The bonding of the angry

St Andrews students greet Gordon Brown with 'righteous loudness'

Rent is a thorny issue at St Andrews - we have some of the very highest student accommodation prices in the country. Several years ago the University introduced year-on-year increases which have crippled many student budgets, with demand for even the cheapest accommodation skyrocketing and the most expensive accommodation — an 'eco-hotel' on the outskirts of town — left half-empty.

My hall last year was towards the lower-middle end of the price-range, despite being a beautiful Victorian building, once a hotel. My year was the last year of its life as a student residence — it was sold for a fortune in a high profile transaction to a developer who is busy converting it into luxury timeshare apartments for golfing visitors.

Meanwhile, much of that money has gone towards funding the building of an extension to those top-of-the-range student flats (they become a hotel over the summer). Economically very sound for the University, and perhaps, yes, a little ecologically sound as well—the apartments have won a Green Tourism Award — but certainly not the best deal for students.

I mention all this because a few days ago those new flats were officially opened by Gordon Brown, fulfilling a long-standing promise. We politically-interested students discovered the news only a week before — I saw it in the student newspaper that Sunday. I think my reaction was the reaction of many: What an opportunity!

At the beginning of this academic year Tony Blair visited St Andrews to host talks on the progress of peace in Northern Ireland then, as with the Brown visit, there was no doubt that we had to demonstrate about something. When so much of your life is spent expressing anger at government policy and bottling up a fury against the administration, the opportunity to let it all go in a public display of feeling is very much relished.

The decision this time was to use the visit as an opportunity to tackle the rents issue, both locally and nationally—protesting our own student accommodation prices and also a government housing policy causing a great deal of suffering for many. It was going to be a motley protest, though, with individuals wanting to seize the chance to express anger over militaristic foreign policy, Trident renewal, and, in my own case, greenwashing — the University's and the government's. I resented my University using its “eco-flats” to build up an image of sustainability when I know it falls far short of many people's expectations, and I resented Brown making the visit a trifling contribution to his own pale green branding.

Pulling a protest together in a week is no mean feat, and the group of students who organised it did an amazing job. They had to make banners and placards, organise a protesting space with the University and the police, and advertise the demonstration—that before any of the extra organising, such as alerting the media, could be done. In the end, a couple of dozen students showed up, which by St Andrews standards was a great success.

“Bombs fall! Rents rise! You've got to prioritise!” was our official chant, and that was what greeted a smiling Gordon as he stepped out from his (presumably hybrid) monster of a vehicle. He dashed into the reception of the flats before we could get a good yell in, though, and so we had to wait a full hour before getting another pop at him. Someone brought a Clarsach out to play peace music. Inside, some enterprising resident of the flats set off the reception's fire alarm, disrupting the proceeds and causing much hilarity among the protesters. By the time Gordon darted back to his car, we'd come up with a new chant: “Who bought all the nukes?” to the tune of a popular football anthem . . .

The event was a great first move for the newly-formed Lower Rents Now! Coalition, but for me it was also something more than that: it was an expression of frustration and a bonding together of the angry. It is always a wonderful thing to get together with like-minded angry people just to shout. Demonstration's not just a way of effecting change — it's also a show of solidarity and opportunity to get righteously loud in public.

It's a little bit risky and frowned-upon to admit that, I think. There's often a feeling amongst activists that we've always got to be working at our hardest for change, and that the image of demonstrators as a bunch of self-gratifying hippies has got to be avoided at all costs. There is a truth in that, but there's also a danger in being self-righteous — not least that the demands we place on ourselves lead to what's known as “activist burn-out” — the frighteningly high turnover rates in activist groups due to exhaustion and frustration.

I've been thinking a great deal about these issues recently, and the 'Brown-washing' demo had me thinking about it some more. Our elected student representative for accommodation issues, who is also a good friend of mine, made a speech to our rally—from the other side of the fence. He did commend our efforts, but to me it also sounded a little like he was claiming his own efforts — engaging with the University in productive conversation, rather than just shouting — were far more fruitful. And there's a truth in that, too, and I had to think about it. At first I just got angry with him — though he's a friend, we're very divided ideologically — but I've had time to settle and think about it some more.

There's a tendency amongst campaigners of both stripes to divide along exactly those lines—those who engage ('reformists', to put it crudely) versus those who demonstrate and use direct action ('revolutionaries'). But I'm seriously worried about dividing ourselves up so. It seems to me that I'm perfectly capable of having a productive conversation with those I'm in opposition to, as well as chanting footballing anthems as they escape. I don't have to be a different person in order to do that — in fact, if I had my way I'd wear the very same clothes. The tactics aren't in opposition, or even just complementary: they can all be part of the same battle-plan, fought by the same people. Dividing ourselves down the middle does our cause no great service.

To that end, what I'd like to have done would have been to have had a chat with Mr Brown — not as a student representative, and certainly not wearing a suit, but as an activist and demonstrator, explaining exactly why I'm in opposition, and why I'm so angry. I wonder if he understands why we were shouting.

I didn't get that chance. I did go into the reception area after he'd left to have a scout around, and made a move towards talking to some of the suits—all the usual University officials were there, as well as Sir Menzies Campbell, who happens to be our Chancellor. But the aghast looks with which my big black coat and silly hat were greeted as I entered intimidated me so much that I barely made an attempt. In fact, the only people with whom I could have a laugh with and a chat were the police who had previously been forcing our protest group to tow the line — they were queuing up to get perks in the form of the nibbles from the buffet. Just my side wanting a conversation clearly isn't enough.

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.