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Labour can do better on diversity

This article was first published on Shifting Grounds, 17 April, 2013

Labour’s impressive list of ‘firsts’ (including the first black MP’s, the first black cabinet minister, the first black woman in the cabinet, the first out gay MP, the first Muslim MP and the first Sikh MP) is a track record to be proud of, but I fear it has made us complacent and stopped us from practicing what we preach.

Consider, for example, proposed European legislation for quotas for women in boardrooms, backed by Labour’s MEP’s. I’m a supporter of the initiative, but what position are we in to tell businesses what to do when only one of Labour’s seven Executive Directors is a woman and the whole team is white? From Alicia Kennedy to Caroline Badley to Kathryn Perera, some of Labour’s most formidable organisational talents are women, but we haven’t had a female General Secretary since Margaret McDonagh and we’ve never had a non-white person in the top job. The sorry lack of diversity in senior party jobs is mirrored in the pool of advisers to our shadow cabinet, an issue with even longer-term implications if doing a special advisers type role remains a key route into parliament itself, and there are no women in the senior teams of Labour’s think tanks like Progress and the Fabians.

We still have work to do on other equalities areas too. We should be proud of Labour’s extraordinary gay rights record, but can we really be satisfied when Angela Eagle remains the only out woman in the PLP and 22 of our parliamentary colleagues voted the wrong way on equal marriage? Likewise on disability; since David Blunkett left the cabinet we haven’t had a person around Labour’s top table who can speak from first-hand experience about the issues and inspire our disabled members to know that anything is possible.

The picture is perhaps most worrying of all when it comes to race. The Smith Institute report ‘Who Governs Britain?’ gives us a sense. As of May 2010, 15 of 258 Labour MP’s were ethnic minority, or about 6% of the parliamentary party. The excellent Seema Malhotra has now joined the list, but we are still miles away from effectively representing a country in which 14% of people are not white.

I don’t think it has to be this way – nor that we simply have to wait for progress to happen gradually. I suggest there are four things we can do to help us better live up to our ideals.

First, let’s look to the private sector for cues on the best HR practices. Simple changes to how job adverts are worded and where they are placed can make all the difference. Likewise, having internal networks for under-represented groups is common right across the corporate world, so we should capture the lessons from successful affiliates like Chinese for Labour and the Labour Irish Society and prioritise the creation and speedy affiliation of similar organisations for other communities who would like a distinct home inside the Labour family. More generally, ensuring that the Labour Party is a place where employment conditions are what we feel they should be across the job market is vital – ‘Labour Limited’ must lead by example. For instance, it has been warned that the culture that caused the Rennard scandal is prevalent across Westminster, including on our own side. So we must redouble our efforts to drive sexual harassment out of the party and ensure that complaints don’t just get shelved, as has been observed by Westminster women in the past.

Second, let’s phase out phrases like ‘BAME’ (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) – they oversimplify the internal diversity of the groups referred to (British Indians often prefer ‘Indian’ to ‘Asian’, for example) and even ‘ethnic minority’ is beginning to become an outmoded term in an age when self-identified white Britons only make up 45% of our capital city. We need to develop a fresh and empowering new language. My own starter for ten is ‘talented minorities’, but there will be other suggestions, the key is to make it clear we see people’s potential and not just their differences.

Third, let’s defend and extend the kind of positive action which is already making a difference. All Women Shortlists transformed the face of parliament and remain as needed as ever; as a recent posting on LabourList makes clear, so far EVERY open selection has been won by a man. So exclusive candidate shortlists are still a very necessary corrective, but we should also be looking for increased investment in the positive efforts of organisations like the Labour Women’s Network which are working to build a talent pipeline for politics.

These are just a few ideas, but what is clear is that truly looking like modern Britain will be vital if our new brand as a One Nation party and pleas for equality in the private sector are to be credible. It’s time for ‘Labour Ltd’ to practice what we preach.

Written by Reporter