Debate Magazine

Why the Lib Dems Need a Race Equality Policy Group

Posted on the 23 February 2017 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway
    Why the Lib Dems need a race equality policy group

The Liberal Democrats have announced a set of policy working groups to develop ideas that might become party policy or even make it into the 2020 manifesto. Race equality was missing. This runs the risk of Tim Farron's party heading into the next election without a coherent set of liberal ideas for tackling racial inequality. And this, in turn, acts as a wind drag on the Lib Dems' appeal to Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in an increasingly diverse Britain.

The BAME population was 14% at the time of the 2011 census. Population estimates by the Runnymede Trust put the percentage of BAME voters aged between 20 and 44 years old as 18% to 19% last year. In London the under 30's are almost in a majority. These figures will rise by 2020. Indeed overall UK projections of the BAME population nationally are likely to be around 17% - 18% by 2020. My own research for Operation Black Vote showed that BAME voters were increasingly moving out of 'inner city urban' constituencies to more marginal seats, and consequently weilding more electoral power. Quite simply it makes no sense to ignore the BAME vote. The party's internal polling before 2015 came up with dismal results in terms of how ethnic minorities viewed the party. Previous Ashcroft polling found BAME support for the Lib Dems running at half the level of white support. It would be the height of niavety to assume this had magically corrected itself simply because the party are winning a few local byelections in leafy suburbs.

Of course BAME electoral support is not tied to offering a menu of policies that speak to addressing barriers that BAME voters and their children face. Ethnic minorities care about the same issues as whites. But they also care about addressing discrimination, and polls show that concern about racism - overt and systemic - is significantly higher if you are a person of colour compared to if you are not. If the Lib Dems hope to win BAME votes from other parties they need to offer more, appeal more, and come across like they understand the experiences of multicultural Britain and have a plan to address the problems.

I have raised concerns about the absence of race equality policy-making with Federal Policy Committee, which is responsible for setting up working groups. Individuals have told me to put in a motion to federal conference. A motion contains very little detail, and is completely unsuited for any purpose other than getting one or two ideas or proposals debated. It is no substitute for a real and genuine exercise in party policy-making. In addition, the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat group, as a Specified Affiliated Organisation, have rarely had any success in proposing motions despite always taking drafting advice and undertaking widespread consultation with relevant figures in the party. Why should I, as an individual, lacking the reach and status of a whole SAO, have more luck? Maybe others can just come up with a good idea, propose a motion and watch it sail to conference, but this is not the Black experience in the party, and it certainly isn't mine.

In the past decade the Liberal Democrats have addressed race inequality policies only three times. In 2010, the race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust published a pamphlet written by our then equalities spokesperson Lynne Featherstone. This led to just one notable race-specific policy making it into the 2010 party manifesto - the demand for name-blind application forms for every Whitehall department. Despite being in coalition this pledge was not fulfilled.

In 2012, the party leader Nick Clegg asked Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece to lead a Race Equality Taskforce to develop policies to combat racial disadvantage in education and employment. This reported back to Federal Conference in 2013, and the report was endorsed unanimously by all members. This contained a comprehensive set of policy proposals, however despite endorsement by the national party none of the recommendations were taken forward in coalition government. Vince Cable, then business secretary, ordered a review of lack of BAME representation in FTSE boardrooms. None of the policy recommendations from Race Equality Taskforce made it into the party's 2015 manifesto, or indeed the party's BAME Manifesto, the latter of which was a poor document that failed to contain pledges that would tackle racial disparities.

And in 2014, the party's Equalities Policy Working Group - which covers all equalities 'strands' or protected characteristics - unveiled their report 'Expanding Opportunity, Unlocking Potential'. It's main BAME-specific recommendation was the introduction of name-blind applications, which had been proposed four years previously but not implemented. Aside from that, the report contained very little to address systemic and institutional barriers facing BAME people. The exercise underlined why it is necessary to have race-specific policy processes.

Since 2014, there have been a number of significant developments taking place external to the Liberal Democrats, which require a liberal response. This includes the 'Race Report' by the Equality and Human Rights Commission; the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination's report on race equality in Britain; the Government's Racial Disparity Audit; the Parker Review into BAME representation of FTSE boards; the employment review by Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith; the criminal justice review by David Lammy; and the Integration review by Louise Casey. There have also been significant pieces of research on different aspects of race inequality in the UK, including economic analysis by the Runnymede Trust and the Women's Budget Group, and Business in the Community's 'Race at Work' survey of 24,000 workers.

All these reports, assessing the state of race equality, integration and opportunity demonstrate that policy evidence and discussion around solutions has not stood still since 2010, 2012 and 2014. There have been significant developments in the past three years, new demands and new analysis.

The Labour Party produced a significantly more comprehensive BAME Manifesto in 2015, after an extensive consultation with party members and outside experts alike. Labour is currently embarking on the exercise again, in preparation for the 2020 election. It is imperative that Lib Dems keep pace, not just for electoral appeal purposes but also to ensure that liberal solutions are on offer to address racial disparities. There are significant opportunities here. Labour's solutions rely too heavily on targets. They rightly focus on outcomes but devote too little attention to creative solutions that will help to change hearts, minds and practices, on the road to the outcome. This is where liberals come in. Lib Dems are missing a trick by ceding this ground entirely to Labour, and continuing to hurt electoral prospects in an increasingly racially-diverse electorate as well as hampering Lib Dem efforts to recruit a more racially-diverse membership.

More work needs to be done to tackle structural issues affecting BAME communities - in relation to health and social care, housing, education, stop and search, business, employment, the arts, and civic and public life. It is also important to acknowledge the achievements and aspirations of our multicultural society in working towards a fair and just Britain for all. These issues demand detailed solutions and consideration of evidence that cannot be shoe-horned into a motion to conference. It requires a policy process to shape a race equality strategy.

Thought and analysis of solutions, with the goal of devising radical liberal alternatives, is an exciting exercise that will take Lib Dems forward. It is an exercise that cannot wait another year or three. I am determined that if Lib Dems fail to devote efforts to policies to tackle racial disparities the party at large will know that this is not an oversight, but is a conscious choice. It will not be an accident or an unfortunate omission, but a wilful decision to ignore the issues.

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