Yes, leadership candidates need to appeal to party before they can become leader and do anything at all. But the lengths to which some will go to tickle the tummy of a party, which has just suffered two disastrous election defeats, continues to beggar belief.
Better – for the sake of kindness – to gloss over Andy Burnham’s statement that this was “the best manifesto that I have stood on in four general elections”. I mean, what can have possessed him?
To be fair, it is difficult to see it, as some have, as an attempt to lay the blame for the party’s recent meltdown squarely at the door of Ed Miliband. That would be especially difficult, with Burnham’s area of the NHS front and centre in the campaign; and also given that he followed it immediately with the words “I pay tribute to Ed Miliband”.
Which leaves us with one of two far worse conclusions: either that it was convenient lip-service; or that he simultaneously believed Labour had both the right candidate and the right manifesto, and still lost catastrophically. A level of cognitive dissonance verging on the Orwellian.
But just as we thought there could be no dafter statements from the mainstream candidates (after all, daft statements from Jeremy Corbyn are to be expected), up pops Yvette Cooper, asking for Labour to double the number of ethnic minority (BAME) MPs if the party were to win a majority.
A laudable aim, on the face of it. Except when you stop to think about what it actually means.
First, look at the logic: “More than 15% of Labour voters are from BAME communities but just 10% of Labour MPs.” Note that we do not talk about Britain as a whole, just Labour voters (clearly we do not aspire to encourage people who do not yet vote Labour). According to Wikipedia, only 13% of Britons are from ethnic minorities (11% if you exclude those of mixed race). Do we honestly think that there are folk out there saying, “Cuh! That Labour party. They’ve cheated us out of three per cent! It’s an outrage! We demand the exact same percentage and nothing less!”
Of course there are not. But it gets worse. Cooper goes on: “If Labour is not representative of our voters how can we hope to keep their support?” We should just listen to ourselves. Are we seriously saying – albeit slightly dressed up – that if we do not have the same colour skin as our voters, they won’t vote for us?
Second: the perceived reason for that difference in percentages. Racism exists in society, of course it does, sadly. And there sexism is even occasionally to be found in the Labour Party. I have come across homophobia in it, although rarely nowadays. But do we honestly believe the modern-day Labour is a party so rife with racism, that it cannot be trusted to select ethnic minority candidates on merit without being prejudiced against them?
Ah, you say, but there are other factors. Ethnic minority candidates may on average have less money, less opportunities. True. But so do people from white working-class communities. Why choose on ethnicity?
I mean, would you not honestly be hard-pressed to find an organisation in modern-day Britain more painfully right-on than the Labour Party? And yet still we continue to believe the fiction that we are not getting quite as many ethnic minority candidates as in the population as a whole because they are discriminated against by the party itself. It’s mad.
But you cannot say this in the self-flagellating Labour Party, because your motives will be immediately questioned. You must be a closet racist if you do not believe in the prevailing racism of the party (I fully expect some comments on this piece to that effect).
Now – third – you can point out, as the thoughtful and decent Sunder Katwala did to me, that Cooper has not called for quotas. True. But with Labour, we all know where this ends up, every time: quotas. In fact, David Lammy has already called for them.
The reality: as we have observed before at Uncut, this party just cannot resist tinkering with its selection processes at the slightest whisper from an interest group. We already have intervention on grounds of ethnicity at two points and on grounds of gender in three points in our parliamentary selection processes. On the other hand, if you are a white male, and have not successfully passed through the thought-police filter of a major union’s national list, well, good luck. You’ll need it.
It is awful, frankly, that this whole Kafkaesque system even forces us into an alien language of “white males” or “BAME candidates”, as if a candidate’s ethnicity or sex were remotely important in their ability to do the job.
But once a commitment is made to “even the balance”, politicians pull at the only levers they have, which in opposition means yet more messing about with the internal process, one already skewed to breaking point (if you don’t believe candidate selection is in crisis, look at the travesty that was the Falkirk selection and how it has led to the piloting of primaries).
Fourth, the party is crying out for a selection process which aims to maximise candidate quality. Of course, no current MP is going to want to criticise the process which selected them, as it might reflect on their own path to success. But you cannot tinker without excluding some good candidates. It’s just maths.
Furthermore, as John Rentoul noted, my, the Tories have got a surprisingly good batch of new MPs this time around, haven’t they? And, dear me, with talented ethnic minority MPs such as Sajid Javid or Priti Patel already there, who got there on merit alone, eh?
How long before people begin to look at the panorama and think, what is Labour playing at?
Finally, has anyone actually thought that many people of all colours might just find Labour’s attitude not progressive and forward-looking but patronising and antiquated? No? Or that, worse, they might think that this leads to exactly the kind of rancid identity politics that sets communities against each other, as happened in Tower Hamlets under Lutfur Rahman?
It’s not brain surgery. The answer is not to try and enter into a dumb competition with the Tories to see who gets the widest variety of skin pigmentation into Parliament.
The answer, surely, is to be blissfully colour-blind.
This post first published at Labour Uncut