Sian gets sucked into Facebook

The power of Facebook to the politician plus Ken Livingstone impersonators and other issues

I can hardly fit in writing a blog this week, but I have managed to grab a few minutes away from Facebook to jot a few thoughts down.

For ages and ages I resisted getting involved with this latest manifestation of web 2.0, much as I resisted the lure of a mobile phone for almost a decade. With mobiles I wanted to see if there was any lasting damage to the brain, so I let everyone else be guinea pigs for as long as possible before signing up. I had similar concerns with Facebook but a couple of weeks ago I was persuaded to set up a profile, and now I’m utterly sucked in.

As a politician, Facebook turns out to be a great way to present your views and get feedback from people. Anyone can join your groups and write comments on your ‘wall’ or start a discussion topic (my group Siân for London Mayor has picked up 168 members in just a few weeks, which is lovely) and the ability to post videos lets people see you in flesh talking about their concerns. It all makes producing leaflets to push through letterboxes look rather old school and one-sided.

However, much as I predicted, fiddling around on Facebook can use up a huge amount of time. The trouble is it’s very addictive – you can spend hours checking your ‘friend requests’, touring round the profiles of friends of friends of friends, seeing what groups they belong to and where they went on their holidays. And God help you if you start adding applications.

There are millions of these; mostly ersatz games that use Facebook’s networking capacity to create huge contests between different camps. If you join Facebook, you will quickly be inundated with invitations to take sides in an epic battle between werewolves and vampires, or approached by recruiters from the pirates, ninjas, zombies and jedis. I have been sent gifts ranging from poker chips to fish for my aquarium. I don’t think I can take on any of this responsibility so I’m steering clear of the ‘apps’ for the time being.

On the other hand, the groups on Facebook are a great way to get involved in political mischief. Looking for a group that opposes the mad Thames Gateway motorway bridge, I found one with a ‘related groups’ list showing it mainly included local Conservatives (the list is compiled automatically, based on the other groups members belong to). But, adding it to my groups brought ‘No to the Thames Gateway Bridge’ to the attention of Greens in London so, a couple of dozen new members later, the related groups were ‘Sian for London Mayor’, ‘Census Alert’, ‘Green Party’, ‘Renationalise the British Railway Network’ and ‘Campaign Against Climate Change’. Result! (Although this might change if the Tories decide to fight back.)

You see, it’s very hard not to be competitive about all this. My declared rivals in the London Mayor election next year don’t appear to be up yet officially, but there’s plenty to be jealous of in the meantime. There are literally hundreds of student Boris Johnson fan clubs on Facebook, including ‘Boris for King’, ‘Boris for Pope’ and ‘Boris Johnson for President of the World’, plus about equal numbers of ‘Re-elect Ken’ and ‘Anyone but Ken’ groups.

The most plausible Livingstone impersonator has put all the right details into his profile, but the picture seems to give the game away. Would the real Ken Livingstone have chosen to show himself standing in front of a row of bearskinned royal guards? I beg to quibble, and none of the nineteen ‘Boris Johnsons’ are very convincing either.

Facebook seems a much friendlier place than the internet at large, mainly due to the way it’s arranged in overlapping networks, so there is a danger that our efforts are only reaching natural Green supporters (not a bad thing, initially anyway). All my Facebook friends are pretty wholesome, so I rarely see anything dodgy, but I got a bit of a shock when a troll appeared on a Green Party group and posted something nasty (since removed by us). I went to have a look at his profile, and a whole world of unpleasant interest groups and right-wing nonsense was revealed, all of which I’ll continue to avoid in the future.

On the whole I’m enjoying myself at the moment, but two improvements I’d made immediately are for the admins to kick off the BNP’s groups and to heed our call to list ‘green’ as your political view (the closest their US-focused drop-down menu has at the moment is ‘very liberal’ but we have a campaign of emailing them to persuade them to change it).

These examples show Facebook’s one major drawback. Like many successful web ventures, Facebook’s success comes from its ubiquity; I can see the day when nearly everyone is on it, and this does put a lot of power into the hands of one company. I’d be very reluctant to put any truly personal information into my Facebook profile because of the US-based nature of the database and the fact that the Patriot Act means their intelligence services have easy access.

Things like not being able to list your political beliefs are relatively trivial, but the rest of the world probably has greater problems with its monolingual English interface. Britain also has to put up with enormous ‘local networks’ at the moment, with a ‘London’ network of little use compared with the ability to create one for each borough or neighbourhood. The power to do this (or to choose a fascist-free network) lies with the developers, not the users, so I’m looking forward to the Son of Facebook being a peer-to-peer system that is far more adaptable and lets us choose how we share this information and where it goes.

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
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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.