A quota on Jewish MPs?

Proposals to artificially alter the make-up of the House of Commons to reflect minorities are ridiculous

By Geoffrey Alderman, November 27, 2008

Earlier this month, the House of Commons resolved to established a "Speaker's Conference" - in effect, an all-party committee of inquiry chaired by the Speaker - 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".

Whatever the detailed outcomes emanating from this investigation, its conclusions have the potential to affect adversely the status of Britain's Jewish citizens.

Speaker's Conferences are rare occurrences. The first was held during the Great War, and six have been summoned subsequently. All have addressed some aspect or other of our electoral system. The latest conference was foreshadowed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in September 2007. The following May, Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, fleshed out the proposal. We can expect the conference to get down to work early in the new year.

I have quoted the conference's terms of reference. But there is an underlying, covert agenda, which has been sharpened in the wake of Barack Obama's success in the American presidential race.

President-elect Obama is neither black nor white. He is black and white. Nonetheless, his success has been seized upon by black lobbies in this country, who have asked whether a man such Barack Obama could ever become the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Well, of course he could. The first non-white MP was elected as long ago as 1892 (he was a Liberal), and the second (a Conservative) followed three years later. Currently, there are said to be 15 "non-white" MPs and, in principle, any one of them could ascend to (as Disraeli put it) "the top of the greasy pole". But the likelihood of this happening depends on the willingness of the political parties to promote a non-white MP to the front bench, and on the ruthlessness (for this is what it takes) of such a high-flier to push his or her rivals out of the way.

These facts of political life have been cast aside by black lobbies, especially those within the Labour movement.

On the morrow of Barack Obama's victory, Trevor Phillips, the head of Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission, denounced the "institutional racism" that he alleged was at work within the Labour party. This alone, Mr Phillips insisted, stood in the way of black advancement within Labour's ranks. The electorate would vote for a black Prime Minister, if only all the political parties were to take "positive action" to ensure black advancement. While ruling out the idea of all-black shortlists, Mr Phillips declared that the House of Commons should "accurately reflect the make-up of the population".

And that is what the forthcoming Speaker's Conference is really about: the racialisation of the British electoral system, and its reformation along racial lines.

Anyone who embarks on a more-or-less rational consideration of this scenario must rapidly discover how brainless and perilous it must be. Just how far would Mr Phillips and his supporters wish to push the concept of ethnic proportionality? Would there be a south-Indian quota? A Pakistani quota? A Caribbean quota? Or perhaps a Sikh quota, a Hindu quota and a Muslim quota? And, leaving aside the question of who is a Jew, if Mr Phillips had his way there would have to be an upper limit of (roughly) four on the number of Jews elected to any Parliament. As there are currently 26 identifiable Jews in the Commons, I am left wondering how this "cap" would be enforced.

Any attempt to reform the selection of parliamentary candidates along ethnic lines would lead, inevitably, to inter-ethnic rivalries and resentments. Indeed, at the present time I cannot think of anything more socially divisive.

President-elect Obama may be half-black and half-white but he has made it crystal clear that, once in office, he will be the President of all Americans, not just of the blacks or even of the black and whites. Likewise, the House of Commons can be effective without "accurately" reflecting the make-up of the UK population at all, because MPs, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds and loyalties, represent all their constituents.

These truths seem self-evident to me. But I cannot be certain that they will be self-evident to the members of the Speaker's Conference.

Last updated: 11:19am, November 27 2008