Labour Friends groups: New selections changes are a step forward for diversity

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2022 marks 35 years since our first Black, Asian and ethnic minority MPs were elected. As powerful role models leading by example, establishing support networks and providing encouragement to the next generation, those four pioneering MPs have been the inspiration that has seen others follow behind them. Today, we have 40 Black, Asian and ethnic minority Labour MPs in Westminster, with considerable representation on the frontbench.

Shabana Mahmood is running the general election campaign; David Lammy and Preet Gill speak with authority on Labour’s vision for Britain’s place in the world; Thangam Debbonaire holds Jacob Rees-Mogg to account in Westminster every week; and in our shadow Treasury and business teams Tulip Siddiq, Abena Oppong-Asare, Seema Malhotra and Chi Onwurah are developing policies for the future that will ensure we deliver inclusive and sustainable growth in our economy. But we aren’t complacent, and must build on this progress to continue to advance the participation, representation and inclusion of Black, Asian and ethnic minority members in our party.

Before the 2019 general election, just six out of 100 target seats selected a Black, Asian and ethnic minority candidate. Despite raising our concerns, many in the party were oblivious to this under-representation and only as a result of the efforts of the Labour Friends groups amongst others was this was corrected at late selections. That is why we have been urging the party to take action from the very outset.

We welcome the new parliamentary selection rules that have been adopted by Labour’s national executive committee (NEC). Central to the case for change is a recognition that we need to increase the diversity of candidates, and ensure under-represented groups are able to fight on a fair and equitable basis.

In too many cases, equality has been an after-thought in our processes. We are pleased that the new process starts by reinforcing the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion. We must start by ending the belief that ethnic minority candidates are only able to represent constituencies with a large ethnic minority community. There must be no no-go areas for our ethnic minority members and we welcome the shortlist for the Birmingham Erdington by-election.

Several measures in the process give us confidence. Having a panel of NEC and regional executive representatives longlisting candidates in each constituency will ensure that Black, Asian and ethnic minority candidates do not fail at the first hurdle. The NEC representative will ensure the letter and spirit of the Equalities Act is central to the process and that all applications are considered fairly, and no bias or barriers are put in the way of candidates from under-represented backgrounds. We expect the NEC rep to ensure that selection meetings do not clash with major religious and faith holidays; that reasonable adjustments are made for people with disabilities; and no barriers to people with caring responsibilities stand in the way of selection.

In 2019, we often received complaints from members facing all-white selection committees, which is why we welcome the decision that the NEC-REC longlisting and selection committee shortlisting panels must have at least one Black, Asian and ethnic minority member. There are numerous opportunities hardwired into the process to ensure Black, Asian and ethnic minority candidates make it through the process. From ensuring at least one Black, Asian and ethnic minority candidate is longlisted, to ensuring branches and affiliated organisations are compelled to nominate a BAME candidate. The process will ensure at least one Black, Asian and ethnic minority candidate is on each shortlist.

The shorter process and the spending cap are also helpful in removing systemic hurdles that act as a disincentive to many of our members. Clearly the cost of running a selection campaign will still be an obstacle to some, however, and we urge trade unions to provide financial support to candidates from under-represented groups and transparency with reporting on who they are supporting.

An issue with the 2019 selections was that there was no reporting on equalities data, despite questionnaires being completed by applicants. We expect the NEC organisation sub-committee (‘Org Sub’) and the NEC equalities committee to receive data monthly on the number of ethnic minority candidates applying, longlisted, shortlisted and selected in target seats.

By disaggregating the data, we can see whether there are particular groups not applying. For example, there has still not been a Tamil heritage MP. It is crucial all ethnic groups are represented amongst candidates, and by interrogating the data, we can take corrective action, or look again at the process.

Improving the quality of our candidates is a central theme within the new rules. This is essential for the party to maintain the confidence of voters, including within Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, as well as for ensuring we have a ready supply of Black, Asian and ethnic minority parliamentarians suitable for office. The future candidates programme has been a significant step. Many excellent Black, Asian and ethnic minority candidates have been included, and while their training takes place, the party has now put in place measures to root out the barriers and hurdles that prevents their selection.

The lesson of all-women shortlists is that compulsion has been essential to improving the diversity of our representatives at all levels. The risk is that any gains are short-lived and reverse when compulsion is removed. Ultimately, what is required is a culture change within the party so diversity is truly embraced both in words and in deeds. The changes to the selection process introduced are very welcome but we long for the day where such safeguards in our processes are not required.

Our collective aspiration should be that when the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party takes place after the general election, it will be even more representative of the communities we live and work in. We believe these changes will really help with making that a reality. On behalf of our members, we will work towards that endeavour in the weeks and months ahead.

Amina Ali, Somali Friends of Labour
Ibrahim Dogus, Kurds for Labour
Neena Gill, Sikhs for Labour
Sen Kandiah, Tamils for Labour
Sunny Lambe, Black Labour Movement UK
Sonny Leong, East and South East Asians for Labour (formerly Chinese for Labour)
Julius Nkafu, Africans for Labour

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