How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people?

Without wide changes in party leadership, membership and party procedures, electoral reform will not result in our representatives being any more proportionate.

Our guest writer is Dr Omar Khan, senior policy researcher at race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust; he writes for Runnymede’s Westminster Monitor blog

The question of what makes a voting system proportional is difficult and contentious, so it is important to focus on the question of how different systems may impact black and minority ethnic (BME) representation in the UK.

According to Nick Clegg in his first speech as deputy prime minister this week, more proportional systems provide better representation for underrepresented groups, but the evidence (internationally and in the UK) on this point is more complicated, especially for the ‘AV’ (alternative vote) system on which the Coalition Government has agreed to hold a referendum.

Most European countries have various kinds of proportional voting systems. Only one country – the Netherlands – does as well or better than the UK in terms of the representation of black and minority ethnic people.

The Netherlands has a party list system and 8% of Dutch MPs are BME (compared to roughly 11% of the population). Conversely, France – with a non-proportional voting system – has only 2 BME MPs out of 555, or 0.4%, compared to an overall BME population estimated at 12.6%.

However, countries with more proportional systems do not always deliver more BME representatives. For example, in Germany (where exactly half of candidates are selected on a mixed member proportional system) only 1.3% of representatives are from a black and minority ethnic background, compared to almost 5% of the population.

For whatever reason, BME candidates are not selected for their parties’ lists in Germany and indeed elsewhere in Europe. It is of course also likely that different political cultures, citizenship law, and responses to ethnic diversity are likely to affect representation whatever the electoral system.

It is not always appreciated that the UK has a number of different electoral systems in its various representative bodies. The table below summarises the numbers of BME representatives in these different UK representative institutions. The key point is that the sorts of proportional systems we have in the UK do not tend to result in a significant increase in the number of BME representatives.

Representative Body % BME representatives % BME in representative area Voting System
UK Parliament 4.1% 10%+ First Past Post
England Councillors 4.1% 11.3% Various, but mainly plurality (non-proportional)
London Councillors 17.7% 35%+ Plurality at-large (non-proportional)
Wales Assembly 1.7% (1 out of 60) 2% Mixed: 40 FPTP, 20 PR
Scottish Assembly 0%* 2% Mixed: 73 FPTP, 56 PR
London Assembly 16% 35%+ Mixed: 14 FPTP, 11 PR
Northern Ireland 1% 2% STV (proportional)
UK MEPs 5.7% 10%+ PR (D’Hondt – GB, STV – NI)
All European Parliament 1.1% (estimate) 5% PR
House of Lords 5.2% 10%+ Appointed

* Bashir Ahmad was elected as the first BME MSP in 2007, but has sadly passed away;
when he was a representative, 0.7% of the Scottish Parliament of 129 MSPs was BME

Westminster elections are decided by perhaps the most influential example of first past the post (FPTP). In the 2010 UK General Election, this system resulted in 27 BME MPs being elected, 16 Labour and 11 Conservative. This was a significant increase from 15 in the previous Parliament, especially for the Conservatives, who increased from 2 to 11 BME MPs.

Just over 4% of Parliament is now BME, compared to roughly 10-11% BME in the total population; the 2001 Census counted 8% BME people, while the ONS 2007 estimate for England was 11.3%, and given existing trends, the 2011 Census is likely to estimate a UK BME population at 11-12%

The Scotland, Wales and London Assemblies all have mixed voting systems, with the majority decided by FPTP, and between 33% and 44% of their members chosen by proportional lists. Scotland and Wales have very small BME populations, but each Assembly has returned one BME member through their list system. As mentioned above, the Scottish MSP, Bashir Ahmed, has since died, while the Welsh AM, Mohammad Asghar, defected from Plaid Cymru to the Conservative party.

In London, the 4 BME Assembly members (16%) represent roughly half the proportion of London’s BME population (35% or more), and only one of the four was elected via the list. While proportional systems seem to provide greater representation of BME people, so far this has provided a quite modest effect; indeed, when Scotland moved to an STV system for local elections in 2007, there was no increase in the number of BME councillors.

The European Parliament election further explains the role that PR might be able to play in increasing the number of disadvantaged groups on UK representative bodies. There is a slightly higher number of BME MEPs from the UK (5.7%) than there is in the House of Commons (4.1%), but there are three caveats.

