Contact me if you want to link up with a hairy bass player who loves Yorkshire pudding

It's four weeks since I stopped checking my e-mails and I'm feeling better already. I'm even thinking of taking out a small advertisement in the Independent so my real friends will know that there is now no point sending me electronic mail because I won't be reading it.

My decision has nothing to do with the junk mail that turns up unbidden every morning. I positively warm to the task of instantly deleting Internet messages from people who want to sell me lottery tickets and attractive Russian women. What I don't want to see on my screen are any more messages from would-be intimates. Take the case of Graham Bennett. For years Graham and I have been third-class friends. Whenever we meet we shake hands and talk about the old days down at the Lowther in York, when a man wasn't a man unless he could down eight pints of Sam Smith's and three helpings of Grandma Batty's processed Yorkshire pudding without vomiting into the Ouse.

But I've never liked the fact that he was incurably old Labour, played bass in a Dixieland band called the Minster Stompers and sported a beard which made him look as though he was peering through a yak's arse. Neither has he ever seemed terribly impressed with what he calls my "London ways" or the news (which swept round the Lowther like wildfire) that I'd once enjoyed a meal with Peter Mandelson.

It was, you might say, a relationship in which we both knew where we stood.

But then Graham got hold of my electronic address. One morning I switched on and there was a completely unsolicited message from him giving me unwanted news about a trombonist I'd never heard of called "Ginge" who'd had the misfortune to break his playing arm falling down the stairs at the Lowther after a Socialist Workers get-together. In the last sentence Graham announced out of the blue that "it would be great to get together and have a proper talk".

After 20 years carefully avoiding such "proper talks", Graham's sudden ability to propose them on my own computer screen was as disconcerting as a breathy phone call from Ann Widdecombe. It was impossible to imagine that he'd have dared strike a similar note over the telephone or by letter.

I could cite dozens of examples of asymmetrical communications from previous acquaintances: an ex-student who mailed from New Zealand asking if I still liked "wacky baccy" as much as I did at Judy Knowlson's 21st; a man I worked with for three months at Forest Hill Comprehensive who said he was now a happy homosexual ("Bet you never guessed!"); and a message from "a long-lost cousin" who wondered if I knew about Aunt Hilda's pre- marital dalliance with a man from Wall's ice cream.

This is tantamount to an invasion. After a lifetime carefully maintaining specific degrees of intimacy with friends and acquaintances, it's alarming to discover that the entire menagerie has escaped from the zoo and is now squatting like a family of importunate chipmunks on your living-room desk.

I know there are many lonely people who might welcome e-mail from almost complete strangers. If you fall into this category do please write and let me know and I'll make sure before I close down my system for ever that I send you a list of all my electronic contacts. There must be someone out there longing to link up with a hairy bass player who enjoys processed Yorkshire pudding, reckons the Labour Party went to the dogs when it abandoned Clause Four and knows all four verses of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In".

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning

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.