We need to end this patronising approach to ethnic minority representation

We have a real problem with ethnic minority representation.

Anwar Khan is a Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets

The debate spawned by Sunny Hundal’s article on LabourList today is long overdue. Labour’s efforts on ethnic minority representation have been well-meaning and far more successful than those of the other major parties.

But as one of the younger generation of ethnic minority politicians, I have found the party’s approach to be at best, outdated and at worst, deeply patronising.

In 2004, Mumtaz Samad told Helene Mulholland in the Guardian that she was quiting the Labour Party and stepping down as a councillor after being ‘bullied and harassed’.

Among her complaints were that Tower Hamlets council’s Labour group was segregated by skin colour and when she was first elected, she was told to sit with fellow Bengali councillors.

“I did not expect it towards someone like me – a graduate and professional, and pretty clued-up,” she said.

“They didn’t expect to encounter someone who can understand the issues and argue back…if I were a ‘yes’ person and wore a sari, it would have been different,” she added.

Ten years on, I’ve just been deselected from the same council. I’d been the Labour group’s chief whip for three years, and have campaigned almost every weekend for the party since 2002.

But the local hierarchy grew tired of me. I’m young and articulate, I work as an accountant in the city and I’m outspoken. None of this went down well – the selection panels seem to prefer Bengali candidates who are unemployed and struggle with English, because they don’t want to include us in leadership in any meaningful way.   

Lutfur Rahman, the party’s original candidate for the newly created executive mayoralty – and now the independent mayor of Tower Hamlets – suffered the same fate in 2010. Despite winning a ballot of members by a landslide, he was deselected behind closed doors after a dossier of allegations was presented to the NEC by a beaten selection rival.

He had no opportunity to dispute the allegations, which have yet to be investigated. Of the 19 Labour councillors in the borough deselected or expelled since 2010, only one has been white.

And it’s not just in Tower Hamlets. Eight black and Asian councillors quit Labour in Harrow last year alleging racial discrimination in the group. Barnet councillor Ansuya Sodha left the Labour group last week saying that ours was “no longer the party for equality and justice, especially where the Indian community are concerned”.

Lambeth Labour group suspended popular black councillor Kingsley Abrahams in 2012 after he spoke out against cuts. The party had to pay Birmingham’s Councillor Raghib Ahsan £120,000 in compensation after his deselection was found to be discriminatory by the House of Lords.

Purely tokenistic engagement with ethnic minority communities in Bradford also saw the city return the odious George Galloway, who I campaigned hard to defeat when he stood in the East End, to Parliament. Diane Abbott has recently spoken out about the paucity of black Labour MPs.

It pains me to say it, because I love the Labour Party – I’m a huge supporter of Ed Miliband and I want to see a Labour government elected in 2015. But we have a real problem with ethnic minority representation. 

Labour have more ethnic minority councillors than any other party, and we should be proud of that. But it can’t just be lip service.

We should be harnessing the talent of our ethnic minority grassroots activists and letting them share in the direction of our party – but instead the majority of the new ethnic minority candidates in my borough have come from George Galloway’s Respect, chosen not for their commitment to Labour but because party chiefs think these ‘community leaders’ can deliver the ‘block vote’.

Some have not been party members for the requisite three months, some stood against Labour at the last election and one even remains a member of Respect.

We cannot afford to ignore this any longer. It means insulted communities, alienated voters and once safe Labour seats thrown into the balance unnecessarily. Above all, it’s against everything that Labour should stand for.

Only when we come to terms with this can we build the One Nation party that Ed Miliband sees as the future for Labour representation in Britain.

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