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Tuesday, 1 May, 2001, 11:13 GMT
Race: Role in political life

Black and Asian people are under-represented politically
What role do the UK's ethnic minorities play in political life - and are they fairly represented?


BACKGROUND

Just under four million (around 6.5%) of Britons are non-white, yet just ten MPs in the House of Commons - less than 1% - are black or Asian.

There are no black or Asian representatives in either the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly.

And in the new Greater London Assembly, representing a city in which around one-third of eligible voters are non-white, just two of the 25 members are black.

Operation Black Vote (OBV), an organization set up to persuade more people from minority ethnic groups to take part in the electoral process, has said that at least 20 key marginal seats could be swung by putting up black or Asian candidates.

OBV's key marginals
Kingston & Surbiton
Torbay
Milton Keynes NE
Wellingborough
Bedfordshire SW
Harrow West
Kettering
Southwark N & Bermondsey
Chipping Barnet
Rugby & Kenilworth

Its research discovered that in 100 seats across England and Wales black and Asian voters potentially held the balance of power.

For example in 1997 the Liberal Democrats won a majority of just 56 in Kingston, Surrey, while the ethnic minority population in the area numbers nearly 6,000.

In Harrow West, which has 15,000 people from ethnic minority groups the Labour majority was 1,200.

And in Beckenham where the Conservatives had a similar majority the ethnic minority population is approximately four times that figure.

Research for the Commission for Racial Equality showed that in the 1997 election more than 80% of ethnic minorities voted Labour.

Around 9% voted for the Conservatives with 3% supporting the Liberal Democrats.

Other figures have shown that more than a quarter of eligible black and Asian people are not registered to vote compared to 18% of the white population.

Since the 1997 election both Labour and the Conservatives have set up units to attract more black and Asian members.


CANDIDATES

But though Tony Blair has on occasion courted the black vote - he told black church leaders at a conference in July 1999 of his desire for more black MPs - Labour has come in for increasing criticism over the small number of black candidates it has fielded in recent years.

Race in the UK
6% belong to an ethnic minority group.
10% predicted by 2020
2m South Asians largest group
1m Britons of African/Caribbean descent
Critics urged the party to adopt a system similar to the all women shortlists. But although successful in helping redress the gender balance such lists were ruled illegal.

Five new black or Asian MPs were returned for Labour at the last election, adding to Labour's four incumbent ethnic minority members. One more black MP joined after a by-election at the end of 2000.

By February Labour had selected nine non-white prospective parliamentary candidates to fight the coming election though critics say just one, Gloucester, is a winnable seat.

Like Tony Blair, the Conservative leader, William Hague, also told the conference of black church leaders of his wish to have to see more black MPs, saying he looked to the day when Britain had a black prime minister.

But although a number of black and Asian candidates have stood as Conservatives in recent elections, so far none have made it to Parliament.

Their cause was hurt by incidents such as that following the 1992 selection of black barrister John Taylor as the candidate for a by-election in Cheltenham.

He was imposed as the candidate against the wishes of the local party and subsequently lost the previously safe Conservative seat.

Around fifteen candidates from minority ethnic groups will be standing as Conservatives at the coming election but only one, Shailesh Vara in Northampton South, has been selected for what is widely considered to be a winnable seat.

The Liberal Democrats, like the Conservatives, have no black MPs though the party's president is the Asian peer, Lord Dholakia.

At least eight non-white candidates are expected to fight seats for the Liberal Democrats in the coming election.

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