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Monday, 4 June, 2001, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
Call for action on diversity
By BBC News Online's community affairs reporter Cindi John
A leading think tank is calling on the next government to act to ensure a greater diversity of representation in politics.
In a report to be published after the election the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) will say that if necessary, the government should legislate to ensure a more representative mix in the political arena.
Research fellow Rushanara Ali headed the IPPR project which involved talking to party leaders, workers and parliamentary candidates.
She said: "If all else fails we think the government should look at what can be done in terms of positive action, at the very least to explore what the options are for reform."
In the last parliament at Westminster just 10 MPs, all Labour, were from a minority ethnic group.
If they were represented in proportion to their presence in the UK the number of minority ethnic MPs would be around 40.
In the House of Lords, black and Asian peers accounted for 20 out of a total of 694 but there were no minority ethnic representatives in either the Welsh or Scottish parliaments.
Ms Ali said that although the number of black and Asian parliamentary candidates had consistently increased over the years, they faced a major problem getting selected in winnable seats.
She said they believed that incident was one of the main reasons why black candidates were still perceived as electoral liabilities by many constituency parties.
That's certainly the view of Mohammed Khamisa.
The Muslim barrister has been rejected as a candidate for a Conservative seat 13 times without interview over the past year.
In the three constituencies where he was interviewed he got down to last five in Henley - Michael Heseltine's former seat - but was not selected for final round.
"I think the perception constituency parties hold is very often that it's a risky bet to have a candidate from a minority ethnic community whereas that perception is not necessarily shared by the population at large," said Mr Khamisa.
But he welcomed the selection of Uganda-born Hindu Shailesh Vara in Northampton South, who needs a swing of less than 1% to take the seat from Labour, as a move in the right direction.
"It is a commitment of the national party and, more importantly, the local Conservative association judging Mr Vara on the content of his CV and performance at a selection meeting. And that gives us all hope," said Mr Khamisa.
Others agree that change is long overdue.
In 1986 Linda Bellos began a controversial stint as leader of Lambeth council in south London during what many regard as the heyday of black representation in local government.
She tried unsuccessfully several times to be selected as a Labour parliamentary candidate.
Ms Bellos is particularly bitter not to have been selected for the Vauxhall constituency despite what she says were good local links.
"However like the case of Shaun Woodward in St Helens in recent weeks the Labour party were keen to ensure that their preferred candidate, Kate Hoey, won," she said.
Rushanara Ali of the IPPR believes parties could use current mechanisms to ensure a greater racial mix especially with the proportional representation system used in regional and European elections.
She added the parties needed to be more forward-thinking and plan ahead now for future elections.
"I think one of the things they need to consider is setting objectives, setting targets to ensure they have a certain number of good, ethnic minority candidates." said Ms Ali.
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