First is that there are fewer MEPs, meaning that each MEP contributes more to proportionality (or indeed disproportionality); second is that the number of overall MEPs from all European countries is very low indeed (1.1%); third is that the House of Lords – a chamber that is currently wholly appointed – has a roughly similar share of BME members (5.2%) as does the UK delegation in Brussels, and more than in the House of Commons.

What conclusions can we draw from this admittedly brief study of BME representation and electoral systems? First, that the choice of system does indeed have some effect, but the effect derives from more ‘pure’ proportional systems such as single transferable vote (with more than one representative per constituency) or party lists; other considerations include how constituency boundaries are drawn, and the dispersal of a given population.

Second, however, is that party leadership and commitment to ethnic representation is as important as the proportionality of a system in increasing the numbers of under-represented groups.

In the Netherlands, for example, the popularity of anti-immigrant parties led leaders to place black and minority ethnic candidates in a high position on their lists, thereby ensuring they would get voted in. If, however, party leaders do not select BME candidates for their list, then such candidates are no more likely to get voted in than they are under FPTP.

This last point is worth reflecting on in the UK context. In recent Westminster elections, both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have been able to improve the representation of women and BME people through measures adopted by the party leadership, namely all-women shortlists and the ‘A-list’; for a good summary of the representation of women in parliaments, see IDEA (2005), ‘Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers‘. Whatever the merits of these policies, they have been successful in increasing representation – even in a FPTP electoral system.

And, of course, the wholly appointed House of Lords is still more representative than the Commons, indicating that party leaderships could perhaps deliver even better results. We should therefore be cautious in agreeing to Nick Clegg’s claim that PR (or devolution of power) will increase the representation of disadvantaged and under-represented groups, especially as the Liberal Democrats currently have no BME MPs, and have a very small number of women MPs.

Given that the coalition agreement explicitly states that our future referendum will be on the alternative vote only – which strictly speaking is not a proportional system at all – there is no reason to believe that this reform will increase the number of women or BME MPs. Without wider changes in the political party leadership, membership and party procedures, electoral reform will not result in our representatives being any more proportionate.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

38 Responses to “How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people?”

  1. irene rukerebuka

    RT @leftfootfwd: How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people? – Analysis of the various systems

  2. Laura

    RT @leftfootfwd: How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people? – Analysis of the various systems

  3. Rich Watts

    RT @leftfootfwd: How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people? Analysis of the various systems << useful

  4. Charge Engine

    Article comes to a logically invalid conclusion.

    “electoral reform will not result in our representatives being any more proportionate.”

    I think we may suffer from the from the correlation is not necessarily causation problem here. Just because on the whole BME are under-represented using a voting system does not mean the voting system itself is at fault. To fully analyse the situation you’d need to ask more questions like ‘how many BME MPs/MEPs/Councillers actually stood to be elected? geographically where did they stand? what party did they stand for? what proportion of BME vote?’

    As rightly pointed out in the article improvement has come from party initiatives to put BMEs in seats. The article does at least conclude that BMEs are under-represented everywhere across europe. Has this really got anything to do with the voting system or is a there a more fundamental reason?

  5. tomtiddler

    the left are utterly obsessed with race. if you are an ethnic minority and want to get on, the UK is the best place in the world for it. the conservatives gave us an ethnic minority prime minister in 1868 for god’s sake. get over it

  6. Robert

    Lets see I was out marching in the 1960’s to allow Black people to have rights, to live in council houses to enter pubs and clubs, to even stop them being refused bed and breakfast, I thought black white are one nation one flag and all that crap, what did the Black groups do, they split up into the Black Police federations the Muslim the catholic, I wasted my time.

    We are now more divided then at anytime before, if I started a group which said whites only I’d be slammed, yet if I said it’s blacks only thats OK.

    boy what a waste of time.

