Labour’s minority problem

The party leadership should look beyond the lawyers, SPADs and career politicians to enable a far greater number of ethnic minority candidates.

The party leadership should look beyond the lawyers, SPADs and career politicians and bring in a greater number of ethnic minority candidates

Just one week after the major political parties launched their General Election campaigns, depressingly little headway has been made to cut through the cynicism of the electorate.

And voters aren’t the ones to blame; their apathy is reflective of a much wider problem.

Seven years of austerity are taking their toll and none of the major parties have reached out far enough and wide enough to engage with real people in order to deliver their message.

And that’s before you take the ethnic minorities into account. While far from ignored, Labour has rested on its laurels in recent years and seen its traditional voter base eroded.

Bradford and Tower Hamlets should have been the wake-up call that the party needed but sadly the lessons have not been learnt; CLP’s around the UK are either being hollowed out or are failing to take advantage of the significant number of ethnic minority voters in their constituencies.

What’s worse is that this is often happening without the party noticing, especially in Labour-led authorities, or where the majority is superficially large.

Take Edmonton constituency in North London. This is a seat that has delivered large majorities for Labour. And why wouldn’t it, given its ‘traditional Labour’ demographic?

However, as recently as 1997 the seat was held by the Conservatives. But then so was Clacton (formerly Harwich) until 2001. And Heywood & Middleton, which only remained Labour by a whisker in October’s by­election.

Therefore, it’s not inconceivable that constituencies such as Edmonton could be hollowed out through a combination of complacency, inactive membership and voter apathy at what is perceived to be a lack of clear water between the three main political parties.

This situation is made more precarious by the fact that Labour is failing to win over ethnic minorities with its largely untargeted, broad-brush approach.

And the figures are eye-watering. To use Edmonton again as an example, Labour cemented a majority of 9,613 there in 2010. While this figure appears respectable, it disguises the fact that there are three times that number (27,000) of muslims in a constituency that is 73 per cent ethnic minority, based on the 2011 National Census figures. But as elsewhere in London, Labour is neither engaging meaningfully with these minorities nor giving suitable candidates the opportunity to.

Take the recent selection in Holborn & St Pancras. No-one could argue that Keir Starmer isn’t a strong candidate with a respected track record in public office. However the manner he was selected has left a bitter taste in the mouth of many minority candidates who also coveted the seat.

And that feeling is accentuated when you take into account the fact that ethnic minorities make up 55 per cent of the constituency. That in itself shows that it was a real opportunity missed not to select a representative candidate.

The worry is the message these selections send out beyond the borders of the constituency, especially to voters in areas Labour hopes to win back, such as Bradford, whose voters will surely feel their decision to support Respect has been vindicated.

That’s why I was encouraged to read the recent interview with David Lammy, in which he acknowledged that Labour needs to address this current malaise. Not least because, as someone running to be Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, he’ll be acutely aware of the fact that Labour lost the 2012 London election by just 100,000 votes. That figure is further dwarfed by the 4.5m members of the ethnic minority community in the city.

So while constituencies turn to this year’s General Election, one that is far from being decided yet, I call on all grassroots members, activists and Labour representatives to cast the net as wide as possible in order to engage meaningfully with this significant section of the community.

And I urge the party leadership to look beyond the lawyers, SPADs and career politicians in order to enable a far greater number of ethnic minority candidates to represent their diverse communities to ensure that once again Labour is the party of the people.

Henry Engler is a Labour Party member and has worked with ethnic minority organisations to campaign on community issues

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