The Voice newspaper reports on a demonstration outside Birmingham town hall over the absence of African or African-Caribbean councillors in the city’s ruling cabinet. That’s not the half of it. None of Britain’s ten biggest local authorities have any black representation in a leadership position.
Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Bristol, Manchester, Leicester and Coventry are all without a single black councillor in their cabinets or executives.
The ten top local councils had only five Asian councillors in their cabinet, and three of them were from one authority, Leicester City.
Those authorities represent a combined population of over 4.8 million, including the most diverse communities outside London.
The 2001 census showed the total black (African and Caribbean) and mixed race population to be 1.9 million, with half living outside London, mainly in Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Bristol.
The Voice article says:
Scores of angry protesters staged a demonstration outside Birmingham Council House over the exclusion of any African Caribbean councillors in the city’s new Labour Cabinet.
Of the eight new Cabinet members none are African Caribbean. It contains only one Asian member and one woman.
Organised by the forum and lobby group United in Building Legacy (UBL), campaigners took to Victoria Square and repeatedly chanted ‘representation – enough is enough’ as the new council members arrived to be sworn in.
And to symbolise their frustration, protesters bound and blindfolded one of their group to show how they felt at having no voice in the new council.
Of the 120 city councillors only five are African Caribbean.
Community activist Camille Ade-John said: “This is simply not good enough. Are we not educated enough to sit at the high table?”
Desmond Jaddoo, who was Birmingham only black candidate in the now-rejected campaign for an elected mayor, added: “The city talks diversity but clearly doesn’t practise it in its politics. Are they saying our councillors are not good enough to be in the Cabinet? If so, then we need to know why.”
Birmingham’s Labour leader Sir Albert Bore said: “We acknowledge that some in the African Caribbean community feel under represented and we have already had productive talks with community leaders.”
The fact is, local government remains as white and old as ever.
In London, many inner city authorities have less councillors of colour than they did in the 1980s. The proportion of black and Asian councillors has been virtually unchanged since 1997 – just four percent – while the UK minority ethnic population is projected to almost double from 7.5% (2001) to 14.5% by 2016.
Why have council chambers remained so unrepresentative? One issue is turnover. The 2010 councillors census showed BAME members served fewer years in office. This is the phenomenon of the one-term BAME councillor.
While some authorities have long-serving Asian men, too many younger Asian and African-Caribbean men and women pass like comets in the night.
There are work and family commitments – BAMEs are more likely to come from a professional managerial background – but career progression and lack of support also matter.
White councillors are five times more likely to be Group leader, and while 21 percent of white councillors make it to the executive or higher, just 14 percentage of BAMEs reach those heights.
So there you have it: young BAME councillors with professional expertise feel unsupported, fail to shimmy up the greasy pole, get cheesed off, and throw the towel in.
As a founding member of the National Association of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority Councillors, I discovered many members who said they felt isolated in their party groups. Race was frequently cited as a hidden factor in internal disciplinary procedures.
There is little evidence of overt racism, but several anecdotes that suggest there is still some way to go.
There is also a perception that BAME Councillors work outside the informal rules of party discipline and consensus. It certainly hints at notions of ‘otherness’ between white and BAME councillors.
Ideas on the way forward include public campaigns targeting young professionals and more mentoring.
There is a desperate need for greater racial diversity if council chambers are to avoid appearing like relics from pre-multicultural age. The challenge falls on each and every one of us.