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Parliament is sending a woeful message to BAME people about their value

4 min read

The diversity deficit among the committee leaders shows that Parliament is falling woefully short of reflecting the racial mix of this country, writes Kate Osamor MP

Last week, I stood for election as chair of the International Development Select Committee. Naturally, I was disappointed not to win, but I am delighted Sarah Champion did. She will make a fantastic chair, holding the Government to account at a time when the Department for International Development is navigating an uncertain future. I look forward to working with her.

I stood partly to show others that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) working-class women can be recognised as experts and leaders, rather than just activists. I stood also to test whether my fellow MPs agreed. Last week, I didn’t break my own glass ceiling and become a BAME committee chair, but someone else will soon.

But this is not about me. The day after, I took a step back to look at the bigger picture and, with my team, I crunched some numbers. We took a look at diversity, using data about MPs reported by the BBC.

What we found was revealing. For example, on sexual orientation, 7.7% (50 of 650) MPs are openly gay, lesbian or bisexual. This compares closely with 7.1% (two of 28) of newly elected committee chairs. The numbers might not necessarily be cause for celebration, but they are decent enough.

The picture on gender is less positive. According to the 2011 UK census, women and girls made up 51% of the population, but just 33.8% (220 of 650) MPs are women. By the time MPs elect their peers to positions of leadership and expertise, the number drops further: just over a quarter (28.6%) of the newly elected committee chairs are women – eight out of 28.

We did not have time to research accurate numbers on private school education or Oxbridge education, but hopefully someone will.

But here is where it gets much worse. 10% (65 of 650) MPs are black and minority ethnic, according to British Future and the BBC. That means there are 65 highly qualified, knowledgeable Members of Parliament who colleagues could push to run, or elect. There are two chairs called Robert, and two Stephens. Yet among the 28 newly elected committee chairs, there is not a single person of colour.

“What message do we send to the eight million BAME people across the UK about their value in public life?”

In fact, if you look through history, Parliament has had very few non-white chairs of committees. Of course, numerical representation isn’t everything – but it’s a decent place to start.

Beyond the numbers, things are not much better. My fellow MPs Abena Oppong-Asare and Florence Eshalomi spoke recently about their experiences of racism in Parliament. Dawn Butler told how people assumed she was a cleaner.

For my part, I have also had MPs – Labour as well as Tory – confuse me with black colleagues who look quite different. National newspapers used pictures of Fiona Onasanya for stories about me, without consequences. This week, the BBC and Evening Standard have – beyond belief – muddled Dawn, Marsha de Cordova and Bell Ribeiro-Addy.

Racism may not be new. It can be complicated, and often unconscious. But it is very real.

The diversity deficit in Parliament and in senior committee chair posts matters. If Parliamentarians are unable to see BAME colleagues as leaders and experts and elect them, then why should wider society address its biases? What message do we send to the eight million BAME people across the UK about their value in public life?

It matters, too, because Labour is about to elect a leader and deputy leader. Strong BAME candidates who deserve our members’ support have struggled to be seen as serious contenders. Against the odds, Dawn Butler has now made it on to the final ballot paper. We need powerful anti-racist voices represented at the top if Labour is to confront toxic Tory politics effectively.

Qualified BAME colleagues must keep putting themselves forward for leadership positions, inside and outside Parliament. For every one that wins, many will fail. But society must also challenge its thinking and its assumptions, and that should start with addressing the diversity deficit in Parliament.

Kate Osamor is Labour and Co-operative MP for Edmonton

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