Worthy to fill Dewar's shoes?

Palm Beach-on-the-Clyde, it is not. One look at Glasgow Anniesland in murky, miserable mid-November confirms that. No one expects a Florida-style electoral muddle, even though it will be the scene of a parallel, unusually complicated double by-election on 23 November, presenting voters with 13 candidates for the late Donald Dewar's seats in the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments.

Old-fashioned pencil-and-paper simplicity will avoid confusion. Voters will be given two ballot papers, white for Westminster and lilac for Holyrood, to be cast into the same box, and the tellers will separate them at the count. In the 20 years that it was Donald Dewar's fiefdom, the process became a formality. It was said they need not have bothered to count, when they could have weighed the piles of Labour votes.

Dewar won the seat, when it was Garscadden, in a famous 1978 by-election that turned the rising tide of Scottish Nationalism. In his last two defences, he had majorities over the Nats of 15,154 at the 1997 general election and 10,993 in last year's vote for the Scottish Parliament.

For the SNP to take the seats this time would need swings of 22 per cent and 19.5 per cent. Post-devolution Scottish politics may be volatile - but not that volatile. In Anniesland, the SNP has always come a poor second.

The latest System Three poll, which had shown Labour slumping below the SNP in recent months, has restored it to a comfortable lead in constituency voting intentions for both parliaments.

Even allowing for Donald Dewar's considerable personal vote, it would take a Labour cock-up of catastrophic proportions to lose the Anniesland seats.

Still, the party is mounting a canny campaign, aimed at turning out its traditional vote without stirring the supporters of other parties out of their fatalist acceptance of defeat. Media descriptions such as "low-key" and "lacklustre" are taken not as criticism, but as signs of success. It has been said that there is more interest on the streets in the US presidential election than in the local contests. Both Labour candidates make the obligatory obeisance to Dewar's memory ("Not fit to fill his shoes, we can only follow in his footsteps"). Labour's Westminster candidate, John Robertson, a telecommunications union activist and Dewar's election agent, says he was approached by Dewar to take his place at the general election.

The question mark hangs over the Scottish Parliament candidate, Bill Butler, a teacher and leading left-wing Glasgow councillor. Is he really the man Dewar would have wanted to succeed him?

Butler is the convener of the Campaign for Socialism, the group founded to fight the repeal of Clause Four, and has been ferociously critical of new Labour. His selection, by 96 votes to 39, over the former Runrig singer and high-profile party spokesman Donnie Munro, was a rebuff for the leadership. However, Butler appeared to have swallowed his socialist principles and enthusiastically embraced private finance for school-building and the transfer of council housing out of local authority control. He niftily sidestepped questions about the stance he would adopt as a Labour MSP: "I am not new Labour. I am not old Labour. I am middle-aged Labour."

Flip - but the few genuine left-wingers on the Labour back benches in the Scottish Parliament expect to be plus one within the week.

The SNP says: "We'll be pressuring Bill Butler on the extent to which he is prepared to change himself to fit the new Labour mould. The people have a right to know what they are getting."

One parallel with the election in the Sunshine State is the size of the senior-citizen vote. Anniesland has the second-highest pensioner population of any Scottish constituency, and Dewar was assiduous in his courtship of the elderly - hence, the countless pictures of Donald tucking into mince and tatties at OAP lunch clubs.

Neil Kinnock said: "I warn you not to grow old." To be old and passing time in a daycare centre in Anniesland is to be a target for canvassers, candidates, pollsters and Cabinet ministers on photo ops, and to have Robin Cook bustle in and jump the queue to play carpet bowls.

The First Minister Henry McLeish describes them as "our priority group", and drops heavy hints about full implementation of the Sutherland Report on the long-term care of the elderly. Labour's most effective campaigner, Gordon Brownm, has scored without yet setting foot in the constituency - within an hour of the Chancellor sitting down after his pre-Budget statement, party workers were distributing a special leaflet detailing his package for pensioners.

The SNP leader, John Swinney, scoffs at the pension increases as "Brown's by-election bribe", and described the increased winter fuel allowance as "a wee bung", but Thursday's vote will be the first clear test of whether or not the Chancellor has done enough to compensate for the 75p pension "insult".

Although Anniesland covers the twee Kelvinside and parts of the trendy West End, two-thirds of the vote is in vast council estates that figure among the most appalling health records in the UK, with infant mortality rates in Anniesland running twice as high as in Surrey. While opposition parties try to capitalise on the discontent this should cause, Labour has to overcome the apathy that results from a feeling of neglect.

All the parties give the impression of simply going through the motions, and all that is in doubt is the size of the Labour majorities.

Even the most hopeful Nationalist does not believe there will be any need for recounts. Another reason why Anniesland won't be looking like Palm Beach-on-the-Clyde.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer

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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.