The New Statesman and Frontline Club debate

Final panel for the debate announced, plus submit your own questions to Julian Assange and co.

"This house believes whistleblowers make the world a safer place"
Saturday 9 April 2011, 5pm, Kensington Town Hall

Coming to the New Statesman and Frontline Club debate on Saturday? Audience members are being invited to submit their questions to the panel in advance of Saturday's debate. A selection of questions will be chosen by the chair. If you want to put a question to the panel at the debate then submit it here.

We are also delighted to announce that Mehdi Hasan and Clayton Swisher will speak alongside Julian Assange for the proposition, while Sir David Richmond, Bob Ayers and Douglas Murray will oppose the motion. For full bios see below:


Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks

Julian Assange is the 39-year-old editor in chief of WikiLeaks. Queensland-born Assange has been the subject of public calls for his assassination by leading US politicians and faces an ongoing espionage investigation. In 2010 he overwhelmingly won Time magazine's Readers' Choice Person of the Year poll and was named Le Monde's Man of the Year. He has also been awarded the Amnesty International UK Media Award and the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. In February 2011 his organisation, WikiLeaks, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after publishing three of the biggest leaks of classified information in history, the Afghan War Diaries, the Iraq War Logs and Cablegate.

Clayton Swisher, head of al-Jazeera's Transparency Unit

Clayton Swisher is the head of al-Jazeera's Transparency Unit (the team that produced the Palestine Papers in January 2011). An ex-federal investigator-turned-investigative journalist, he is a former director of programmes at the Middle East Institute and a current term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. As a journalist, he has covered the 2008 US presidential elections, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. He has also authored two books: The Truth About Camp David (New York: Nation Books, 2004) and The Palestine Papers: the End of the Road? (London: Hesperus, 31 March 2011).

Mehdi Hasan, senior political editor, New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is the senior political editor of New Statesman. He was a former editor in the news and current affairs department at Channel 4, where he worked on the award-winning Dispatches documentary strand. He is a regular guest on Sky News and the BBC, appearing regularly on Question Time and The Daily Politics. He is an occasional presenter on LBC radio and the co-author of a forthcoming biography of Ed Miliband – Ed Miliband and the Remaking of the Labour Party (London: Biteback, summer 2011).


Sir David Richmond, former director, defence and intelligence, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office

David Richmond was a British diplomat for more than 30 years. His career included postings to Baghdad, Brussels and New York, where he worked on the UN Security Council. In 2000 he became the first UK representative to the EU's political and security committee in Brussels and was closely involved in the creation of European security and defence policy. In 2003 he returned to Baghdad (where he had first been posted 20 years earlier) and was later appointed UK special representative for Iraq. In his last posting, he was director general for general defence and intelligence and a member of the Foreign Office Board.

Bob Ayers, former director of the US Department of Defence Information Systems Security Programme

Bob Ayers had a distinguished career in the US government. In 1992, he was appointed director of the defence department's Information Systems Security Programme. He next assumed the post of director, defensive information warfare, leading the programme designed to protect DoD systems from systematic cyber attacks. From 1990-92, he was responsible for the security of more than 40,000 classified intelligence-processing systems at 55 locations across the world. Bob is a noted public figure, appearing on television and radio in the US, in the UK and worldwide, and publishing many articles.

Douglas Murray, author and political commentator

Douglas Murray is a bestselling writer and award-winning political commentator. Since 2007 he has been director of the Centre for Social Cohesion. From April 2011 he will be associate director of the Henry Jackson Society. Murray appears regularly in the British and foreign media. A frequent guest on Question Time and Newsnight, he is also a columnist for Standpoint magazine and writes for many other publications, including the Spectator and Wall Street Journal. In 2008 he co-authored Victims of Intimidation: Freedom of Speech Within Europe's Muslim Communities. His latest book, on the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, will be published later this year.

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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.