Opinion: Under-representation of BME members in the Lib Dems

As an Asian from a Muslim background, I would first like to state how much I admire the Party’s commitment to Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) representation and its concern for equality and a truly just, modern, multicultural society. Thus I am proud to be a member of the Party.

However, as a member of the Lib Dems, I have become aware of an anomalous situation in the Party, which I believe may be potentially discouraging for BME supporters, as well as damaging to the party’s interest in breaking out of its all-too-consistent third-place position.

Take the timely example European Parliament for instance. There are two Asian Labour Members of the European Parliament and, similarly, three Conservatives. However, there are no ethnic minority Lib Dem MEPs. Moreover, there are no ethnic minority Lib Dem MPs.

On hot issues for the Asian and Muslim communities, for instance, such as Equality, religious freedom, Iraq and Israel, the Lib Dems stances are particularly attractive. However with an all-white representation, the Lib Dems are unidentifiable with voters from these communities. Moreover, and not least, wider BME representation to mirror our modern society, would ensure greater wealth in Lib Dem policy, a positive diversity in viewpoint that could only benefit the Party.

While it is true other major parties have more seats than the Lib Dems, the Lib Dems have emphasised equality in their thinking, so should be doing much more in this way. Indeed, the last thing Lib Dems want to be seen to be doing is paying lip service to diversity.

* Afzal Shaikh is a Lib Dem member studying at Oxford.

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  • Martin Land 10th Jun '09 - 6:57pm

    We did have an Asian MEP; he defected to the Conservatives.

  • rochdale cowboy 10th Jun '09 - 7:31pm

    I have to say I do not share the sentiments in this article – we have seen it before with the under representation of women in our party – the point always seems to be that the party is in some way racist or sexist and therefore the implication is that we should embrace some kind of positive discrimination. I do not agree. We are a party that should have the individual at its heart – and one that should not be looking at the colour , gender or sexual orientation – yes we do need more members – from all walks of life.

  • Another call for ‘equality’ that basically asks for special treatment.

    We’ve had 12 years of Labour lies on this issue, do we really need Lib Dems doing the same thing?

  • I agree with the general points made above, but I don’t think there is any implication in the article that the party is institutionally racist.

    I’d say that some of the steps taken by the two main parties to address the problem of representation – the Tories’ centrally-managed ‘A list’ and Labour’s exclusive short-lists – don’t really fit with the liberal, non-interventionist ethos of party members. I for one would support some kind of intervention, maybe modelled on the ‘twinning’ system used by Labour in the 1999 Welsh Assembly elections. But in the end greater BME representation can probably only be achieved by finding good BME Lib Dems early on, and making sure that no one faces any artificial bars to success.

  • Um, I should say that I don’t in fact agree with Tony, who snuck in there while I crafted my previous comment!

  • Russ:
    “But in the end greater BME representation can probably only be achieved by finding good BME Lib Dems early on, and making sure that no one faces any artificial bars to success.”

    Isn’t this the basis of equality? Choosing people based on their ability, rather than the colour of their skin?

    Don’t mirror the Labour party – look where they are.

  • I agree with the sentiment of the article and second what Joe says. As a union rep in my current job I have some experience of this and it’s often the systems in place for selection which knowingly/unknowingly discriminate against BME or other groups. As a party we need to work out what the barriers are for people to participate and rectify them ourselves. It’s no good just bleating on about everyone has an equal chance because that’s not necessarily true when you sit down and look at the logistical and cultural barriers for people.

    Also as much as we can say people have an equal chance sometimes locally the system seems specifically weighted to towards those who are already involved. There was an example is a recent selection for a vacated council seat in my area – a seat that will be difficult to fight but a lib dem seat nonetheless. The seat was selected by sending an email around the local activist list and people were then given only 2 weeks to reply. Nothing was sent to members and there was no broader process to encourage new people to put their names in. In a situation like that only the usual suspects apply and have the opportunity to be selected.

    Whilst it’s difficult to police these local selections having a selection policy based along the lines of an open primary could help.

  • Tony – you’re right, the second part of my answer (about simply ensuring there are no artificial bars to progress for potential BME candidates) is the same as yours. But I’d stress that that is what I think is most likely to happen. As I state in the first part of my answer, I would nonetheless support some sort of positive discrimination, which I don’t think you do.

    Labour in 2009 are in disarray. But they’ve also enjoyed 12 years of power, and that’s one of the things I see when I look at them.

  • “Moreover, there are no ethnic minority Lib Dem MPs.”

    This is just not true. Lembit is the son of Estonian refugees, by any definition that is an ethnic minority.

    We don’t have any non-white MPs but that is not the same thing.

  • rochdale cowboy 10th Jun '09 - 9:33pm

    I often see the figures in regard to the %s of MPs , cllrs, members of this and that important cttee – that are women and ethnic minorities etc. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of actual membership of the party on these lines – are they ever given out and if so what are they?

  • Afzal: spot on. We know that a party that does not look like the people it wants to represent will be losing votes.

    If you want to be an MP, why not shadow one of them for a bit? A day a week, or over a vac? Get a sense of the job!


    PS Shadowing is easier from LSE than Oxford 🙂

  • I’m not sufficiently aware of issues relating to ethnic minorities. Perhaps this is a weakness in itself – should ALDC and EMLD provide awareness training at conferences?

    We do need to look at the culture of our party at the grass roots. I know women who don’t get involved in their local parties because of the macho, competitive atmospheres. It’s not that women can’t hold their own in that environment – it’s just that many of them don’t want to.

