The next mayor of London?

Sian is the Green Party's candidate to be London's mayor

Voting and democracy are what make the world of politics go around, and there has been a lot of it about this week. Like the proverbial bus, you can wait for ages for a vote that will take you in the right direction, and then three come along at once.

First up, MPs were voting on proposals for reformed House of Lords on Wednesday. We’ve had quite a wait for this one, given that most people agree the system of heriditary and appointed law-makers went out of date on about July 14th 1789. New Labour entered government with a commitment to action. However, they have been dallying over the final steps for nearly a decade.

Last time MPs tried to agree on the shape of reform, they threw out seven different options and didn’t support any. This time, in the wake of the cash for honours scandal, MPs finally backed two radical options for change: an 80% elected Lords with a majority of 38, and then a 100% elected Lords with an even bigger majority of 113.

I have to admit I was hugely pleased and relieved at the result – particularly at the popularity of the 100% elected option. Finally we might see a change to our constitution that means that, for the first time ever, Britain will be able to say it’s a grown-up democracy.

It’s obvious for a Green to say this, but it’s important now that we make sure the new house is elected with a fair voting system, and that a new Lords brings a greater diversity of voices into parliament. With a fair system of proportional representation, we’ll see a serious Green presence in parliament at last, ideally placed to put real teeth into green legislation.

The vote also slightly restores my faith in back-benchers, who I usually look upon as a shower of careerists and timeservers. The vote for 100% was no doubt influenced by the stench of sleaze attached to appointments by party leaders and must have been a shock for Blair and co. This wasn’t as far as they wanted to go at all. Blair voted for a 50% elected house and then cleared off, Brown voted for 80% but abstained on 100%, and Jack Straw, leading the process, voted for 50, 60 and 80% but not 100%.

Any reform won’t be easy for the Labour top brass to swallow – having held absolute power with a minority of votes for a decade. But, especially if elected under PR, a renewed Lords will also have renewed vigour and renewed legitimacy. With a real mandate, even with restricted powers, the new Lords will be more inclined to oppose the government and could pose a real challenge to the government’s hegemony.

The next vote of interest was when results started coming in from Northern Ireland on Thursday and Friday. After a doorstep campaign focused mainly on issues like water rates, sufficient numbers of people cast their votes beyond religious lines for us to see the first Green elected to the Assembly, in North Down. Congratulations go to our candidate Brian Wilson – his election is a definite sign of a shift away from the old politics in Northern Ireland, which depend so much on history, to ideas more concerned with the future. The Green Party can also boast it is now the only one represented in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast.

The third election this week was slightly less earth-shattering, but very significant for me. Votes were counted on Saturday for the Green Party’s selection of our candidate for Mayor of London. From a shortlist of five, including our brilliant drugs spokesperson and tireless activist, Shane Collins, I managed to secure the nomination with 45% of first preferences.

I’m thrilled to get the chance to take on Ken Livingstone next year. He started out as an independent, ‘man of the people’ character but is increasingly turning into an agent of New Labour’s business agenda.

His fondness for big, shiny projects is well known, frustrating me and the people of Camden over the Kings Cross development, where we desperately need family housing not more office blocks. And his support for similar projects, such as the Thames Gateway motorway bridge (which will do nothing to improve air quality for people in east London) is alienating people in other boroughs too.

With no other party’s candidate yet selected, I’m looking forward to being the only challenger for a while and working hard to highlight what we will do to make London a human-scale city again.

This weekend we also selected our candidates for the London Assembly list (the Assembly is made up of constituency members topped up with list candidates to make it all proportional to the votes cast). The list is where our Assembly Members tend to come from, although we do well in a lot of the constituencies too.

Our top three are, again, our excellent team from 2004 – Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson (current AMs) and former AM Noel Lynch. I’m next on the list, so it’s up to me now to make sure we get enough votes to win four seats this time round. No problem!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.