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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 05:12 GMT 06:12 UK
New race for equality in politics
Rioting in Bradford last summer
Last years riots show the dangers, says Simon Woolley
Next month's council polls could prove a setback to efforts to re-engage Britain's ethnic minority communities with politics, campaigners fear.

Operation Black Vote's Simon Woolley is worried that outdated attitudes among grass roots political activists will mean there are fewer ethnic minority councillors after the polls.

The leaderships have got to show strong political will, particularly against the narrow mindsets of local parties

Simon Woolley
Mr Woolley raised his concerns ahead of a special conference to try to achieve racial equality when election candidates are chosen.

The conference will focus on Parliament, where only 12 out of 659 MPs are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The 3.8m people from ethnic minorities in Britain make up 6.7% of the total population.

Fifty-one candidates from ethnic minorities stood in last year's general election.

'Going backwards'

Friday's Race Into Parliament conference will bring together politicians, lawyers, academics and political candidates to discuss how to tackle the problem.

Mr Woolley fears ethnic minority representation has actually got worse in recent years.

"Westminster has gone up by two MPs but looking at the new institutions in Wales, Scotland and London, overall it's gone backwards," he said.

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham
David Lammy is one of only 12 MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds
"We will also probably have fewer councillors after the May elections, many candidates have been not reselected by their local parties."

Mr Woolley argues local activists often fight "tooth and nail to avoid change" because of what is often a "narrow mindset".

But real political leadership from the centre is needed from the centre to bring change at grass roots level, he says.

"Positive" discussions have been held with Labour chairman Charles Clarke, Conservative Leader Iain Duncan Smith and Liberal Democrat campaigns director Lord Rennard, he says.

Urgent need

Operation Black Vote believes bold targets and new programmes to recruit, retain and promote ethnic minority candidates are essential minimums.

"There is a very urgent need to address this deficit problem," says Mr Woolley.

"Communities are becoming increasingly disenfranchised and disengaged from the democratic process."

That difficulty has bred the sense of distrust and lack of belonging witnessed in the spate of riots in northern towns last year, he argues.

Mr Woolley says it is linked to the decision of the small number of young Britons who have fought alongside Taleban fighters in Afghanistan.

Christina Dykes, from the Conservative Party, the Green Party's Rajeev Thacker, Labour MEP Robert Evans and Liberal Democrat councillor Rabinder Martins will speak at Friday's conference.

Hard realities

The event has been organised jointly by Brunel University and Hillingdon Law Centre.

Sameena Khan, who is chairing Race Into Parliament, said potential ethnic minority candidates were welcomed at early stages of party selection processes.

"However, they soon point to the hard realities they experience once in the recruitment process," said Ms Khan.

Those problems included being made to feel unwelcome at selection meetings, felt they were being used to "make up the numbers" or to keep out a "strong" candidate.

"Many potential candidates now say they are put off and that the process is a waste of time," added Ms Khan.

See also:

15 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Positive measures needed on race
22 May 00 | UK Politics
Labour 'needs ethnic MP targets'
05 Jul 99 | UK Politics
Call for ethnic minority candidates
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