The Lib Dems are still not addressing their race problem

The only one of the main parties with no black and minority ethnic MPs needs to promote radical solutions to racial inequality if it is to win credibility on this issue.

Liberal Democrats are feeling pleased with themselves over the equal marriage vote with hearty congratulations lavished on the former equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, for driving this forward. And there's no denying that the Lib Dems deserve their share of the credit. Yet progress on other strands of equality, in particular race equality, is going into reverse. 

It's bad enough having an all-white party in the Commons but just as shamefully, the Lib Dems have never had much to say on race. In 2010, their manifesto contained just one idea of note, name-blind job applications. Yet two-and-a-half-years on, this policy hasn't even been rolled out to all Whitehall departments yet, never mind the rest of Britain.
 
Last year, the Conservatives commissioned Lord Ashcroft to study the attitudes of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities towards the Tories and the results were dire for the party. But buried in his report was even more devastating news for the Lib Dems. BAME Lib Dem support was in single figures - just nine per cent of Asians and a paltry six per cent of Afro-Caribbeans. And that was after Cleggmania. With the Lib Dems having done so little to appeal to BAME communities since taking power, one can only assume future surveys will need a microscope to detect traces of support.
 
How different things were when Nick Clegg was the fresh-faced and newly-elected party leader. Then he promised the Lib Dems would challenge Labour in its inner city heartlands. Sadly this was another broken promise. The party entered government without a clue of how to tackle endemic race inequality in Britain. And after two-and-a-half-years of drift, many BAME activists in the party are now at their wits' end.
 
On the 20th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence,  the promise of change symbolised by the Macpherson report couldn't be further from coalition's agenda, despite the mounting evidence that Britain is becoming more racially divided. 
 
Disproportionate BAME unemployment has shot up in this recession, not least because cuts to public services have hit black and Asian workers hardest, impacting on families who were first encouraged to fill those public sector jobs when they migrated to Britain in the 1960s and 70s. Meanwhile, youth unemployment in London is running at 56 per cent, a similar level to Greece, and much of that is concentrated among black young jobseekers.
 
Section 60 stop and searches, under which police can stop people without reasonable suspicion, is targeted at black youth and was a source of discontent that contributed to the 2011 London riots. Last year, the equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), found that black youth were 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched under Section 60, effectively making it the new "Sus" law.
 
In every area of public life – from education, to health, to criminal justice - there are big issues of racial inequality that demand serious policy answers. Yet despite the Lib Dems wearing equality on their sleeves, the party has singularly lacked ideas for tackling these issues. Instead, they have brought into a Conservative integration agenda which argues that if only ethnic minorities could speak better English, integrate a bit more and shop the extremists then everything would be okay. Yet lack of English has always been an over-hyped myth of the right, minorities are generally more integrated than 'indigenous' communities, and the vast majority of Muslims deplore extremism as much as anyone else. On the real issue of racism, the Lib Dems have been eerily silent with the exception of Clegg's speech on the anniversary of the Scarman report into the Brixton riots of 1981.
 
Worse still, Lib Dem ministers have been colluding with their Tory colleagues to dismantle much of the equality infrastructure of the state. Having slashed the EHRC's budget by two-thirds, removed its race commissioners and axed the watchdog's powers to investigate authorities suspected of discrimination, the coalition is now ramping up its equalities vandalism to a new level.
 
David Cameron has already announced that equality impact assessments (EIAs) are to be abolished. EIAs are a requirement on public servants to consider equality when designing new policies. They need to be strengthened to stop council officers and Whitehall mandarins going through the motions, not scrapped. But the government intends to bin them altogether, in the apparent belief that if we ignore equality it will magically happen anyway - we just won't know about it because we aren't monitoring it.
 
On top of this, Vince Cable's Enterprise and Regulatory Bill proposes to repeal the "positive duty" on the EHRC to work towards eliminating discrimination, something that was enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act. At the same time, ministers have convened a Tory-dominated taskforce to review the "general duty" on all 40,000 public authorities to promote good race relations.
 
This rolling back of Labour's equalities laws, many of which date back to the race relations acts of 1976 and 2000, and the decimation of the watchdog charged with upholding the legislation, adds up to a disturbing picture of the government's attitude towards race.
 
The two coalition partners both share responsibility for this. Meanwhile, time is running out to implement policies that will make a positive difference to BAME communities before the 2015 general election.
Interestingly, the Conservatives have been changing tact lately. Cameron has signalled he wants more BAME MPs to add to the nine elected in 2010 and has ordered party vice-chair Alok Sharma and other ministers to come up with policies that will appeal to black and Asian communities. Tory cabinet members recently had a special briefing on the need to win over BAME voters in key marginals and nullify the negative legacy of Enoch Powell.
 
The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are still sleepwalking to disaster as far as BAME support is concerned. We're still waiting for a report on access to bank loans for BAME businesses – a relatively minor issue - that was commissioned by Clegg in 2011. An internal taskforce looking at the issue of education and employment, which I am part of, produced a 20,000 word report after a year of taking evidence only to learn that apparatchiks had expunged it from the party's spring conference agenda.
 
And now I learn that the party's manifesto working group has rejected the party's foremost expert on race equality, Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, in favour of someone who has little knowledge of the issues and has spent much of her life opposing positive action.
 
On race equality, it is make-or-break time for the Lib Dems. That is why the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat group has joined forces with the Social Liberal Forum to hold a conference next Saturday to debate these issues.
 
As a party with a proud history of social radicalism it is time to promote radical solutions to address persistent race inequality in society. Unless we get into gear in the next few months, it may take a whole generation before the party gains credibility within BAME communities and attracts the brightest and best talent to stand for parliament.
 
Lester Holloway is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Sutton and an executive member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats. He tweets @brolezholloway
Nick Clegg with other senior Liberal Democrats at the party's autumn conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lester Holloway is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Sutton and an executive member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats. He tweets @brolezholloway

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder