European parliament: room for affirmative action

Before the party begins selecting candidates for the European elections in 2014 a serious effort needs to be made to attract candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds. The under-representation of ethnic minorities in the EU parliament has reached such a height that it casts serious doubt on the representativeness of the chamber. The UK sends 72 MEPs to Brussels and Strasbourg, four from ethnic minority backgrounds. Out of 736 MEPs, 15 of them come from ethnic minority backgrounds.  We could squeeze them all onto a minibus.

At a time when the BRICS are the fastest growing economies in the world, a European parliament that looks more like an imperial court than a 21st century legislative chamber does not do much for Europe’s standing on the international stage. The scale of under-representation in the European Parliament is intractable and will not be redressed with anti-discrimination laws alone. Affirmative action is needed if we’re going to overcome this diversity deficit.

There are currently 13 Labour MEPs in the European Parliament – London’s Claude Moraes is our only ethnic minority MEP – the Liberal Democrats have none and the Conservatives three. Regional parties should work closely with ethnic minority party members and sitting councilors to increase their exposure to European issues some years before the selection process. This hasn’t happened — we may not see a breakthrough this year but when the UK sends only two more ethnic minority representatives to the European Parliament than the BNP repreesentation, the time for access schemes and talking has finished. This is where Labour can make a difference.

All black shortlists were notably absent from the 2009 Equality Bill after the initiative was backed by Harried Harman. That doesn’t mean we can’t use our own initiative. To Labour’s credit five of our 13 MEPs are women, there’s room for improvement but that’s a pretty good statistic and we didn’t need an all women shortlists to get us there – just a firm commitment to equality and diversity.

A similar level of commitment ought to be extended to would be ethnic minority candidates – all too often they languish at the bottom of regional lists with no real prospect of getting elected – that’s the real tokenism and something that needs to change ahead of the 2014 elections. If you’re good enough to be placed on a regional list then improving diversity ought to be the driving factor in determining how far up the list you go. After answering the question how good are you the second question ought to be how much added value would you bring. Ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation etc. become important factors at this point.

All black shortlists might be off the agenda but quotas and targets can be just as useful. The left needs to renew its commitment to diversity by safeguarding a representatives batch of candidates for the 2014 elections – it’s a big challenge but I think it’s a commitment that needs to be fleshed out by numbers. Here are two stats to think about. In every region Labour stands candidates a quarter of them on the list should be reserved for candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds – with at least half of them occupying at least one of the top four list positions.

You don’t need to have an ethnic minority background to represent minority groups but there are practical benefits of having MEPs from diverse backgrounds especially when you consider the growing international focus of the European Union. The greater embarrassment is our indecision to take clear steps to address this anomaly. Given the scale of the challenge quotas represent the best opportunity to reduce Europe’s diversity deficit and is the best way we can gauge how serious the Labour Party is at reducing that shortfall.