Thursday, 20 October 2011

Lib Dems must face up to critics on race - by Councillor Lester Holloway

Lee Jasper has launched a broadside against what he says are the coalition government’s lack of grasp on race equality. My Lib Dem party colleagues might find this hard to accept, but this such criticism could prove to be merely the hors d’oeuvres if the core issues are not addressed by ministers.

Writing on his blog in an article titled “coalition government fails to engage with black communities”, the veteran race equality campaigner singles out the Lib Dem minister for race equality, Andrew Stunnell, whom he accuses of having “no interest [towards] the issue of race.” I think this personal criticism is harsh, Stunnell has always seemed one of the more conscientious ministers to me, but the evidence Jasper points to about a complete lack of progress on race equality is damning.

I warned that our party appeared to lack any policies to make an impact on tackling race inequality before last years’ general election. Despite a mountain of research about unequal outcomes across education, health, criminal justice, and every other area of public life, a booklet written by now-Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone contained just two proposals worthy of mention: name-blank job applications and mandatory
pay audits. The name-blank policy has already been hailed as “a success” without any data to back that self-congratulation up.

And no wonder… the latest Labour Force survey shows rates of disproportionate black unemployment going up, not down. The TUC has warned there is a “bleak future” for black workers, and the gap between black and white employment rates shows no sign of becoming fairer. Even the government’s own advisor on these issues, Iqbal Wahhab, agrees.

And as for mandatory pay audits – well, that idea just got dropped.
So what has the coalition government done to make life any fairer for black communities facing discrimination? Pending any evidence to suggest that name-blank job applications are having any positive impact, or are even being widely used, I would sadly have to conclude: “nothing much”.

My colleagues will argue – with some merit – that black communities will have benefited from certain Lib Dem policies along with the rest of society. Given the fact that black communities are disproportionately on lower incomes, they may have even benefited positively from the rising threshold for income tax, a key Lib Dem pledge.

But the impact on ethnicity has not been measured, as far as I’m aware. Any positive impact is based on assumptions, primarily the assumption that this policy will everyone equally. Needless to say, it is this very mindset that has blinded policymakers in previous generations to the possibility of the unfair outcomes we see today.

It is my own assumption that the Tory-driven housing benefit and employment support allowance (incapacity benefit) welfare changes are likely to have a negative impact on black communities. With the Department for Work and Pension’s Ethnic Minority Taskforce predicting a disproportionate rise in black unemployment throughout this economic downturn, it is a reasonable bet that there will be an even bigger employment gap between black and white communities will be at the next election compared to May 2010.

If this comes to pass, it will be because the coalition has failed to put in place any serious policies to combat race discrimination. Labour introduced many initiatives aimed at tackling the issues leading to a high watermark of the Stephen Lawrence report and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, only to dismantle them piece-by-piece as the fashion for lumping all equalities subjects together took hold.
Critics such as Diane Abbott MP and Lord Herman Ouseley warned Labour then that their strategy would turn the clock back three or four decades on race.

Sadly this coalition is continuing with a colourblind approach that is guaranteed to ensure levels of race inequality at best remain the same.
In his latest blog, Jasper writes:
“I would have expected the Minster for Race, Stunell and the Minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone MP and would have had the foresight to recognise the political importance of black and ethnic minority community’s voices being heard in Government. Both have shunned black communities and despite their Ministerial responsibilities have, through ignorance and inaction, conspired to effectively exclude black community organisations from influencing Government policy.
“Both are Lib Dem Ministers who to their discredit remain the only mainstream party not to have black MPs in their Parliamentary party. The Lib Dem track record on promoting race equality and engagement with black communities is frankly abysmal. This despite the rhetoric of Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Vince Cable in opposition who promised that race equality was central to their vision of a fair and inclusive multicultural Britain.”
Jasper may not be a natural Lib Dem supporter but it would be foolish to dismiss him. It was my party who volunteered to take on the mantle of ‘race equality’ on behalf of the coalition, when it was patently obvious to me that they had no real grasp of what was involved to make a difference in this area. And this after an alliance of anti-racist groups had launched a Black Manifesto, giving an insight into the kinds of policies that would be required to take race equality seriously.

Last March I wrote: “The Liberal Democrats could, and should, offer so much more. Electorally, it makes perfect sense for them to be the most radical on race.” This was more in hope than expectation. The coalition agreement said hardly anything substantial about equality, and on race virtually nothing at all, aside from a promise to offer “internships” in Whitehall departments, and a mentoring scheme for aspiring businesspeople. Both policies were risible in their poverty of aspiration.

Sadly, hardly anything has improved in this area since the day that paper was published, hence Jasper’s frustration. His critique – and mine – might sting now but it could be but a tingle compared to the reaction from black communities in the future unless the Lib Dems get serious about tackling race inequality. It is not too late to rescue the situation. There is enough expertise inside the party to devise excellent policies, and enough experts outside the party to give them a polished sheen.

My party needs to stop curling up defensively at internal and external critics who chide the party for its’ lack of ideas to create a more equal society between ‘races’. They should realise that these critics can, in an instant, become the party’s greatest allies should the Lib Dems decide they want to radically overhaul its’ approach to race equality to achieve something tangible by the next general election.
If the political will is there, and ministers are receptive enough to privately admit they may know less about race equality than those who have spent a lifetime striving for it, we can yet go to the polls with a record to sell to black communities.

By Lester Holloway
(First published at: