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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser