number of BAME PPCs, and those standing in held or winnable seats, may give the impression that politics is making progress on representation, and it is.
But politics is still behind the curve in reflecting the society it is supposed to serve. 40 BAME MPs are less than half the number we should have (91) and the total number of BAME candidates for the big three is just over half the number it should be. Yet African and Caribbean communities are particularly under-represented, with less than a third of the candidates there should be.
Realistically the maximum number of African or Caribbean MPs next month is 15, or 2.3 percent of the House of Commons. An improvement on the last parliament but still some way short of the 36 African or Caribbean MPs needed to match the population.
More people of colour are standing for election and getting selected for seats they can win, but we are only half way there for BAME communities as a whole, and just a third of the way there for Africans and Caribbeans.
Parties need to do much more to engage black Africans and Caribbean communities, identify and promote talent to better represent them in parliament.
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Lester Holloway is a former Editor of the New Nation newspaper and presenter on BEN Television. He tweets at @brolezholloway
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