Debate Magazine

Cable’s Racism Denial Has Echoes of Farron’s Ambiguity Over Gay Sex

Posted on the 21 July 2017 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway
    Cable’s racism denial has echoes of Farron’s ambiguity over gay sex

Have the Liberal Democrats replaced one leader with an Achilles heel over an equality issue with another? New leader Vince Cable's repeated faux pas on racism seems like a repeat of Tim Farron's strife over the question of whether he - as an evangelical Christian - believes gay sex is a sin. There are key differences between the two cases but the similarity could well be that an element of the party, and more importantly communities and parts of society, have lingering doubts over whether the leader welcomes and understands them and their experiences.

Lib Dems forced Farron out even though he had a pretty good, but not perfect, voting liberal record on totem issues such as equal marriage and abortion, but that was not enough to stop repeated demands for him to state unequivocally that he did not believe gay sex was a sin. He equivocated quite a bit before eventually clarifying that it was not. By election standards it was a relatively low-key controversy, but almost certainly a drag-wind that limited support from LGBTQ+ communities.

Two weeks ago, Cable told Anoosh Chakelian from the New Statesman: "Gender isn't an issue any more, rightly so. Thanks to Obama, race isn't really an issue any more - at least, we hope not. And age shouldn't be, either. It should be who you are and what you have to say." Claiming that race is 'not an issue' to make a point about his age (he's 74) is bizarre to say the least. And downright offensive to all black, Asian and minority ethnic campaigners and activists who know first-hand that race is very much an issue. Especially for the Lib Dems, who have failed to elect an MP of colour at a general election since their one-and-only 124 years ago.

We have more black and minority ethnic (BME) MPs (52) now than ever before, but if the Commons reflected society based on the 2011 population census there should be 91. That's a gap of 39 missing BME MPs. In 1992 there were only six BME MPs, whereas the 1991 figures suggest there should have been 45. Again, a gap of 39 missing BME MPs. The visible parliamentarians have increased, but the proportionate gap has remained the same as 25 years ago. The percentage of BME councillors has remained virtually static on four percent over a similar period, and we there is just one BME council leader in the country. Lib Dems have the worst record on BME representation of the three major parties (four if you include the SNP) at local, regional, and national level. Cable, in his defence, claimed he was only taking about leadership. If you exclude politicians of Jewish heritage, Britain has never had a Prime Minister or a leader of a major party with a BME background.

Yesterday, just three hours after being confirmed as leader when no other nominations were put forward, Cable was addressing a rally of activists in London when he said: "I married into an Asian family and faced a lot of racial prejudice. I think a lot of that racial prejudice has now gone. It's still there in some quarters but it's not mainstreamed as it was before." This was in answer to a question inviting him to celebrate the value of immigration, which he did grudgingly before launching into an explanation of why immigration can be a "problem" and ending with a ridiculous statement about racism not really being an issue today. The comments, which had strong echoes of his views in the New Statesman, was of someone who believed that racism was largely in the past. We are now in a post-racial era, he appeared to be suggesting, where most racism is in the imaginations of special interest campaigners. Not an issue for us Lib Dems, we've got more important things to do.

Both the rally remarks and the magazine interview reveal a man stuck in the past and detached from today's world. Oblivious to the experience of people of colour, who are increasingly a large proportion of the younger population, and complacent about the scale of the problem of racial disparities. His age should not ordinarily be an issue, however his views on race and racism appear rooted in the distant past. And in that sense, it could be his age that is an issue, not because of the number of years on the clock but because of when the clock stopped in his learning about the BME experience. His worldview seems particularly out of place when set against the surge in casual racism on social media, the ever-more extreme views of 'mainstream' commentators like Katie Hopkins, and rising levels of Islamophobia and hate crime. Only someone serenely detached from the busy and loud 24 hour world of breaking news, social media and comment could have failed to notice. Age is not a problem for Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, but if you are not out on the streets or do not see the tensions and battles between alt-right and left, between power and protest, and if you are unaware of the digital world, then it does beg the question of where you are. And if you are old and in a wood-panelled study in leafy suburbia then, yes, in those circumstances age is an issue.

Evidence of race inequality are all around us. Indeed, the Tories are preparing to release a racial disparity audit of government this autumn, along with David Lammy's review into race and criminal justice. Unemployment rates for BME communities are at twice the level as for White people (12.9 percent compared with 6.3 percent). Black workers with degrees earn 23.1 percent less on average than White workers. BME workers are significantly less likely to be managers, directors and senior officials, with people of African descent only half as likely. The employment racial disparities - which have remained largely unchanged in proportional terms for decades - come despite rising educational achievement, with many BME groups now exceeding the average of good GCSEs. Comparing the painfully-slow progress in reducing the employment gap with rapidly increasing BME educational success gives rise to a compelling argument that proportionally racial unfairness is getting worse. And let us not forget that school and university attainment comes despite continued racial biases in permanent exclusions, criminalisation through police racial profiling, longer prison sentences for the same crime, and the disadvantages of being raised in poor households in deprived areas because systemic racism has kept generation after generation of BME families trapped in poor, and often overcrowded, housing due to their talent not being fairly rewarded with opportunities.

Lib Dems made progress in responding to these issues in this years' manifesto, which I contributed to, but this is the beginning, not the end of the journey. Fundamental to the journey is a basic and fundamental grasp of racial unfairness and our responsibility to tackle it. The party had taken a step forward in part because Farron backed this approach. The next step is to design uniquely liberal solutions to work towards a society free of racism, that blends action with opportunity, and freedom with the responsibility of power to eliminate racial barriers. Yet I sense that what progress there has been is fragile, easily shattered by signals of complacency at the top. The arguments for a muscular approach to race equality are not fully won, and the mismatch between the liberal instinct of respect and the illiberal instinct that a White, western worldview automatically trumps any sensitivities around race, culture or experience is still a contradiction at the heart of modern liberalism. It is a contradiction that continues to pull the party away from both fully reaching out to diverse Britain and addressing its' condition.

The party is perpetually at a watershed on dealing with race and racism. We have come too far to dispense with progress made because the new leader is giving off casual complacency. The wrong messages can quickly unravel gains and allow members to retreat into a more comfortable past than deal with the hard challenges of embracing race equality in a multicultural future. Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell didn't really 'get' race but we saw green shoots with Nick Clegg, and the last leadership election saw a quantum leap forward in the rhetoric of both Farron and Norman Lamb. I'm not sure how much they understood, but both of them were open to ideas and passionate about the need for Lib Dems to get it right. It now feels like we are taking a step back in time. Cable is from a progressive social-liberal tradition but on race and racism his recent comments appear to be dated, out-of-step with the realities of modern Britain, and dangerously close to racism denial. It is deeply depressing.


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