Leader: All is changed, changed utterly

There is an unprecedented opportunity to win support for a programme committed to economic and socia

History will record this year as the most significant for British politics since 1979. An election casually predicted to result in a Conservative majority instead produced the first hung parliament in 36 years. Against expectations, David Cameron jettisoned his party's natural suspicion of coalition government and seized the opportunity to secure his liberal conservatism. Meanwhile, in the form of Ed Miliband, Labour elected its first unambiguously social-democratic leader since John Smith. Finally, for the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg abandoned the project of progressive realignment, pursued by every Liberal leader since Jo Grimond, in order to form a coalition with the Conservatives rooted in a shared commitment to economic liberalism. In the words of Yeats, all is "changed, changed utterly".

Regardless of the outcome of the election, the first term of a new government was always likely to be dominated by the question of deficit reduction. A Budget deficit of £155bn and a structural deficit of £109bn meant that no one could credibly dispute the need for spending cuts. But the coalition's decision to begin cuts this year and to prioritise spending reductions over tax rises distinguishes its approach from others. This magazine has been consistent in opposing the speed and scale of these cuts, which will exacerbate, not diminish, Britain's economic problems. There is little evidence that the private sector is ready to fill the hole left by the vanishing state; an anaemic recovery is the inevitable result.

In addition, despite George Osborne's declaration that "those with the most should pay the most", the coalition's cuts are, by any measure, regressive. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has repeatedly demonstrated, the poorest 10 per cent will lose more than any other group as a result of the Spending Review. It is intellectually and morally unsustainable for the coalition to continue to dress regressive cuts up as "progressive".

Had the government been more innovative in its methods of raising revenue, it could have limited the need for punitive cuts. As the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has argued, any programme of tax reform should include an annual tax on land, 69 per cent of which is owned by just 0.3 per cent of the population. Recent events have demonstrated the need for a less socially divisive approach. The coalition's reckless decision to triple university tuition fees, the result of a planned 80 per cent cut to the teaching budget, has led to the greatest civil unrest since the poll tax riots of 1990. The New Labour years, when the Conservative opposition spoke hopefully of "sharing the proceeds of growth", already look like a model of tranquillity by comparison.

Economics aside, however, Labour's supporters must confront the inconvenient truth that, in significant respects, the coalition is a more progressive force than the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ever were. It was New Labour that, under the guise of fighting terrorism, launched one of the biggest ever peacetime assaults on civil liberties. The coalition, which came to power promising to "roll back state intrusion", has scrapped identity cards, suspended stop-and-search under the Terrorism Act and introduced greater regulation of CCTV. The Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has overturned decades of "Prison works" orthodoxy and pledged to reduce the short sentences responsible for Britain's appalling rates of recidivism. At present, of the 60,000 prisoners given short sentences, 60 per cent reoffend. Mr Clarke is right to face down his party's right wing.

Yet the coalition has baulked at the challenge of abolishing "control orders" amid apparently insurmountable ministerial divisions. Mr Clegg claims that his presence in the government has pushed Conservative ministers in a more liberal direction. On control orders, he has a chance to live up to this boast. Should the coalition retain the orders, Mr Clegg will be guilty of a fundamental breach of principle.

The coming year is likely to provide many opportunities for Schadenfreude at the coalition's expense. But no amount of misfortune should be allowed to obscure one fundamental truth: what should have been a social-democratic moment was transformed into an opportunity for the economic right. After this historic failure, it would be careless to assume that public opinion will rally to Labour in a surge of anti-cuts discontent. Should the party fail to offer a coherent alternative to the coalition's plans, there is every risk that the void will be filled by populists and demagogues from the right. But, as we enter 2011, there is an unprecedented opportunity to win support for a programme committed to economic and social justice and to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable. It is one that progressives must not squander.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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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.