  7. Carmen

    RT @leftfootfwd: How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people? – Analysis of the various systems

  8. geoff g


    i agree. we have had 13 years of government where the most important thing about anyone was their race, religion, gender etc rather than the meritocracy most of us want.

    it isn’t coherent long term to have a black police association and not a chinese/gay/white/etc association.

    maybe without the divisive and racist government we have had for the last decade, we’ll be able to start treating each other as individuals rather than group members

  9. Lunchtime list for « Talk Issues

    […] How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people? – Dr Omar Khan from the Runnymede Trust considers the impact of AV and proportional representation on BME representation. (Left Foot Forward) […]

  10. Essexboy

    Q. How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people?

    A. Who cares?

  11. Al

    Whilst I have no objection to there being more BME MPs I think there is an unhelpful obsession with race underlying this premise. His argument seems to be that if 10% of the general population comprises BME people then roughly 10% of our parliament should consist of BME MPs. I don’t know about Dr Khan, but I don’t choose which candidate to vote for based on race. I prefer to choose who to vote for based on candidate’s policies, track record and my opinion of whether or not they could do a good job.

  12. Lord Pont


    I wouldn’t expect the % BMEs in the country to be reflected in parliament. If a man comes with his family to this country then I wouldn’t expect him to end up in parliament. His kids, maybe. Just as English people who moved to Spain don’t end up in the legislature.

    I would expect the % representation in parliament to follow by 1 generation the % representation in the country at large. which it does. no racism here, please move on.

  13. Philip Cane

    RT @leftfootfwd: How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people? – Analysis of the various systems

  14. Anon E Mouse

    For goodness sake it’s 2010 can we PLEASE stop discussing peoples colour…

  15. Lord Pont


    Labour likes to put people in boxes and then refer to them as a group (and preferably have a self-appointed ‘group leader’ to consult with). Obviously there is going to be a box labelled ‘black people’ as there is ‘gay people’ &tc.

    I agree we should just stop talking about it, but it’s hard. Every time you see ‘group x is under-represented in field y’ then you just want to shout about statistics or equality of opportunity or cultural differences. Unfortunately the preferred reason for the above is British people are racist/sexist/homophobic/etc

  16. shakha

    To all of you who believe that if we stop talking about race it will magically go away: look at France. France doesn’t “allow” talk of race. They don’t gather racial statistics. They work hard to argue that talk of race increases racism. They also have one of the worst overall levels of representation of BME in all of Europe. There’s similar evidence to this across all kinds of organizations. If you don’t talk about the gender dynamics of a workplace, that workplace will have poor gender relations (and, likely, lower wages for women).

    Not talking about race is akin to closing your eyes to hope that something will magically go away. Long ago, indeed, while children, most of us learned that that simply won’t happen.

  17. Lord Pont


    Race doesn’t actually exist. It really doesn’t. That is the overwhelming view of the scientific community. Genetic differences between ‘races’ are smaller than between individuals of any ‘race’. It is divisive to pretend there are differences between us as humans and to define this as ‘race’. Anybody that even accepts the racial theory of humanity are themselves a racist. Anybody that wants to talk about race are themselves racists.

  18. shakha

    @Lord Pont: thanks for the concern about me being a racist. Very touching. There is a difference between a scientific fact and a social fact. All kinds of social realities have little to no scientific basis. National identification would be another good example. By your logic, anyone who thinks of themselves as British is a nationalist, an no better than any other nationalist (nationalists are bad — look at the 20th century).

    Social facts can have far larger impacts than scientific facts. Look for example, at wage differences by race and gender. Or rates of imprisonment by race.

    You know what else doesn’t exist in science? Honorific titles.

  19. Anon E Mouse

    shakha – France is anti-Islam really unless you are trying to say muslims are a race?

    We simply should stop treating people differently just because they are a different colour – The Black Police Federation should be banned immediately – it is most certainly racist.

    And as for “closing your eyes” that is simply patronising to anyone with even half a brain. Stop bringing this up as an issue – it isn’t one.

    On TV last month a black woman was “refusing to answer to her slave name”…


    …I say; “For goodness sake lose the chip on your shoulder woman and GROW up…”

  20. Omar Khan

    My post principally addresses whether or not a particular electoral method is likely to increase BME representation, not whether increasing that representation is a relevant aim. This is especially important to understand where politicians are claiming that PR is likely to increase representation of women, BME and disabled people. I’m not clear if commentators have any objection to my argument that the evidence for electoral reform increasing BME representation is quite weak – especially where that reform doesn’t include changes in political parties’ leadership, policies and membership.

    The idea that the number of women, BME and disabled people in representative institutions is an indication of the quality of our democracy is not argued in this piece, though I’m surprised commentators find it so controversial. But even if you disagree with the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties that increasing representation is a legitimate aim, it’s worth understanding whether their proposals to do so are likely to be effective (and they are all trying to do so), or whether those proposals might be improved.

