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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 06:39 GMT
Positive measures needed on race
Muhammad Anwar
Professor Anwar believes positive measures needed
By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

A leading Muslim academic has called for the introduction of a system of positive discrimination along the lines of Labour's women-only shortlists to ensure better political representation of the UK's ethnic minorities.

Professor Muhammad Anwar, of the University of Warwick's centre for research in ethic relations, said Britain's multi-racial society is scarcely reflected within the political institutions.

It's alright to appoint an Asian as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party but what does it mean?

Professor Anwar
He told BBC News Online that with only a handful of members from ethnic minorities at the Greater London and Welsh Assemblies, the Scottish parliament and at Westminster, it was time for action.

"It's a two-way thing - obviously ethnic minorities have to come forward to participate but they can only participate if the system encourages them.

"I always give the example of women ... but you need the political will - you need to be bold on these things.

"But people will only participate in things if they feel welcome."

A token Tory?

He refers to the appointment of solicitor Shailesh Vara as a Conservative Party vice-chairman.

"It's alright to appoint an Asian as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party but what does it mean? It's symbolic. It's a good thing but I still see it as a token rather than effective representation."

I think the politicians particularly need to put their houses in order because they have a big responsibility [to ethnic minorities]

Prof Anwar
Labour's system to boost the numbers of female MPs was introduced for the 1997 election, and allowed constituencies to volunteer to have women-only shortlists.

The result was a large increase in the intake of women MPs and, although the system was subsequently shown to be in breach of employment laws in the courts in 1998, Professor Anwar believes it could apply to the ethnic minorities.

Notwithstanding that, he is at pains to stress that just because an MP is Asian does not mean that he "represents" Asian people.

Operation black vote

They should be seen to represent members of their constituencies and reflect the ethnic diversity of the UK.

"It's like a medical doctor who is a spokesman on health. It's like working class MPs who were miners," he said.

As long ago as 1974 Professor Anwar was involved in a national survey concerned with finding out whether members of the ethnic minorities were registering to vote.

It is an issue that still concerns him today.

In his 1999 research for Operation Black Vote, which aimed to get ethnic groups involved in the process, he demonstrated that while 18% of white people were not on the electoral register that figure shot to 25% among ethnic minorities.

Professor Anwar is now waiting to see whether the new rolling system of registration introduced at the beginning of this year has an impact.

"If you miss the first step then you are not there as far as the parties are concerned - you don't exist," he said.

Schools, jobs and health

He even suggests that some Asians avoid getting on to the electoral roll because they fear having their addresses found out by racists.

But ultimately it is a case of not feeling connected.

"I think the politicians particularly need to put their houses in order because they have a big responsibility [to ethnic minorities]."

And he stresses that by-and-large people of all racial backgrounds have similar concerns about schools, jobs, the health service.

Black people live mainly in those inner city areas which tend to be represented by Labour MPs.

Media portrayal

"That's why I think Labour has a particular responsibility."

If good race relations in Britain involve being properly represented at a political level then that is no less true when it comes to representation in the media.

As soon as anything bad happens the very loyalty to this country of Black and Asian people is called into question, Professor Anwar says.

A few extremists go off to fight with the Taleban and all Muslims are tarred with the same brush when the vast majority are decent British citizens.

Something extreme happens and the press rush to get a comment from the "Muslim parliament which has no following among Muslims in this country," Professor Anwar insists, instead of going to talk to the mainstream.

Damage from unrest in Burnley
Rioting in Burnley caused widespread destruction
That is particularly damaging because different ethnic groups seldom have a clear idea about how their counterparts live.

Professor Anwar believes that race relations in this country have gone backwards recently.

Unrest in British inner cities between Asian youths and white extremists, the reaction to the atrocities of 11 September are examples.

Ultimately he believes a key element of improving the relationship between the people of the UK is ensuring that they are properly reflected at all levels of British politics.

See also:

05 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Tories appoint first Asian vice-chairman
31 Oct 01 | England
Muslims 'alienated' by UK policy
29 Oct 01 | England
British Muslim deaths 'a waste'
05 May 99 | Europe
Blair praises British Muslims
02 Aug 99 | UK Politics
Operation Black Vote lifts off
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