Debate Magazine

Do I Get People’s Backs Up?

Posted on the 11 February 2016 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway
    Do I get people’s backs up?

Do I get people's backs up? And more importantly, why?

I only ask because today on Facebook fellow Lib Dems have been saying that I get peoples' backs up... but not asking the question 'why'?

Insults were prompted by my article yesterday in Left Foot Forward, where I criticised the Lib Dem diversity motion to be debated at spring conference next month.

You can read for yourself what I wrote here, but essentially my blog aimed to:

  • State that the party were only taking small baby steps towards greater diversity by essentially proposing more of the same training, which hadn't delivered results for BAME representation, instead of more radical measures;
  • Dissect the different strands of opinion and explore why many preferred to move forward slowly. I said the leadership should be braver in proposing more action that forced change;
  • And set all the above in the context of our dire record on BAME representation and the impact that had on the party's reputation and image, suggesting this should mean there should be more urgency.

I'm not entirely clear which bits stirred up anger or got people's backs up, but Ben Mathis, who was Lib Dem PPC at the last election, wrote:

It's not really possible to debate the issues in an article like this, since the article itself has already dismissed everyone who disagrees and is just waiting for them to die."

He added:

I suppose that makes me one of the "greybeards" who needs to die. Interesting choice of writer and host blog if the objective was to persuade the "ultra-liberal" hold-outs. I'd have chosen someone who doesn't consistently get people's backs up."

Another member wrote:

Lester gets asked to comment because he is provocative or "gets people's backs up". I am sure he would agree he has made a career of it..."

That's one way of putting it. I would say that years of working in organisations such as Operation Black Vote, as a journalist in the black and Asian media (including as Editor of the New Nation newspaper), and as a radio and TV broadcaster have helped to raise important issues and cases.

I have never set out to put people's backs up, but rather speak truth to power, and to analyse and discuss the dynamics of racial discrimination and unequal outcomes.

Neither have I set out to 'make a career out of it'. Where I have been employed in the anti-racism movement and black media it is because I wanted to make a positive contribution.

It is normally the Right that talk of the 'race relations industry' in disparaging terms, as if to wish away the campaigners and the issues they raise in one go. And mostly it is the Far Right whose backs I have put up, even at personal risk when I have received death threats.

The passage of my article that refers to greybeards and 'death' is as follows:

There's another strand of opinion, the mourners. They say: 'Our local [white, male] former MP [who lost his seat] has [had] local name recognition. Surely he stands a better chance of winning it back than some 'diverse' newcomer who's not from around these parts.'

This rests on an assumption that the defeated MP will be fondly remembered and locals are aching to welcome back their homely and familiar Lib Dem.

It's natural for the faithful to emotionally pine for their old MP but in reality even long-standing veteran politicians can be quickly forgotten. The world spins on.

Diversity cannot wait for the greybeards to die off. The decimation of Lib Dems in 2015, as painful as it was, is an opportunity to move forward, not an excuse to bring yesterday's men out of retirement while the future joins the back of the queue."

As I think is obvious I was not referring to unelected PPCs like Mathis.

But the discussion did get me thinking about what it was about my article that actually did get people's backs up, and if I could have written it without having that effect.

Looking back at it, I struggle to see how anyone could be seriously offended by a structured and, I hope, well-reasoned argument set in the context of moving forward on BAME representation.

Given the lack of progress on BAME representation it is difficult to be anything other than critical when conference motions come forward that, in my assessment, won't make much difference.

To not be critical, or keep silent, would be to let the party off the hook. As a party of democracy we should not be afraid of honest debate.

We are all Liberal Democrats and believe in many of the same principles but where there are differences - such as the approach to achieving BAME representation - so long as we engage respectfully we should be able to converse.

This conversation only becomes difficult when one side feels so uncomfortable or defensive in talking about the issues, or feels that criticism about lack of progress is somehow being personally directed against them, that they refuse to engage constructively.

The question I ask is whether that down to me as an individual or if it is the points I am raising that are causing the adverse reaction?

One of the interesting things about this thread is that some members rather put my back up by the things they wrote after I resigned (temporarily) from the party over the toleration of a comment in a Lib Dem online space that Africans don't know what a toilet is. The racist comment was ignored while myself and two other BAME members, who complained about it, became the target of abuse.

It was a very upsetting period for me. Yet as news of my resignation was debated on social media Mathis wrote: "...and [he] refuses to condemn anti-LGBT laws in African countries on the basis of "culture," he is essentially saying that people of one race should not be expected to uphold basic human dignity and support universal rights."

All Mathis's points were a gross distortion of my views, but the point on anti-LGBT laws is an outright untruth, pure and simple. I have condemned anti-LGBT laws in Africa strongly.

Throughout this whole episode I felt that party members that were leveling all sorts of outrageous and utterly untrue claims about me, such as me being 'anti-white', were actually acting this way because they just didn't understand the black experience.

I thought they had probably never stopped to think that the experiences of BAME people in Britain is not given enough exposure in the mainstream, both the positive achievements and a failure of the media to explore the pervasive and pernicious barriers that keep people of colour down.

For some the very subject of race brings out a negative reaction, variously the instinct to attack the messenger or to defend themselves as not being racist before they have even been accused of anything!

After mulling over the accusation that I consistently put people's backs up I feel sure that it is not me. It is the fact that I have been consistently raising the issues and, while I have been talking about the party in general terms, a minority of members feel they are personally under attack and that they need to defend themselves or their idea of what the party should be.

But I welcome reaction to this blog and, as always, will engage politely but passionately, respectfully and with facts but not conceding what I do not believe to be true simply to make anyone feel more comfortable.

If that puts anyone's backs up, I apologise in advance!

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By Obv Simon Woolley
posted on 12 February at 09:58

Truth is Lester, to challenge racial inequality you have no choice but to annoy a lot of people who would gladly maintain the status quo and keep people like us firmly locked out of everything, except prison. If you weren't annoying them, you wouldn't be doing your job. Simple.