Who would ever parachute a millionaire into a place where they quote George Formby in the karzy?

While campaigning for the Socialist Alliance, I recall a conversation I had, during last year's London Assembly election, with two students outside Croydon College. One took our leaflet, and in a black, south London teenage accent said: "This is safe, man, keeping it real, for the people, I'll vote for you." Then his mate said: "But you're 17, you can't vote." So he replied: "I can get round that. I've got connections, man." Now, I wish I'd taken his address. We've got a lot to learn about this electioneering game. On Thursday, I spoke in Hornsey, where the lawyer Louise Christian is standing against the Home Office minister Barbara Roche. More than 70 people were in the audience, of whom around half were either in, or had just left, the Labour Party.

One man, who had begun the election campaign as a Labour canvasser, told me: "I was asked to justify tuition fees, the Asylum Bill and further privatisation. I stood silently thinking how to answer, until they said,'You're not very good at this, are you?' That night, I decided to campaign for Louise Christian instead."

There's something soothing about leafleting rows of streets: maybe it's because you feel you're achieving something without having to think. Until you come across one of those letter-boxes with a spring-back mechanism that requires one hand to hold it open while the other gently eases the leaflet in, as if you're giving medicine to a crocodile. This is how those people who deactivate unexploded bombs must feel. You find yourself collapsing breathlessly as the leaflet makes it through.

Then there are the ones that have a sort of bristle-brush thing, penetrable only by screwing the leaflet into a crumpled ball and poking it through. What is the purpose of a brush in a letter-box? Are these people hygiene fanatics - like Howard Hughes - who daren't pick up their mail unless it's been dusted as it's delivered? And who are these bastards with gates that only open after 45 minutes of jiggling and then jolt sidewards and slice off your knuckle? If the East Germans had put one of these things on the border instead of a wall, they'd have made it through 40 years without a single escape. After one severe clipping, I didn't realise my finger was bleeding until I'd done another street, so 30 houses in Bensham Manor ward received a leaflet with drops of blood all over it, and must assume that the Socialist Alliance is a front for a satanic cult.

The stroll to the meeting in Leamington Spa took me past huge Georgian houses, antique shops, delicatessens, tennis courts and an immaculately kept cricket ground. If there is such a thing as Middle England, this is it. But 120 people crammed into the hall, where the candidate Claire Kime, along with the secretary of the pensioners' association and myself, was speaking. Dozens of people had questions - "What do you say to people who accuse you of helping the Tories get back in?"; "Why don't you make it a priority to support PR?" As the meeting ended, huddles of people in each corner dished out leaflets, window posters and placards. Is there a single meeting of the Labour Party anywhere in Britain, during this election, that has shown such enthusiasm and passion as was evident that night in Leamington? Labour tries to pretend that there is some popular support - and stage-manages for the television cameras those groups waving placards behind ministers - but who's fooled by that? As if anyone in this world has ever genuinely said the sentence: "Oh brilliant, here's Alistair Darling."

After Leamington came St Helens. I don't want to stereotype St Helens, I honestly don't. But on arrival, I wandered across to The Lamb, and was standing at the bar when the barmaid said: "Ee, we do a lovely pint of mild, love, only £1.42." Later, in the toilet, someone stood at the next bowl and said to me: "Turned out nice again - as George Formby used to say." In a place where people quote George Formby in the karzy, what perfect sense to parachute in as your candidate a millionaire who was a Tory MP during the pit closures and who has a butler!

Shaun Woodward, new Labour's despised candidate, is being challenged by Neil Thompson, a local official of the Fire Brigades Union. Along with several others, including his election agent, Helen Shaw, Neil resigned from Labour following the imposition of Woodward. Within three weeks, he has attracted hundreds, maybe thousands of supporters. As we gave out leaflets in the shopping centre, we were approached by a security guard. He said: "I've been told to tell you to clear off. But if you move back six inches, I can say I've done my job - as long as you promise to stop that Tory boy."

At a public meeting in the town square, a woman took the megaphone who had clearly not done this before. So, instead of pithy soundbites, the square was filled with: "I mean, have you been to the hospital lately, it's a disgrace, my sister went down last month and had to wait four hours in A&E, and even then she was told to come back later when they weren't so busy . . . " I was scared she'd go on: "She's had this problem with her ears, you see, they thought it was something to do with her wisdom teeth but now they're not so sure, mind you, these new painkillers she's on are marvellous."

I hope Neil wins, because then Shaun Woodward will be knocking on his door and saying: "I'd like to join your lot now. After all, I pay my butler the minimum wage."

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures

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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.