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

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Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.