Saturday, 14 November 2009

Power sharing: Is Britain equitable?

I've just handed a politics essay in, part of which was to analyse how democratic Britain is, and to select two criteria which I felt a good democracy should possess. 

The first criterion was a little technocratic; that the legislature should have sufficient power to scrutinise and be able to hold the executive to account.  This is important stuff, though I freely admit a bit boring unless you happen to be a political geek like myself.

The second criterion that I chose was more topical; that minority ethnic groups should not be excluded from the decision making process and therefore should be fully represented in all institutions of power.  To quote George Orwell's "All animals are equal ..." is a lazy cliche, but there we go; is our democratic system equitable, or is latent inequality the status quo?

When examining minority ethnic participation within positions of power and responsibility, we first need to define the proportion of the British population defined as being from minority ethnic groups. If we take the 2001 census as the most recent accurate source, then minority ethnic groups form 9.1% of the English, 2.1% of Welsh and 2% of the Scottish populations; and 7.9% of the United Kingdom as a whole. We should expect there to be a correlation between these figures when we examine minority ethnic participation within government and public life, if the second of my criteria is to be met.

I looked at a Parliamentary report from 2008 by Ben Smith titled Ethnic Minorities in Politics, Government and Public Life which examined this question, from which I have highlighted some examples.

The Executive:

Within the executive there are currently no cabinet ministers from a minority ethnic group, however there have been in the past; former Labour MP
Paul Boateng (right) being the first in 2002.  At the time the report was published there were 122 ministerial positions; of which 7 were held by members of minority ethnic backgrounds, which represents 5.7% of the total.

The Civil Service:
The civil service as a whole employed 7.6% of its staff from minority ethnic groups in 2002, rising to 8.3% in 2008, higher than the 2001 census figures; however when we examine senior positions it is 2.9% rising to 4% respectively, and is therefore under represented by minority ethnic groups.

Quangos (Quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations):
Quangos are undemocratic institutions relying on patronage; however they do hold real power within the British system. In 1992 only 2% of participants were selected from minority ethnic groups, this had risen by 2007 to 9.2% in England, 4% in Wales and 3% in Scotland. This means that Quangos are now well represented when referenced to the 2001 census figures; however there is no mention to what proportion of senior roles come from minority ethnic groups.

The Legislature:

In The House of Commons there have periodically been MPs from minority ethnic groups, the first being David Sombre in 1841. The first woman from a minority ethnic group was
Diane Abbott (left), who with Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz became the first MPs since the Second World War to come from these groups. There are currently fifteen MPs from minority ethnic groups; this represents a distinct lack of representation, there should be fifty-one to equate to the 2001 census proportion. The House of Lords currently does not provide figures on the ethnic identity of its membership; however it is fair to assume that it is under represented as most Lords are drawn from The House of Commons.

Local Government:
When examining local councillors elected in 2006 he found 4.1% were from minority ethnic groups, therefore well below the census figures and Smith tells us that minority ethnic women are “severely under represented” at this level of government.

The Judiciary:
According to statistics on The Judiciary of England and Wales website; there are no minority ethnic judges above the level of High Court Judge, and at this level 3.5% are represented. When looking at the judiciary as a whole, 4.5% are represented by minority ethnic groups, with women being well represented as reported by The Judiciary of England and Wales (2009). This is the only example of minority ethnic women being well represented in a position of power; why the lower levels of the judiciary is the platform that this occurs is not explained.

So then what are we to make of all these statistics? It is clear that minority ethnic groups are under represented in government, and we could expand this criticism to include women in general, the disabled, gay groups as well as people from working class backgrounds.  It isn't all bad news though, the statistics do show that the lower echelons of government are becoming more representative, however this has yet to translate to senior roles.  I will return to this subject in the New Year; I have yet to write part two of my essay and I wouldn't want to be accused of plagiarising myself!

I will say however that we should be concerned that British democracy isn't representative of society, it raises the anecdotal question of how deeply entrenched; latent racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia and disabled discrimination are within large segments of British society.  It is also concerning that the vast majority of those in power come from an extremely narrow background, namely; upper-middle class, white, Ox-bridge educated men.  It seems improbable to me that they will represent all of society, when they have similar vested interests to protect.

I think the more Diane Abbotts, Paul Boatengs, Simon Hugheses (below) and David Blunketts there are in British politics then the better we will be as a society, and the less disenfranchised we will be as a whole.

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