  21. Lord Pont

    “All kinds of social realities have little to no scientific basis”

    I don’t even know what that means. And nationalism is not bad. The 20th century was bloody because of socialism of either international (Russia) or national (Nazi) flavour.

    “Social facts can have far larger impacts than scientific facts.”

    When I fly in a plane I just hope to God it was designed by someone who had scientific rather than social facts to aid him!!

    “Look for example, at wage differences by race and gender. Or rates of imprisonment by race.”

    Race doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t know how.

  22. Vicki Butler

    RT @leftfootfwd: How proportional is PR for Black and ethnic minority people? – Analysis of the various systems

  23. Anon E Mouse

    Omar – The whole thing smacks of social engineering – I don’t care if the new government has x number of woman in it or not.

    What is particularly annoying is that people like Harriet Harman complain that there are not enough woman in the coalition I say so what?

    Cameron is just as bad by all women short lists and the like. People should be rewarded on merit irrespective of their sex, sexuality, race – whatever and this attempt to “make the commons represent the people” just stinks.

    And the politicians don’t believe it either – if they did Harriet Harman wouldn’t have got her husband, the limited Jack Dromey, a safe Labour seat.

    The whole thing stinks and hopefully Nick Clegg will repeal many of these stupid Labour equality laws and the country can once again get back to a bit of common sense. I do know that if Labour and the left wing blogs continue to perpetuate these views it will not help them with the electorate.

  24. Lord Pont

    @good point Anon about Harman/Dromey. She only wants equality for other people. The Labour government gave £11 million to Unite for ‘modernisation’ and they donate it to the Labour party in return for Jack Dromey, Harman’s husband being parachuted into a safe seat. Could have had an all women short list, but Harman didn’t vote for that. She smelt hard cash.

  25. Anon E Mouse

    Lord Pont – They did the same some years ago against Peter Law when Labour tried to force an all woman shortlist in Blaenau Gwent. Peter Law resigned from the Labour Party in protest and standing as an independent overturned a 20K majority to win the seat.

    The trouble with Labour is the rank hypocrisy they display – for the sake of good opposition politics in this country I hope they elect David Miliband or Diane Abbot (I know she’s a hypocrite over her son’s schooling but hey) and NOT Ed Miliband or Balls or Harman – w

  26. Anon E Mouse

    Lord Pont – Bang on dude. They did the same some years ago against Peter Law when Labour tried to force an all woman shortlist in Blaenau Gwent. Peter Law resigned from the Labour Party in protest and standing as an independent overturned a 20K majority to win the seat.

    The trouble with Labour is the rank hypocrisy they display – for the sake of good opposition politics in this country I hope they elect David Miliband or Diane Abbot (I know she’s a hypocrite over her son’s schooling but hey) and NOT Ed Miliband or Ed Balls or Harriet Harman – the public have shown they’ve had a gut’s full of those types…

  27. Lord Pont

    I don’t think Diane actually wants it. I think she’s standing to increase the diversity of choice. I know nothing about McDonell. I really don’t think there is a good choice, but they will want someone a bit less feudal than Balls if they want to be introspective.

  28. Shamik Das

    It’s absolutely relevant. This is 2010. It may be a gradual process, but change is coming – even the Tories realise it, and to David Cameron’s great credit he’s tried to do something about it; more females and more ethnic minorities in winnable Tory seats at the last election. The question now is, will Mr Clegg follow suit? I hope he does.

  29. shakha

    @ Lord P: Your claim: things that don’t have a scientific basis don’t exist. So let’s follow the logic:

    Religion: Doesn’t exist. No scientific basis.
    Democracy: Doesn’t exist. No scientific basis. This applies to all political forms. Political parties also don’t exist. They have no scientific basis. So why argue about them?
    Nations/States: Don’t exist. No scientific basis.
    Money: Doesn’t exist. No scientific basis.
    Property: Doesn’t exist. No scientific basis.
    Literature/The Arts: Doesn’t exist. No scientific basis.
    The Family: Doesn’t exist. No scientific basis.

    I could go on and on, but the point should be clear. This is what I mean by, “All kinds of social realities have little to no scientific basis.” These things are all real. But they’re not based in science. This should also shed light on the fact that social facts which have no scientific basis can massively impact your life.

