Photograph: Martin Edobor
Two sets of figures in politics are yet to match up: 13% and 6%. The former is the demographic for people from a BAME background in the UK population, and the latter the proportion of MP's who come from a BAME background. Though the first MP'S from a BAME background came from the Liberal and Conservative parties in the 19th century, it was the Labour Party who made the most vigorous strides towards BAME representation through legislation with the introduction of The Equality Act in 2010, but also through representation, with 65% of the BAME MP's in Parliament sitting on the Labour benches. But progress towards greater BAME representation in the Labour Party has slowed down and now there are only six more BAME MP's on the Labour benches than the Conservatives. I asked three young BAME activists within the Labour party as to how this historic fissure can be overcome?
All -Women shortlists where introduced into the Labour party in 1993. After it's introduction the number of women Labour MPs increased to 101 in the 1997 general election a massive increase from the 37 women Labour MPs elected in 1992 . Though there was criticism around the democratic validity of such a move it greatly re-addressed the gender balance within the party. Labour party member, Martin Edobor a Junior Doctor and Chair of the Young Fabians, the under-31 section of the Fabian Society, a UK, centre-left think tank, sees all-BAME shortlists as an imperative to increasing BAME representation in Parliament: "We have seen the positive impact of all- women shortlists on transforming the parliamentary Labour party. In order to improve ethnic minority political representation from a Labour party perspective we need to implement ethnic minority shortlists for parliamentary selection".
Edobor, who was identified by Voice Magazine in 2014 as "one to watch" is a proponent of Dawn Butler MP's initiative Bernie's List, which was named after the pioneering BAME MP Bernie Grant who entered the Commons in that golden year of 1987 alongside Diane Abbot and Keith Vaz. Bernie's List sets out to reach out and support BAME activists as they navigate their way through the hurdles of political life, as Edobor avers "Bernie's List"...is the only way to overcome the structural hurdles that ethnic minorities face within the Labour Party in gaining selection as a parliamentary candidate".
Likewise Mete Coban, a Labour councilor who is Chief Executive of the charity My Life My Say which reaches out to young people to get them enthused and empowered about politics; follows on from Edobor, he believes one of the key avenues to increasing greater BAME engagement in our political system is by creating a "supporting system for aspiring BAME communities and the reality is that this can only work if the Party puts money on the table". It is vital that upcoming generations of the BAME community see people from their communities being successful in politics, taking leading roles and becoming MPs and Councillors. Without these role models they may be less likely to feel that they themselves can be successful.
Alongside changes in the mechanism of the Party, tackling the underlying issues that may lead to many in the BAME community feeling disillusioned with the institutions and mind-set of our society is essential. Huda Elmi a student at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS); who is BAME officer for Labour students and Co-chair of the SOAS Labour Society asserts: "I think beyond BAME shortlists, or before we can even begins to discuss them, we have to create spaces to self-organize and push for meaningful policies." She argues that the BAME community need "collectivize our struggle and lobby government on pertinent issues such as Prevent or Stop and Search etc."
Coban believes these issues are integral but that we also need to engage "BAME communities on policy that is not only perceived to be a BAME issue." Theresa May recently commissioned an audit to "tackle racial disparities in public service outcomes". But as Edobor astutely points out "we already know what the outcome of this audit is, that the Conservatives have failed the BAME community through their ideological programme of austerity, with a succession of regressive Tory policies on welfare such as the bedroom tax and the benefit cap effecting BAME people disproportionately". This is evidenced by the Department for Work and Pension themselves, who predicted in 2012 "that of the households likely to be affected by the [benefit] cap approximately 40% will contain somebody who is from an ethnic minority". In this environment of Tory austerity, it is BAME representation that matters more than ever.
There was a 12% difference in turnout between the BAME and white community in the 2015 general election. These disparities leave a chasm in our democracy, and though much progress has been made in the Post war period-thanks to the efforts of trailblazers like the Grunwick strikers in the 1970's - the majority of strikers were BAME women who received widespread support from the labour movement.
There are still great strides to be made. Labour, with its rich heritage of promoting BAME causes is in ideal position to overcome the divides that still exist in our democracy. For the next generation of Labour activists it will necessitate a combination of changes to the mechanisms of the Party; realistically the only way we are going to increase the number of BAME MPs is by the introduction of all-BAME shortlists. Long term we need to address the issue of participation, increase BAME membership to the Labour Party an work to achieve support for Labour's principles and policies amongst BAME communities.