The hunt for the British Obama

Will all-minority shortlists produce a generation of British Barack Obamas - or simply ghettoise non

"There are plenty of British Obamas out there, but you will find them in the pulpits and other places of worship, not in parliament." Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote is certain that an "Obama effect" is boosting his drive for positive discrimination to ensure more non-white MPs. Introducing a bill to amend our race equality laws to allow parties to discriminate in favour of minorities, the Leicester MP Keith Vaz hailed Barack Obama as the "poster boy" for integration. How strange it would be if Obama's momentum were to propel British parties into adopting all-minority shortlists for parliamentary seats.

Obama himself has insisted on a generational shift: breaking the "black politician" mould to become a viable presidential candidate, and not one defined by race. In contrast, all-minority shortlists risk ghettoising Britain's next generation of non-white politicians and derailing the new politics of equality that we need.

The real credit for catapulting British minority representation up the political agenda belongs closer to home. Harriet Harman pledged a campaign for "four times more" minority MPs when she was running for Labour deputy leader, and has now commissioned Operation Black Vote to report on how all-minority lists could work. Harman's record on equality makes her a powerful champion. The politics of the issue have been transformed - but with little public scrutiny of the proposed means. The core argument does not amount to much beyond "something must be done", and that something was done for women. "This is not uncharted territory," says Woolley. All-women shortlists broke the glass ceiling. Extending the principle sounds logical.

But the analogy is weak. Women, 51 per cent of the population, can be found almost everywhere in roughly equal numbers to men. It is easy enough to work out who is a woman and who is not. Such factors do not apply to minority representation. The call for all-minority shortlists is rooted in 1970s thinking about "ethnic minorities". This is of ever-decreasing relevance to third- and fourth-generation multi-ethnic Britain (in which mixed-race people will outnumber those of any single minority group by 2015). All-minority shortlists might not be exactly unworkable, but they would take us backwards.

Where will all-minority lists be used? Advocates are clear that any "colour coding" of seats would be wrong. Woolley tells me that "in principle" any seat could have an all-minority shortlist, but that "in practice" the Outer Hebrides would not make sense. A list of the 100 seats with the largest ethnic-minority populations has been drawn up. Everybody anticipates that the top 20 or 30 seats with the most black and Asian voters will be used. That sounds like "colour coding" to me.

"Ethnic faces for ethnic voters" is a depressing step backwards (implying white MPs for the majority community, too). Yet Ashok Kumar has spent a decade as an archetypal hard-working, undemonstrative northern MP for his 98.6 per cent white Middlesbrough constituency. In 2001, Parmjit Dhanda was able to thank the voters of marginal Gloucester for disproving the local paper's prediction that they "lacked the advanced consciousness" to elect a "foreigner".

Now, future Dhandas and Kumars fear being packed off to Leicester or Ealing and told to wait for one of "their seats" to come up. Many believe that minority-only contests would focus more on ethnicity - and which community's "turn" it is to win a seat - than the candidate's qualities.

As Kashmiri Muslims form only the third-largest minority group in his Birmingham Perry Bar constituency, Khalid Mahmood believes that all-minority shortlists could have kept him out of parliament. But his objection is more fundamental: "This smacks of a colonial attitude that divides our population into different blocks and allocates representatives accordingly." The idea that Sikhs should represent Sikhs and Nigerians need Nigerian MPs amounts to "a form of political apartheid which will encourage division and segregation", he says.

In towns facing significant ethnic tensions, MPs - black, white or Asian - must win trust by speaking candidly to all sides. Shahid Malik's task in Dewsbury after the 7 July 2005 attacks would have been harder had he won a minority-only contest. Several non-white Labour MPs believe all-minority shortlists are necessary. Other MPs and candidates have doubts, but are wary of expressing them. Another minority MP who believes such lists would have prevented him getting to Westminster fears seeming to "pull up the ladder". This risks becoming a debate among minorities about minorities, because many white liberals are steering clear. Nobody wants to seem to oppose the goal of increased diversity.

The House of Commons is not a forum for community delegates. If only black and Asian MPs could pursue race equality, Britain would never have been a legislative pioneer. Repre sentative democracy does not mean a shallow "counting heads" multiculturalism. The principle that matters is "Equal chances and no unfair barriers". Significant under-representation of women and minorities should raise the alarm. A more diverse parliament should not be an end in itself, however, but must form part of a broader argument for social justice.

Competitive grievances

All-minority lists will not only hamper British Obamas, they will make it harder to build coalitions for social justice. As equality has returned to the Labour lexicon, the greatest threat to it is a "politics of competitive grievance", setting one disadvantaged group against another.

Advocates of all-minority shortlists claim that more non-white MPs would dramatically increase minority participation and turnout. Professor Shamit Saggar, Britain's leading academic expert on race and electoral politics, says there is "simply no evidence base" for this. Health, education and crime are much greater priorities for non-white voters.

Saggar points out that, viewed from a perspective of the national interest, the priority for a more representative parliament would be for the opposition parties to do much more to challenge Labour's virtual monopoly. David Cameron's Conservatives are making good progress from a low base, but should remember the lesson of last year's Ealing Southall by-election fiasco where, as Sunny Hundal of the Pickled Politics blog notes: "The Tory modernisers got sucked into the worst of communal politics", securing the bloc defection of five Sikh Labour councillors but not the voters they claimed to speak for. Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats seem to be lurching from doing almost nothing to pledging all-minority shortlists. Labour could welcome more black Tory or Lib Dem MPs, not fear them as an electoral threat. Concrete commitments to end child poverty and narrow the gap in schools should be Labour's central pitch to black and Asian voters.

Black candidates are increasingly confident about competing on equal terms. Though Vaz complains that all-women shortlists have yet to select non-white candidates, Rushanara Ali and Yasmin Qureshi won open contests in Bethnal Green and Bolton and are likely to become Lab our's first female Asian MPs. Chuka Umunna, just selected in Streatham, believes that defeating strong opposition from the Lambeth Council leader Steve Reed in an open contest will give him "a credibility boost". Like the Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, Umunna thinks hybrid shortlists - combining women and ethnic-minority men - could avoid legitimate concerns about ghettoisation while tackling under-representation.

For all their shortcomings, all-minority shortlists could have helped the first pioneers break through the steeper barriers 20 years ago. But as they have become politically possible, they have also become unnecessary. They might mildly speed up change between 2010 and 2030. More likely, they will offer a leg-up (with strings attached) to black and Asian Oxbridge graduates and lawyers who don't need extra help to get in.

The real issue - the missing link - is class. A comprehensive audit of selection barriers and action to level the playing field would benefit those from poorer non-white communities most, but not exclusively. The parties should think harder about that, but reject all-minority shortlists. Let's keep that door to a British Obama open.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood