At the recent Liberal Democrat conference, the thorny issue of positive discrimination reared its divisive head. The majority of party members voted against using positive discrimination when short listing MP candidates. The reasoning behind the decision was clear- positive discrimination is still discrimination, and discrimination is wrong. Unfortunately, the reality of the issue isn’t that black and white (if you’ll excuse the pun). Take a look at the demographics of the country’s current three party system. Those with a keen eye will notice that the Liberal Democrats- on looks alone- are the party that stick out as the least representative of modern Britain. The Lib Dems have a total of zero non-white members of parliament, and just 6 out of the party’s 57 MPs are female. Based on these facts alone, the party’s discussion on positive discrimination, or affirmative action, or whatever you choose to call it, seems apt. The debate appears reflective of the Liberal Democrat party’s liberal, egalitarian and progressive values that they so pride themselves on.
So why did they decide against it? From what I can glean from the Lib Dem conference, the majority of party members aligned themselves with the sentiment that candidates should only be short listed for positions on merit, and never on racial grounds. The merit argument is a strong one, and I’ll admit little more than a year ago, it’s one I argued fiercely. But take a look at the past century- just 50 years ago; negative discrimination was in full force. It would be blindingly short sighted of me to suggest that positive discrimination is completely necessary without taking into account the fact that it breeds resentment amongst those who aren’t on the receiving end.
The party conference used around an interesting term for the non-white population of the UK- BAME, an acronym for the phrase ‘black and minority ethic’. Every so often boundaries change, and groups find themselves being redefined. The labels aren’t too liberating, and neither is constant redefinition. But I digress.
Sometimes it feels like us BAME types just can’t catch a break. Suggest positive discrimination to address this skewed ethnicity imbalance and it’s deemed unfair. Then, when a BAME candidate steps up to the fore and decides to stand for a position on merit grounds alone, critics become distressed, wave their arms in the air and scream tokenism. Just look at the flurry of concerned attention that surrounded Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott, when she announced she was standing in the Labour leadership election. She didn’t win, but the fact that a black woman stood at all sent a clear message to ethnic minority communities that the Labour party represents them as well. Even the Conservatives, a party with a pretty bad track record on race issues, woke up to the aching need for diversity a few years ago- prominent Conservative from BAME communities are emerging, and cabinet minister and party chairperson Baroness Warsi proves this.
Positive discrimination is an emotive issue. Black and minority ethic candidates are never going to take kindly to being offered highly paid professions with race grounds seen as a priority that presides over merit in response to a need to fill a ridiculous quota. It’s offensive. But until we see a more diverse representation in those jobs, it’s necessary.
The fact of the matter is, society has not yet reached that much revered, idealistic point in history where every human being is solely valued on their merit. The aesthetic demographics of a political party are everything and nothing- it shouldn’t matter, but it does. That’s not to say that everyone discriminates- plenty of people don’t, but labels still exist , which is why employee application forms have the optional equal opportunities section tacked on to them. We as a society are still ticking boxes, still attempting to fill quotas, still striving to redress the balance.
Before we can preach the merit argument, the remnants of institutional racism in the wider context of general discrimination need to be addressed, and consequently abolished. Some Liberal Democrats have cited a lack of BAME party supporters and members, let alone MP candidates. Until there are representatives from those communities in higher up positions, the problem will prevail. As a short term solution, positive discrimination, whilst radical, is a viable choice.