Debate Magazine

London Lib Dems Fail Once More on Racial Diversity

Posted on the 07 May 2016 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway
    London Lib Dems fail once more on racial diversity

Caroline Pidgeon's Lib Dems, as the London region was branded in this election, is down to a single solitary Assembly member... Caroline Pidgeon. A far cry from the five-strong Lib Dem team at City Hall in 2004.

There are many reasons for this decline - the continued hangover of our role in the coalition; a risk-adverse manifesto; failure to fully utilise the talents and backgrounds of all the party's London candidates; a poor media operation; and an inability to sharpen messages, slogans and soundbites.

Caroline is a good assembly member and impresses voters wherever she goes with her knowledge of London policies. A common reaction to her performances in hustings debates is 'she knows a lot'. Yet the gladiatorial contest for mayor demanded a mayoral candidate more in the Nicola Sturgeon mold.

The party's campaign was also hamstrung by failure to embrace race equality in arguably the most diverse city in Europe. If Zac Goldsmith ran a doomed dog whistle campaign in a city without dogs, Lib Dems went on a pleasant country ramble without a compass or map and couldn't to find their way back to the city.

The Greens brought out a London-specific BME manifesto in written and video formats while Lib Dems had nothing much to say. Meanwhile the Runnymede Trust's London Inequality Report, which was released in the middle of the campaign, could have offered candidates an opportunity to discuss unequal BME outcomes on employment, education, health and housing but this was ignored.

There were some efforts made to make the London campaign look diverse, particularly the political broadcast, but that should be the minimum, not maximum, extent of racial diversity.

Lib Dem's presence in the assembly since 2000 has been characterised by deliberately ceding ground to Labour's assembly members on matters of race, as if this was Labour's official territory where Lib Dems feared to tread.

Last October Chris Maines promised a London diversity taskforce and recruitment during his successful campaign to become chair of the London region. This needs to begin in earnest now and should include a four-year programme of developing policies and campaigns for a more racially-equal London.

For the past two London elections the party has operated a zipping system that ensures the third-placed list candidate is from an ethnic minority. The trouble is the Lib Dems only saw only two elected members in 2012 and one this year. Third place is not good enough; the zipping should be moved to first or second place. The Conservatives had a black woman, Kemi Badenoch, at the top of their assembly list followed by Shaun Bailey. The Lib Dems should try to match that.

This election saw the Lib Dems reap just 4.7% of the popular mayoral vote, almost half the previous worst result since London government was resurrected at the millennium. This is directly related to the party's failure to appeal to the almost 40% of Londoners who are non-white. It is no coincidence that the so-called 'black holes' in the capital where the party have no councillors and few activists are also areas that have the highest BME populations. These local parties may be comprised of volunteers but they are in desperate need of being professionalised, trained in diversity (including recruitment strategies) and paired-up with more successful local parties rather than left in isolation. This requires a shift away from only capacity-building 'winnable' seats towards 'unwinnable' but highly diverse seats.

We need to go out and recruit new members from BME communities, welcome them in, audit their skills to bring out the best in them, and find out what they are interested in contributing to the party and be open to new ideas they bring about how to do things, rather than just giving them a wodge of Focus leaflets to deliver.

Lib Dems must try harder to find out what issues multicultural London are most concerned about and design messages and policies that address these concerns, as well as tapping into expertise inside and outside the party on race. Of course everyone wants to be treated equally, and BME voters are just as interested in and affected by 'mainstream' issues such as housing, transport and the economy. However, there are many issues that disproportionately affect BME communities and we must speak to these as well as allowing members to speak for themselves.

Issues like disproportionate black unemployment, running at twice the level of white unemployment, is one of the greatest scandals of our time and to tackle it we need a revival of the radical Liberalism of the past that challenged injustice no matter how unfashionable the issues were at the time. As a party we need to speak to everyone in society, but if we want to engage Black, Asian and other minority communities in London, Lib Dems we must specifically addresses the challenges we face. To not do so would be to repeat the same failed strategy over and again, and expect different results; the classic definition of madness.

If we haven't got anything to say to diverse communities, or don't have the inclination to say it, then we have no right to expect support from those communities at the ballot box. To ignore specific concerns - particularly over endemic racial discrimination and unfair outcomes - is the equivalent of talking to them while looking at their feet. Yes, they'll hear us but they won't feel like the party is connecting with or understanding them. And perceptions are at least as valuable as anything 'mainstream' London messages that affect everyone.

As a party we need to put roots down into diverse communities; go out and identify people - especially those with credibility in the community - who would make great councillors and recruit them. Every three-member council ward where we have at least one sitting councillor should have as candidates one woman and one member of a BME community. We must reinvigorate the way we do pavement politics, such as holding regular action days in apparent no-hope areas drawing activists from across the capital. Recruiting new members in such areas could potentially plant new seeds that lead to more activism in those areas.

There's an over-reliance on senior members who have a 'feel' for the community blunts the effectiveness of the whole local party to crunch the demographics of an area and assess if they are engaging all parts of the community. The ethnic make-up of areas, for example, can change far more rapidly than the composition of the activists and leading members. Without proper analysis of the community, parties can end up talking only to the more 'traditional' citizens of a certain age. Focussing on census data can be a very useful tool for everything from reviewing literature to attempting to recruit a more representative membership.

Some activists have an aversion to 'targeting', seeing it as pigeon-holing people or playing divisive politics, but it is just good business sense. When Tesco introduced loyalty cards it built up an incredible level of intelligence of their customers and their buying habits which the company used to tailor products on the shelf, offer more goods and services, and constantly think about how they can make give a better experience. Tesco's are sometimes hated for their success but we can learn valuable lessons from them.

Every local party should have at least one number-cruncher, feeding extrapolated data and ideas about how to reach and serve the community into the party's executive and council groups where they exist. The role is at least as important as a membership officer and can not only help gain a greater understanding of the complexity and diversity of the community but also get ahead of the game by looking at trends and changing demographics.

With a different, fresh approach, the Lib Dems can appeal to and reflect multicultural London every bit as effectively as Labour. More so when you consider the attractiveness of our party's philosophy; more neighbourhood-minded than Labour's town hall-centred approach and more about empowerment.

If this were married to a real sense that the party understands and reflects both the class and BME make-up of the area Liberals will go a long way to plugging the gaps in their presence around 'inner city' London. We need to find local champions from these communities that have real popularity and have the ability to rise to leading positions and the party will establish a positive reputation that will help turn London Liberal.

Our 'public face' must be both diverse and credible. Others will no doubt be able to contribute a host of other ideas but the key is to have this debate. Rather than continue to do business in the same way and hope for a better day, it is time to radically reappraise the structures, culture and assumptions that keep us as also-rans in a city which has all the hallmarks of being Liberal in spirit.


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