No, Britain's First Black Prime Minister Doesn't Have To Be A Tory

Not if we reform Labour's party selection processes and put Black candidates in winnable white-majority seats, writes Martin Bailey.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer during a visit to Buck Street Market in Camden, north London, to call on locals to support independent businesses.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer during a visit to Buck Street Market in Camden, north London, to call on locals to support independent businesses.

The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush claimed recently, the first Black Prime Minister will be a Conservative. I am inclined to agree, but Labour can prove us both wrong if it rises to the challenge.

This is not a sexy or factional argument but a technical one. Currently, when interested potential candidates are applying for a vacancy for an election they have to apply for every individual seat, restarting the process over and over again, proving yourself competent to be an MP to a panel of local volunteers, often spending significant sums of money to try to talk to swathes of local members.

If you are unsuccessful, you never really know if it is because you do not have enough experience, the wrong postcode, the wrong union endorsement, or if something more sinister is at play.

“Strong action by Keir Starmer will see our parliamentary diversity reflect the people we are asking permission to govern.”

If we look across the aisle at our Conservative friends, we see a process we can learn a lot from, the parliamentary assessment board – the PAB.

As recently as 2010, Labour still had its own version of the PAB, the National Parliamentary Panel.

Introduced in 2001, it consisted of four-person selection panels, comprised of one NEC member, one member of the Regional Executive, an “experienced party member” and one independent assessor.

Initial applications were scored “blind” by two of these assessors and had to achieve a fixed minimum score against a set list of criteria to progress to the next stage. Here candidates had to complete a 20-minute interview and a written test.

Candidates’ performance on these three stages determined whether they were admitted to the NPP, which permitted them to apply to all open selections.

Miliband reforms saw these slowly done away with, replaced with a Future Candidates Programme, and the current localised model was used in 2015. The 2017 and 2019 emergency processes also could have been much smoother had we still maintained a list of approved candidates.

The Conservative’s PAB, previously a full weekend affair assessing 32 candidates over the course of two days, is now an intensively rigorous full one-day event.

Consisting of an hour-long interview with two assessors, an inbox exercise, a three-part written piece of work, a public speaking exercise and a group exercise where four candidates work together in a role-play situation, you are certainly put through your paces.

They assess communication skills, intellectual skills, relating to people (incorporating inclusion and diversity), leading and motivating, resilience and drive, and conviction.

The panel consists of a pool of trained assessors, using MPs, peers and senior party volunteers. Each assessor must be trained before they can attend a PAB.

Now, we might all scoff and believe we can point to a Tory MP, or twelve, who certainly do not tick all these boxes when viewed through a Labour lens, but the important thing is this is done.

If an individual passes the PAB, potential candidates are admitted to the Approved List, demonstrating they have the potential and the right skill mix to be a Member of Parliament.

“Now is this time for action. Especially now, before we start the 2024 selection process.”

Once on the list they are encouraged to develop and extend their competency by attending training sessions on, for example, handling the media, public speaking and campaigning skills, all incredibly useful skills future Labour MPs, especially those from non-traditional political backgrounds, would benefit from.

One of David Cameron’s great ideas when he became Tory Leader in 2005 was the A-List. A top tier list of around 100 priority names who were to be fast tracked to the shortlists of the safest and top target seats.

The 2010 intake, where 50% of the A-List intake was women, started a trail of the Conservatives receiving accolades in 2015, 2017, and 2019 as “the most diverse intake ever”.

Successful Black MPs like Helen Grant and Sam Gyimah, alongside those unsuccessful like Shaun Bailey and Wilfred “The Black Farmer” Emmanuel-Jones, were all A-List candidates.

Another reform often spoken about in increasing diversity of our Parliamentarians are All-Minority Ethnic shortlists. There are clear pros and cons and the arguments have been heard a thousand times over when discussing All-Women Shortlists.

One major concern I have is we would see great support for them in BAME-majority population seats like East Ham (23% white) or Leicester East (31% white).

However, the same consideration would not be given to Knowsley (98% white) one of our safest seats, or Newcastle East (89% white).

Yet, in the Blue corner, we see Kemi Badenoch representing Saffron Walden (96% white), James Cleverly in Braintree (97% white), Darren Henry in Broxtowe (92% white). It is clearly not a problem with the electorate, is it just a problem with the party membership?

There is no perfect solution to Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Selection, but we know the Tories are creating a diverse and representative Parliamentary Party at a much faster rate than we are.

And it is important local parties select their candidate. One of the major reasons people join a political party is because they get a voice in who represents them, at all levels, and this connection to local members is sacrosanct.

However, if we want any possibility of a Black prime minister, we need to examine how we use our structures to champion the Black talent that exists in the party.

We need to professionalise a process which is too often left in the hands of local players with no real training, where factional politics can stop talented candidates dead in their tracks before they even get to show their mettle.

We have let individual biases too easily take control, or worse, we have made gross assumptions about the biases of the electorate and who we can ask them to vote for.

Strong action by Keir Starmer will see our parliamentary diversity reflect the people we are asking permission to govern. Blair’s commitment to AWS and Cameron’s commitment to his A-List saw both parties make incredible headway in single election cycles. Now is this time for action. And especially now, before we start the 2024 selection process. Let’s prove Stephen Bush wrong.

Martin Bailey is a Labour Party activist and has been Vauxhall Constituency Secretary since 2016.

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