Assembly offers answer to social divisions

Gwion Iqbal Malik argus that the parties must do more to select black and ethnic minority candidates

Can we establish real social cohesion between the different community groups we have in Wales where we have 80 so-called black and minority ethnic communities with over 100 languages spoken? I believe that the creation of the National Assembly has provided us with an essential tool to tackle this question.

This was articulated by the Queen when she opened the new Senedd building on St David’s Day five years ago in 2006:

“It is now up to you, by giving meaning to the ideals and aspirations of those you serve, by expressing the spirit of your rich and ancient culture, by shaping the very future of this country to make this National Assembly a true symbol of Wales.”

It is this notion of the Assembly as a ‘true symbol of Wales’ that must be developed. It is disappointing that in the 12 years of the Assembly’s existence there have been just two elected members from a black or Asian background. We need to find out why, despite the wealth of talent available, our political parties find it so difficult to select black and minority ethnic candidates.

As a small country Wales must utilise the skills of all sections of our society. Only then can we repair the social damage created by that all-powerful English jugger-naught that dictated policy for generations. Increasing representation will also ensure that the diversity of our people is a strength and not a weakness.

According to the 2001 Population Census from the Office for National Statistics, of the 2.9 million people living in Wales 61,580 identified themselves as coming from a black and minority ethnic background. It is thought, however, that this number may now be in the region of 93,000, including the numbers of Eastern Europeans migrating to Wales. Updated figures from the 2011 Census are due to be released next year.

The numbers, however, are largely concentrated in urban areas like Swansea, Cardiff and Newport. In mid, west and north Wales the numbers are, predictably, more dispersed with smaller and, in some cases, isolated individuals and families living in rural or semi-rural settings.

While effective integration is paramount, we should perhaps be slower to judge those who struggle to do so. For those arriving in a new country, the experience can be both daunting and traumatic. Indeed, it is inevitable that people from similar backgrounds settle in similar areas.

The reasons are obvious: they gain natural support networks, a reduced sense of isolation, a feeling of ‘safety in numbers’, and language barriers are less of an obstacle. For instance, over three-quarters of Bangladeshi women over the age of 25 do not speak fluent English.

But failing to achieve integration brings problems and perils of its own. Not only does racial tension and conflict develop but communities become separated and exist independently of each other. This perpetuates a cycle of misunderstanding and ill-feeling. When this occurs social fractures develop that split communities, sometimes permanently.

Migrants inevitably gravitate towards poorer areas where housing costs are cheaper, such as the Riverside ward of Cardiff which has a black and ethnic minority population of 23.3 per cent. When resources are scarce, people feel threatened. Under such circumstances, flashpoints between communities become more likely. So areas of conflict like inequality, poverty and deprivation need to be addressed.

Large shifts in demographics often create tension and anger from the indigenous population. It is understandable that they perceive – albeit wrongly – that ‘newcomers’ are treated differently when often they have little themselves. So the first major issue to tackle is affordable social housing which will in turn improve community relations. It is a travesty that housing stocks have been depleted and local councils discouraged from investing in the upkeep of existing properties.

But we have come a long way since the first immigrants arrived in Butetown’s Tiger Bay in the 19th and 20th Centuries. To protect this rich heritage, we must challenge extremism of all kinds. We must never be complacent about the threats posed to social cohesion by groups such as the English Defence League and the British National Party.

What is needed is not the dog-whistle politics of ‘muscular liberalism’ that David Cameron believes in. What we need is real investment to tackle the structural and social problems in our society that have been so tragically exacerbated by Tory policies of old. After all, a happy and cohesive society needs financial investment, like the Communities First programme, not mealy-mouthed words or divisive policies that have so tragically taken root.

Gwion Iqbal Malik is a member of the Labour Party, a Probation Officer and active Trade Unionist.

4 thoughts on “Assembly offers answer to social divisions

  1. While it is undoubtedly true that ethnic minority residents may face difficulties in integrating into society, it is incorrect to state that the lack of ethnic minority AMs is somehow indicative of the problem. Taking the figure of 93k you provide, this is around 3.2% of the population, or around 2 out of 60. In other words at any one time one may expect 2 AMs of an ethnic minority background, which is what we have at present.

    I don’t have the data on the *candidates* put forward by each of the parties but that may be more supportive of your statement.

  2. I fully support the aspiration to represent all communities in the Assembly on a broadly proportional basis. If ethnic minorities comprise 90 000 people that is about 3 per cent of the Welsh population. Three per cent of 60 members (=1.8) would mean two AMs to the nearest whole number. If there are one or two members from an ethnic minority, unfortunately that is not far from a proportionate representation. The real problem is that the Assembly is too small to offer significant proportionate representation to different groups in Welsh society. But while the British people like democracy they don’t like politicians – and they haven’t noticed the contradiction. And the politicians in Wales are too cowardly to tell the public that 60 AMs are not enough to do the job. Reducing our MPs to 30 should mean increasing AMs to 80 or 90.

  3. Thank you for your comments. I would not accept the proposition that the Assembly is sufficiently representative. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, in the 12 years since its creation there have been only 2 AM’s from a BME background. Secondly, to be genuinely progressive we should really be using the ‘BME’ population figures of our capital city as the general benchmark for representation in the Assembly – and on that basis, we should be striving for much greater representation.

    The other point I was making is that our political parties don’t do enough to promote Black or Asian candidates. If we want to avoid social fissures opening up and achieve greater social cohesion we must ensure our communities are properly (and consistently) represented. I do also agree that the Assembly needs more AM’s to make the scrutiny of policy work more effectively.

  4. Gwion, no objection to increasing the number of AMs from ethnic minorities, but using the minority population of Cardiff as the benchmark seems a little arbitrary? The Assembly is a national institution, which happens to be based in Cardiff. Surely it’s reasonable for it to be somewhat more representative of the demographics of the country as a whole, rather than the city where it’s located.

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