    Claiming that race doesn’t exist because it doesn’t have a scientific basis is akin to claiming that religion, money, politics, states, the family, the arts, property, etc. don’t exist because they don’t have a scientific basis.

  30. Anon E Mouse

    Shamik – Social engineering is social engineering irrespective of how often one attempts to justify it. By judging people on their colour or sex or sexuality is just discriminatory and wrong.

    As a Liberal I certainly hope Clegg doesn’t follow suit but I bet he will, after all the ‘Liberals’ voted for a smoking ban…

  31. trevmax


    all those things you list exist and can be proven scientifically to exist. do you understand what science is? if i went out and did a scientific survey of 10 different money/voting systems or anything else you list, then those things exist. literature exists. race doesn’t, however much you want it to

  32. trevmax

    @shamik. i have to agree with anon. racism is racism is bad. even if you think it’s ‘good’ racism. doing things to people because of their perceived race (in fact we mean culture/colour/heritage because race doesn’t exist) then you are not treating them as a human being. i find that degrading. when jacqui smith ended up as an mp and a home seretary because of her sex, then i think that demeaned her actual achievement. likewise, token ethnic minorities (and that’s what they are if the are positively discriminated for), always pushing black policeman to the front for photos etc is all a bit distasteful. i would have hoped we could consign this along with measuring people’s skulls to see if they are criminals to the dustbin of history.

    i think this is an area where the left just doesn’t “get it”

  33. Anon E Mouse

    trevmax – Agreed. The left seems to think is has a moral right to force it’s views down people’s throats and then complain if they do not agree with those view.

    In this huge soul searching naval gazing period Labour is embarking on it needs to decide if people still want to have an enormous all powerful government and state that rules by enforcing laws it invents for specific knee jerk offences or one that starts to act on behalf on the people who support it and vote for it.

    That’s why I *really* don’t want Ed Miliband, Balls or Harman or those types as leader of the party. All that will do is ensure the more unpleasant aspects of Labour will prevail and cost the party at forthcoming elections…

  34. trevmax

    I would like to see a Labour party that I could vote for again. We don’t have one now. Only McDonnell and Abbott aren’t tainted by the previous ‘regime’. Balls doubly so because he was behind the economic mess. And lets have a bit less of identity politics. Labour has a long and sometime proud history. The loony PC Millie Tant type politics is a recent aberration.

    PS I would vote for Abbott as leader, not because she is black or a woman but because (i really don’t know mcdonnell) she has more integrity than the rest of them.

  35. Roger

    There is an gigantic missed point here about demographic structures, citizenship and turnout levels – ‘10%+ BME’ presumably applies to the whole population of the UK – not to:

    a) the percentage of voting age adults who are BME
    b) the percentage of voting age adults eligible to vote who are BME
    c) the percentage of voting age adults eligible to vote who actually cast those votes who are BME.

    I’ve no idea what the actual percentage of c) might be – perhaps someone can enlighten us – but I’d be willing to bet that it’s rather nearer 5% than 10%.

    Plus as always you must take class and gender into account – IMO MPs are vastly more disproportionately middle class and male than they are disproportionately white.

    And crudely lumped together as BMEs minority populations are less likely to be middle class – and their womenfolk are even less likely to be in the middle class professions (if you can call Oxbridge degree – parliamentary aide or researcher – SPAD a ‘professional’ career path) from which MPs are now recruited than white women.

    So I agree BMEs are probably under-represented in electoral terms and that something should be done about it – but if you take every variable into account its probably much more marginal than you suggest.

  36. Roger

    Three words: class, class, class.

  37. Mark

    But the purpose of PR isn’t to improve representation of ethnic minorities, it’s to improve the representation *of what people vote for*. So this whole article misses the point.

    If PR means that the elected candidates don’t better represent the population’s ethnicities (and a survey of a few UK systems surely isn’t enough to find a correlation, due to many other factors and the small sample size), then it means that what people vote for aren’t representative of ethnicity. The problem isn’t with the voting system – there must be other reasons (such as fewer BME candidates).

    Such a result also means that many BME voters will be voting for non-BME candidates. But this isn’t necessarily a problem – surely people should vote based on policies, not their race! So again, the problem isn’t with how people vote (or how the voting system represents that vote), it’s a question of whether BME people are getting equal opportunities at standing for elections.

Leave a Reply