With another setpiece debate approaching fast, my thoughts have turned to a question that always troubles me. Not "Is this liberal?", because to my mind at least, quotas aren't, but, "Who decides who qualifies for such preferential treatment?". It is one of those 'elephants in the room' that lurks, just waiting to spring out and trample the unwary or imprudent.
If the motion as currently written is passed, said elephant will be loose. Why? Because the definition of BAME will need to be nailed down, with individuals having to demonstrate that they are 'BAME enough' to qualify. At the last census, nearly one in six of those described as non-white were of mixed race, a proportion likely to increase as time goes by, if a gentle stroll through Peckham will demonstrate.
We mixed-race types vary, depending upon dominant genes, some of us are relatively dark-skinned, some of us pretty pale. For the most, we self-define as non-white, even if in doing so, we draw attention to ourselves as different. So, do I qualify, am I sufficiently BAME? Ironically, the motion, if passed, will invite claims to minority status that might surprise. I have friends and colleagues who are part Roma, one-eighth Maori and one-quarter Pakistani. Are they BAME, or would it be seen to be just a 'flag of convenience'?
So, defining what is meant by BAME may prove to be necessary, a challenge requiring, potentially, the wisdom of Solomon. And it will matter too. If a self-defined BAME applicant is successful in gaining the nomination from an all-BAME shortlist, and an unsuccessful opponent appeals on the grounds of ineligibility, on what basis does an appeals panel rule? Perhaps referring back to the last attempt to define individuals racially might be of use, although whether or not Apartheid-era South Africa is an example to be valued is open to reasonable doubt, I suspect.
Ultimately, whilst I am willing to accept that the movers of the Conference motion simply aim to redress an imbalance. However, merely insisting that a BAME applicant is shortlisted will achieve nothing if they are not strong enough to compete credibly for member support, and may act as a positive disincentive to campaign building before the shortlisting phase.
Where their proposal does guarantee the election of a BAME candidate it is, I believe an illiberal manifestation of the notion of equality of outcome, which rejects merit and effort and rewards status over quality. It will provide false hope, without even a token effort to discover why BAME candidates don't apply and don't get selected if they do. Until or unless proper research is done to find out what the real problems are, we are condemned to repeat the failures of the past. I fear that the movers are responding to the issues of a different generation, one that seeks to change the culture of an organisation to suit it's needs without seeking to address the existing philosophical foundations of it.
And accordingly, I don't agree with Nick, and I certainly don't agree with Simon...