6 lessons for CLPs on ethnic minority representation in local government

Praful Nargund

Many have already explained the need for Labour to increase ethnic minority representations across key positions in our party, often highlighting a desire to improve decision-making by better reflecting our communities. But despite building a consensus around the need to act, the challenge of how to do it has stubbornly remained.

I would like to share what we have learned in Islington, where we’ve developed a way to promote, train and select ethnic minority candidates for the council. We call it the ‘See it – Be it’ BAME leadership programme, and it has led to successful candidates in five of six of our borough’s most recent by-elections, and many more prospective candidates for the future. Here are the six lessons we learned from our experience. 

1. Labour’s central data is poor, so good local data is essential. 

The ethnicity data Labour holds and shares on members, and therefore prospective candidates, is patchy at best. This means that it is hard to understand the nature and scale of the challenge, and in turn harder to know what steps to we need to take. 

To overcome this challenge, a collaborative effort between the two Islington CLPs was made to collect and analyse our data. When it comes to BAME representation, it is crucial to not regard ethnic minorities as one homogenous group and it is important to examine where there may be differences. For us, there was a particular challenge around the representation of Black men among local councillors, and being aware of this issue meant we could actively address it through the ‘See It – Be It’ programme.

Our approach was to make sure that we really understood the perspectives of local ethnic minority members, candidates and elected officials. Holding a series of ‘listening sessions’ and being open about really wanting to understand the nature of the challenge helped to identify the requirements any programme would need to meet. The body of local perspectives formed the foundation of our recommendations.   

2. ‘Honest brokers’ help bridge political differences.

Anti-racism is a uniting force in our party, drawing on both our values and our history. But sadly, as prospective NEC candidate Jermaine Jackman told LabourList last year, “People are so entrenched in factionalism that it blinds the fight for representation and equality. And that goes for the right and the left of the party.” Political divides always run the risk of derailing any new development, no matter how well-intentioned.

It is crucial to have ‘honest brokers’ helping to lead the change, people who are respected by all sides. We were lucky to have Jennette Arnold OBE, our former long-standing London Assembly Member, as both a patron of our model and the lead facilitator for the programme. On several occasions, her advocacy for change provided the authority to overcome differences. All decisions were also taken through our borough-wide Local Campaign Forum, to ensure that everyone had a chance to contribute to the proposals.

It is important to stress that improving one area of representation need not detract from others. The success of our efforts was built upon the foundation of Islington’s previous successes in improving representation of women in elected roles. Each effort can provide inspiration for the next.

3. A leadership programme needs to be unashamedly practical.

The ‘See it – Be it’ programme was led by Jennette Arnold OBE, supported by local councillors sharing their insights and experience. Taking place over multiple sessions, the course was laser-focused on the local party environment, simulating selection and interviews, the principles of winning selection and how to run a successful campaign.

This was in direct response to feedback from prospective candidates about their inexperience with regards to both formal and informal factors in the selection process.

We also worked hard to ensure that the programme was inexpensive, meaning we could include eight to ten participants in each session at community centres (before we had to move online due to the pandemic).  

4. Think ‘sponsor’, not ‘mentor’.

Mentorship means something different to everyone. For some, it means being an informal sounding board, having a coffee occasionally, or simply sharing experience. On the other hand, sponsorship is about an advocacy – making introductions, opening doors, using their influence and indicating what goals might be achievable.

As part of the programme, councillors who leant their time to support participants were guided to be sponsors rather than mentors. This approach helps to clarify expectations and to emulate the informal networks of influence, which are too often unavailable to the under-represented.

5. Ask those who benefit to pass it on.

From the beginning, we wanted to create a sustainable programme that would have a lasting impact. A crucial step was to ensure that successful participants would become role models and future facilitators for the next cohort.

In our second year running the programme, successful candidates have returned to share their practical experiences with selection and election. They are also on hand to act as sponsors for those seeking to follow in their footsteps. 

6. All-BAME shortlists are only the beginning of the conversation.

The Labour Party has used all-women shortlists to great effect at all levels, including in Islington. However, equality legislation prevents all-BAME shortlists (and other protected characteristics) from being used to achieve a comparable objective. 

All-BAME shortlists would be extremely helpful, and it should be welcomed that Keir Starmer has highlighted a change in legislation as a potential solution. 

But in the meantime, CLPs, LCFs and friendly societies can develop bespoke equality models, based on local circumstances. Equality legislation allows for several other innovative forms of positive action, including training programmes, targets and even reserved slots on shortlists. There is no justification for inertia.

Contact us! We have already made an open offer to our London Region to share our experience to help replicate our model elsewhere and hope it will be taken up. In the meantime, if other CLPs or groups are interested in getting on with making progress in this area, please do get in touch.

Opening to all our talent will give the Labour Party the best chance of improving our policies, communications and vision for the future. Defeating structural inequalities requires building structures, and I hope that our story can provide some inspiration to others in the party.

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