    Until we have more local parties where people feel welcome to contribute regardless of their ethnic background, sexuality or gender identity, we’ll remain with a majority of our candidates being straight white men…

  • This article seems to ask “wouldn’t it be nice if we could have some BME parliamentarians” to which the answer is “yes,” and that’s it.

    Perhaps given that being a *Liberal Democrat* puts us all in a minority – and an unrepresented one at that – we should concentrate on getting them elected first whatever their ethnicity.

    If local parties are choosing bad white candidates over good BME candidates, then either the LPs are racist, or they assume potential Liberal Democrat voters are.

    Either way they would be wrong; but in all fairness I’ve not seen any evidence of this (and what I have seen is, if truth be told, quite the reverse).

    If there is racism in the party, it is when we are selecting BME candidates on the basis that they are a BME candidate and little else; making a crude, general and destructive assumption that “their” people will vote for them because of their ethnicity and not because of any sense of political or philosophical leanings.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Jun '09 - 11:38pm

    While it is true other major parties have more seats than the Lib Dems, the Lib Dems have emphasised equality in their thinking, so should be doing much more in this way.

    OK, so what? You are in the position to know, so tell us, we want to hear. But you have said nothing in terms of practical action.

  • David Parkes 12th Jun '09 - 12:01am

    I agree that Liberal Democrat politicians ought to be broadly representative of society, but I also agree with Matthew’s post above. Just what precisely should we do?

    We are not a racist party, we are inherently meritocratic in our approach, but how can we encourage more BME candidates to step forward?

  • As mentioned earlier, if voters are only going to vote for someone of the same race as themselves, the Liberal Democrats are probably not the party for them.

    Positive discrimination is still discrimination and the party should never ever adopt it. Cameron’s A list has dissolved and Labour’s ‘women only’ or ‘ethnic minority only’ policy has forced male councillors out of their jobs. (reluctantly or not).

    Similarly I don’t think race-specific campaigning helps either. We’re not a cohesive group when we have ‘the black lib dems society’ canvassing votes in inner london and the ‘asian lib dem society’ canvassing votes in bradford.

    I don’t believe there’s racism in the party, but there are issues we can look at. My local party have never replied to any of my offers at volunteering, have never gotten in touch about events they’re holding, never sent me a message welcoming me to the local party. I don’t even know who my local organisers are, and the LDs control the council! People from outside the political loop must be invited to get involved, regardless of race, financial status, job, sex etc…

  • Afzal Shaikh 13th Jun '09 - 1:44pm

    Like I wrote in my article, the Lib Dems policies should be very attractive to BME communities. And yet, despite all of its unpopular policies, BME people still tend to vote Labour.

    Those above who say ridiculous things like ‘Lembit Opik is a BME, so your view is not correct’, or ‘it’s not our fault they don’t vote for us’ etc., deserve to belong to the nation’s third Party, in neutral gear.

    Keep your heads in the sand….

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Jun '09 - 2:13pm

    My experience of the LibDems is that if you want to get involved you can very quickly, but the chronic shortage of people willing to do so extends to not having enough people to do things like contacting new members who joined through contacting the party nationally.

    I do not think I have ever been in a local association of the party where:

    1) There’s competition to hold a post on the executive.

    2) There’s competition to be a candidate in winnable council seats.

    On the contrary, getting people to to take on these roles involves asking them.

    However, getting involved often does involve something like turning up at the AGM, introducing oneself, saying “Hey, I’ll do that” when they ask for volunteers, and not being put off by the shocked reaction. They really do want you to do it, they’re just not used to someone voluntarily coming forward.

    Part of the issue is that most people not already involved in party politics do not know at what a shoestring level it runs when it comes to local organisation. They do imagine it must be from some big office with people doing it professionally, and not a dozen or so tired people half of whom are only doing it because they felt they had to because if they didn’t no-one else would.

    This is also an issue with our PPC selection. Most weak local parties have the idea “let’s find a PPC who will work hours and hours for us and get our party to grow locally”. The consequence is that anyone who has a good professional career can’t put themselves forward to be a PPC, because while they probably could put that career on hold during the official election period, they can’t do it for a year or more because being a PPC selected in advance is meant to involve doing huge amounts of campaigning and organisation building.

    Someone wrote about straight white males. My experience is that there is a higher proportion of gays amongst our active members than there is in the population as a whole. In part that’s because gays are less likely to have child care commitments which rule out being part of the activist culture.

    I’m wary on “positive discrimination” because I have seen a number of occasions where we have enthusiastically adopted a visible BME person into a candidature because we think it will look good, and so wanting a BME candidate that we didn’t ask the basic questions we would otherwise ask, only for that person to embarrass us later on. Sadly, I think you will find a disproportionately high number of LibDems in public office who have defected to other parties, or done something else which has caused us problems, are BME.

  • “Lembit Opik is a BME, so your view is not correct”

    You’re putting words into my mouth with the second half of that sentence. I’m not aware I disagreed with your fundamental point that more diverse representatives would be a good thing. Though without any actual proposals being made that is a bit like endorsing Christmas.

    Lembit is a BME MP. That is a fact, not a ridiculous statement. The reason why I raise it is twofold.

    Firstly, if we are talking about measures to address BME under-representation then we need to be clear about our definitions.

    Secondly you cannot use “BME” and “Asian and Muslim” interchangably. They represent two very different communities (if indeed the breadth of BME citizens can be regarded as a single community). The issues you highlight “religious freedom, Iraq and Israel,” aren’t going to do much to appeal to eg the Polish migrant community (either it’s historic or modern varieties)

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