Program diversifies U.K. Parliament

Simon Woolley, left, director of Operations Black Vote, urges Shadowing Scheme participants to be role models for greater political involvement in their communities. With Woolley is Sam Gyimah, conservative party MP and mentor and Sadiq Khan, liberal party MP and mentor.—PHOTO/LINN WASHINGTON JR.

Mohammad Ahmed, a 29-year-old firefighter in England, rushed into the ornate, world famous Parliament building recently for the first time in his life.

Interestingly, Ahmed’s mission inside the structure housing legislative governmental power in Britain wasn’t to fight a fire but to fan a flame inside this man born in the African nation of Somalia to learn more about politics.

Ahmed joined twenty-four others selected to participate in a program where they work along-side members of Parliament for six-months to learn about the operations of that body for eventual entrance into politics and perhaps campaigns for election to Parliament.

“I grew up in East London and no one in my family ever voted. They felt they had no stake in politics,” said Ahmed, about his life in an impoverished area of Britain’s capital. “I wanted to get involved.”

This mentor-mentee type “Shadowing Scheme” program operated by the London-based Operation Black Vote seeks to increase the numbers of non-whites holding elected offices around Britain particularly increasing representation in Parliament.

Only four percent of the representatives in Parliament are from groups with African, Asian or Indian ancestry. Those ethnic/racial groupings comprise eight percent of Britain’s population speakers at the Shadowing Scheme reception repeatedly noted. Persons from the Indian sub-continent area including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh comprise the largest minority group in England.

“The way for our communities to be afforded equality of opportunity is for our communities to be politically and economically empowered,” said OVB Executive Director Simon Woolley, during his remarks at the reception.

Last year Helen Grant, a lawyer and previous Shadowing Scheme participant, became the first Black female from Britain’s conservative party elected as an MP — Member of Parliament.

Another conservative party member elected MP last year, Sam Gyimah, an Oxford graduate, spoke during the reception held in the Members Dining Room inside Parliament overlooking the River Thames. The Parliament building is across a street from historic Westminster Abbey and not far from Buckingham Palace.

“Every success I’ve had in life is because others have provided assistance. That’s why I’m involved with this program to give others what was given me,” said Gyimah, born in England and raised partly in Ghana.

“In anything in life, if you don’t know the rules of the game you can’t break through regardless of how good you are. That is why this is a good scheme.”

Liberal party MP, Sadiq Khan, challenged program participants to learn as much as they can while urging them to feel at ease.

“This is your Parliament. You have a right to be here. For too long we’ve felt uncomfortable being here,” said Khan. “Parliament does not reflect our society and that has to change.”

OVB’s Woolley said 600 applied for this round of the Parliament Shadowing program producing the 25 participants that ranged from young adults to middle age, males and females representing various non-white groups in Britain.

Woolley told the participants they have a responsibility to excel.

“It is not about you,” Woolley said. “It’s about what you can do. That is what the next generation of leaders must do.”


Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.

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