Beware ‘ethnic’ lists for MPs

Plans for closed shortlists of parliamentary candidates discriminate against Jews

By Geoffrey Alderman, May 7, 2009

Last November, I devoted my column to a consideration of the Speaker’s Conference that had been summoned to “consider, and make recommendations for rectifying, the disparity between the representation of women and ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large”.

I pointed out that an underlying motive of those who had lobbied for such an inquiry was to bring about the racialisation of the British electoral system. “Any attempt”, I argued, “to reform the selection of parliamentary candidates along ethnic lines would lead, inevitably, to inter-ethnic rivalries and resentments.” I added that, for these reasons, the conclusions of such an inquiry had the potential to affect adversely the status of Britain’s Jewish citizens.

Some of you urged me to make a written submission to the Conference — which I did. But others clearly felt that I had been unwise to draw attention to matters best left expressed, if at all, behind closed doors. So, having given my evidence, I moved on to other matters. But I fear that I must now return to the subject-matter of that column.

Last month, the Conference heard evidence from the general secretary of the Labour Party, Ray Collins: “My view, and the party’s view [my emphasis], is the law ought to be examined to allow for greater representation from ethnic minorities.” Drawing attention to what he regarded as the success story of all-female short-lists in connection with the selection of parliamentary candidates (inasmuch as such devices had, in his opinion, increased the number of female Labour MPs), Mr Collins, speaking, remember, in the name of the Labour Party, called for “a review of the law to consider whether the party could be allowed to select candidates from short-lists made up entirely of black and ethnic minority candidates.”

Mr Collins called for a review of the law because, at the moment, the construction and operation of such short-lists would amount to a breach of the Race Relations Act and, no doubt, other equality-related legislation. At the moment, if I, as a Jew, am excluded from consideration for inclusion on a party-political short-list, a criminal offence will have been committed against me. What Mr Collins appeared to want was to decriminalise such discrimination.

But was this really what he wanted, and what he meant to say? Wishing to be scrupulously fair to him, I rang the Labour Party’s press office and asked for a statement that would address, among other things, the question whether the phrase “ethnic minorities,” as used by Mr Collins, included Jews, or whether Mr Collins, and the party in whose name he speaks, actually wished to exclude Jews from such “ethnic” short-lists without fear of criminal sanction.

I had clearly trodden on a particularly sensitive carbuncle. I did get a statement, but without repeating it here verbatim I can assure you that it amounted to a cartload of essentially meaningless waffle (“Labour… has a proud record of promoting ethnic minority candidates” etc).

When I asked whether or not, by this phrase, Labour meant to include Jews, I received no answer at all. And when I pressed the point I was instructed that the Labour Party actually permits members to define their own ethnicity, and that I could, if I wished, insist that I was black whether or not this resembled the truth, however so remotely.

But my own MP, Andrew Dismore (Labour, Hendon), was more forthcoming. Observing that “Jewish people have not had much difficulty in getting selected to fight parliamentary seats,” Mr Dismore opined that “the real problem” was “under-representation of other minorities who are largely or wholly excluded”; for example, the Chinese and the Cypriots. And, arguing that the legalisation of ethnic short-lists was nothing more than “positive discrimination” my MP told me that he was “broadly supportive” of the policy articulated, on behalf of the party, by Mr Collins.

I can well understand that, in certain constituencies, Labour might be reluctant to run a Jewish candidate. I can even sympathise (to a degree) with such a prejudice. But to bring about a situation in which Jews can be legally excluded from parliamentary short-lists seems to me fraught with danger.

And to tell me that this danger might be averted if a Jew simply defines or re-defines him- or herself as “black” (or brown, or green, or pink) seems to me merely to add cheap insult to grievous injury.

    Last updated: 12:43pm, May 7 2009