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Does Clegg Have the Political Will to Follow Cable’s Example on Race Equality?

Posted on the 07 October 2014 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

3100005889Thank goodness for Vince Cable. As well as delivering a speech yesterday rooted in progressive Liberal values, and rejecting the Tories’ squeeze of the poor to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, he began Lib Dem conference with an announcement of an investigation into the lack of ethnic minority representation in Britain’s boardrooms.

This may have come at the fag-end of this coalition government, but the move is still the only significant action any minister has taken specifically to address racial disproportionality throughout the whole four plus years in power. 

Such action is not nearly enough, but at least one Lib Dem minister is moving in the right direction.

Interestingly there has been no dissent from the party grassroots. I suspect that if Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) had proposed the measure there would have been a vexed debate with Liberal fundamentalist purists arguing against it. Yet using the power and influence of government to bring about social good is at the heart of social-Liberal values. That is the historic tradition our party lived by when cleaning up Dickensian poverty, and why the Methodists and Quakers of the Whigs and early Liberals campaigned against the enslavement of Africans.

Cable’s announcement is welcome but it is disappointing that the problem which underpins the lack of BAME representation in the boardrooms, race discrimination in the labor market as a whole, has gone unaddressed. A year ago Nick Clegg’s office promised to bring forward proposals on this and other “stuck groups”. Sadly the policy seems to have itself become stuck in the bowels of his office and is unlikely to see the light of day before next years’ election. The reason must be a lack of political will.

I visited the federal conference last weekend, and was standing by the EMLD stall when Clegg was on his tour of the exhibition stands. When he approached a colleague said to him “Nick, did you know that Michael (Bukola) is the only African or Caribbean PPC (prospective parliamentary candidate) in the whole country?” Nick’s crass response was: “Fantastic!”. 

Far from being fantastic, it is an absolute disgrace. I don’t know whether Michael, who was present, was happy about being used in this way but I feel it was important that Clegg was challenged over the failure of his party, seven months away from the election, to select more than a single African or Caribbean PPC anywhere in the UK so far. 

This year has been the most undiverse party conference I have attended since joining the party in 2006, with hardly a black or brown face in sight. Yesterday saw a debate on the Equalities Working Group paper – a process I was involved with – yet the only ethnic minority to speak was Amna Ahmad, the PPC for Streatham. From TV pictures I could only see one other BAME member in the audience, Rabi Martins. There may have been others at the back, but the image beamed into Britain’s living rooms was a sea of white faces discussing equality for all discriminated-against sections of society, including BAME communities.

The paper itself was weak, but again a step in the right direction. Last year federal conference approved a far more radical policy document from the Race Equality Taskforce – another process I took part in – recommending that the private sector should monitor and publish equalities information just as public authorities do, and that national and local government should make better use of their purchasing power to force companies to improve diversity before getting public contracts.

A motion endorsing the paper was unanimously approved by party members, yet unlike many other conference policies that have seen those ideas taken forward in government, this one has been met with no action whatsoever. There were several meetings after conference with ministers and senior advisers but despite this the policy has sunk without trace. Again, lack of political will.

Ever since 2010, when the Lib Dems had only one significant policy to tackle unequal racial outcomes – nameblind job applications – I’ve been asking why this has not been rolled out beyond a few (less than half) of Whitehall departments to society at large. Yesterday, four years later, party members are now talking about wanting this measure. But they are not asking why this 2010 manifesto commitment has not been implemented so far. Answer: lack of political will.

In Glasgow a member told me that some are saying I appear to be paving the way to rejoin Labour. This is categorically untrue. Writing off critics as malcontent’s who do not belong inside the Liberal Democrats just shows how far we have sunk. Despite Lib Dems suggesting I should leave, and Labour friends calling on me to ‘come home’, I am staying put because I believe in the principles of social-liberalism and because Lib Dems must and will become more diverse in representation and policies. Leaving would be the easy option. I have consistently said that I would leave if the party formed another coalition with the Tories after 2015, and that remains the case. But if we did another deal with the Tories there wouldn’t be much of the Lib Dems left by 2020 anyway.

Labour remain deeply conservative on many issues – such as electoral and constitutional reform – and remain centralist in not wanting devolution to the grassroots or trust ordinary people to make decisions. Before being elected leader I thought Ed Miliband possessed liberal instincts but that was either a mirage or he lacks the courage to push these principles in the face of more socially-conservative figures like Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. 

Labour are currently streets ahead wanting to address racial unfairness, as witnessed by their race equality consultation and speech by Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, promising to put race equality at the heart of decision-making. There is nothing about this that Liberal Democrats should disagree with; in fact we should embrace it and push the mission to end institutional racism further. This is one area where Labour and Lib Dem visions should overlap and dovetail, where our respective political beliefs can be of mutual benefit to each other in order to radically change Britain for the better.

But in order to form a coalition with Labour the Lib Dems have to break a notional threshold of national support in order to claim legitimacy for being in government. In 2010, with almost a quarter of the popular vote, we could make that claim. Given that Lib Dem members have lamented the 15% turnout for police and crime commissioner elections (PCC) as lacking a popular mandate, the Lib Dems have to beat this figure across the country not just in isolated pockets of support. We are currently languishing at between 6-9% in the polls so have a lot of work to do. 

Without broadening our appeal to BAME communities we are not going to have a higher national vote than the PCC turnout. That means following Cable’s lead and using the remaining time in government to push through a swathe of policies to make a real difference to the lives of BAME communities, starting with a real push-out of name-blind job applications to all employers, ensuring that diversity of the private sector is a deal-breaker in the procurement of public sector contracts (both existing Lib Dem policies) and serious proposals to tackle disproportionate BAME unemployment and all “stuck groups” (promised by Clegg’s special advisers).

If the political will is there, this can happen. If not, we probably need a leader who does see the need for such action.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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