Nightmare on Downing Street

The Conservatives cannot succeed on their merits because they have none, believes Ivan Massow. But L

Close your eyes and picture this: it is May 2001, and outside the door of No 10 stands the new Prime Minister, his beloved wife at his side. The crowd of well-wishers cheer: "William! William!" as William Jefferson Hague flashes a Churchillian V-sign. Only a few weeks ago, this would have been far-fetched. But now we have witnessed the prospect of a ten- to15-year stretch in the wilderness for Tories shrink to a bare three. And if the blip did translate into an election defeat for Labour, what awaits us could be a nightmare.

Notwithstanding the adage, "Oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them", it would be a travesty of justice if Hague slipped through the net. He is a man who offers no co-ordinated policy approach for Britain, and who survives at the mercy of the Sun newspaper, with policies as inane and as ill-thought out as that newspaper's editorials. Crowd-pleasing, bandwagon gestures aside, what does Hague really stand for?

We know that Hague would cut 3p off petrol; that he promises not to increase taxes (who's promising to do otherwise? - oh, the Liberal Democrats); and that he thinks he can cut bureaucracy in the NHS (anyone who knows how ridiculously Central Office is run may question whether they would be capable of reforming one of the largest employers in Europe). Beyond that, what is his vision?

The skinhead Conservatism that has marked the "tabloidification" of the Conservatives has highlighted the cancer eating away at the very lungs of the party. We must stop this from spreading to Britain. Hague, whom I once saw as a leader with the courage and insight to stand up for equality and party reform, is overshadowed by two groups: his famously "scarecrow" shadow cabinet; and core Conservatives, the Tory leaflet deliverers, who patrol progress.

Let's start with the Cabinet, once it's no longer a shadow: Ann Widdecombe replacing Jack Straw as Home Secretary. She is as mad as a spoon! One faith, one race, one party, no sex, Widdecombe falls firmly under the "those who can't, teach" rule. It is strange how some of the most unbalanced people in the country become psychiatrists, and some of the most worldly become priests. Widdecombe, in the spirit of this lesson, is the opposite of "home" secretary: unless we're talking about the Addams family home.

John Redwood typifies the remaining Cabinet. Frightening as an individual, he, like many of his colleagues, is too much of a liability for Hague to risk leaving on the back benches, as he once tried. A constant thorn in the side of Tory reform, he personifies the awkward lack of imagination and vision that has come to mean Conservatism; in truth, he is the spanner in the works of progress, the no-hope opportunist that could not exist outside the Tory party.

Aside from Michael Portillo, the remaining Cabinet and Tory ministers are remarkable for their lack of remarkableness - held together by a commitment never to mention the word "euro", never to engage in a debate on the pound, except as a symbol of nationalism, and never to see past a 1950s version of family, social responsibility and society. Their platform is neo-racist, anti-gay, anti-single parent, anti-diversity.

Even more worrying than the Cabinet are the leafleteers, the party faithful. These are the men and women who would be running this country if the Tories got in. They are the core members, the Baroness Youngs and loony right-wingers, who actually do the dirty work of door-to-door campaigning for their party, holding coffee mornings in the shires to rustle up enthusiasm for their true-blue candidate - and thus hold Hague in their clutches. These are the people who, although literally dying out, set the tone of the party by their sheer dedication to "the cause". They manipulate the party - against Hague's wishes - on issues of race and sex. Theirs is the politics of the taxi driver. Asylum-seekers? Out with them! Gays? Lock 'em up! Bring back hanging! Block up the Tunnel . . .

You see them close up and personal if you go before a selection committee. As an openly gay prospective MP, I had to be rescued by the leadership (Hague recognised that the party needed more blacks, more women and even - gulp - a homosexual). Even though I had his backing, I was a "D1", which means that I did not fit the selection-procedure mould, but was to be allowed, anyway, on to the candidates list. Hague had promised he would reform the procedure - but he failed to push his proposals past the gimlet-eyed Conservatives.

My gay flatmate boasts an excellent pedigree - a First at Oxford and politics at Harvard - butone wonders whether he will ever get a win-nable seat. Like every disabled, black and almost every female candidate on the list, he gets gesture selection. This means that he has spent weekend after weekend in interviews (it is considered a compliment to be interviewed), but having passed the first three hurdles, never makes it to the final selection committee.

The story is always the same: "We would love to have you as our candidate, but we're just not sure whether the electorate is ready for you." Laughable, when the most popular party in history has gay Cabinet ministers and the Liberal Democrats have voted to legalise gay marriage.

So who does make it through? In a word, drones. Successful candidates are a reactionary, tame and middle-class lot. Ask them what vision they have for Britain, and they will tell you it is a land where the ways of the majority - and the institutions that uphold these ways, such as the army, the Church and the law - are sacrosanct. They parrot commitment to a morality of the past: freedom for the white, the middle class and the married.

Why do these people even stand a chance of becoming our governing party? They are obviously not winners. It is Labour supporters who seem intent on becoming losers. They persist in factionalism.

I was at a gathering that Chris Smith held recently at an art gallery in Islington. (Two months and I've become a part of the new Labour cliche!) I spoke and, afterwards, an "old" Labour man approached me. He was so eager to get rid of Tony Blair's government because it was "new" Labour that he didn't care if, in order to do this, he would instead allow the Tories into power.

Margaret Thatcher was an unpopular leader. In fact, she was largely hated by the electorate - but she earned their respect for her ideology. Blair's speech last Tuesday proved he, too, is prepared to sacrifice popularity for ideology and leadership.

When I close my eyes, I dream that the Labour faithful will respect that and help the country understand why this is so important.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street

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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.