The new boss? Peter Robinson casts his vote in Belfast. Photo:Getty
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What does the DUP's first demand in a hung parliament mean?

Peter Robinson has declared his first prerequisite for his party's support in the event of a hung parliament. What does it mean, and how would it work?

Peter Robinson, the DUPs leader and First Minister in Northern Ireland has declared that in the case of a hung parliament the DUP would demand the creation of a Commission on the Union as a non-negotiable condition of their support.  This commission would seek to address the growing interest in separatism and nationalist parties, following the unexpected levels of support in the 2014 campaign for Scottish Independence and the predicted surge in SNP support at the general election.

Robinson argues that it is important not to punish Scotland for voting SNP but to look at why the Scottish people, who have historically voted by and large for Labour, have turned their back on the more traditional pro-union party. Labour have taken polls showing SNP gains at their expense seriously, they are reported to have turned their attention away from the majority of their Scottish seats to focus on and attempt to save their more high profile seats, such as the one being fought by Jim Murphy, the leader of Scottish Labour.

However, following the election it will be interesting and important for any pro-union party, including the two major parties, to analyse why nationalist parties are growing in popularity particularly in relation to Scotland. Robinson’s proposed commission to find out why and address the problem is far more constructive than much of the coverage and reporting from the pro-union side during the referendum which regularly alleged SNP supporters were engaged in dirty tricks and thuggish behaviour.

While, as with any campaign as controversial and passionately fought as the Independence referendum there may be less than salubrious elements involved, this was a referendum that inspired a lot of people who had previously felt disenfranchised. There was particularly strong support from young Scottish voters, a demographic that usually has the lowest level of engagement and voter turnout in elections. The referendum offered 16 and 17 year olds a chance to vote for the first time and many took the opportunity. Turnout was massive, with 84.6% coming out to vote. This was an excellent opportunity to engage them in a constructive debate, rather than the scare mongering that occurred.

Robinson’s speech also referenced the other nationalist parties in Westminster, the SDLP and Plaid Cymru. However, neither of these parties have made significant gains to the point of effectively eliminating the majority of pro-union seats in their jurisdiction. Furthermore, the SDLP are on the decline, so hardly a concern, they have lost many of their seats to Sinn Féin who, as an abstentionist party, have little effect on Westminster politics.

A commission on the union could be productive if it works towards equality and strengthening the bonds of the union for all four areas of the United Kingdom. However, it is important that the commission works towards a harmonious union and is not a political tool to fight against nationalist parties. That is hardly the place of a national government. This would mean that it should be open to representatives from all Westminster parties, not just the pro-union ones as suggested. Plaid Cymru, for example, may have the ultimate goal of an independent Wales, however this is unrealistic in the short term. Therefore, it is advantageous for them to be involved in the commission if it is to the benefit of Wales. The SDLP similarly are aware that Irish re-unification is unlikely in the short term and as such work towards a better Northern Ireland in accordance with their ideological beliefs.

The only potentially problematic party would be the SNP, who managed to garner a larger than expected amount of support during the campaign for Scottish independence and have shown signs of being interested in another independence referendum in the near future. However, while it is not in the SNPs interest to strengthen the union, it is in their interest to gain the best deal possible for Scotland. To exclude them on the other hand, is likely to increase feelings of disassociation from Westminster and encourage those who think Scotland will get a fairer deal in an independent Scotland. While nationalist parties have no reason to wish to strengthen the union, they do have reason to want to be involved in getting a fairer deal for their region. Any commission should focus on a fair union and addressing citizens’ concerns about the union rather than party politics.

It is also paramount that any commission is inclusive and progressive. Robinson’s speech argued that the SNP and the ‘nationalist bloc’ would act much like the Irish nationalists fighting for independence, however this comparison is inaccurate. The history of Ireland’s inclusion in the UK is different to Scotland, its nationalists also fought for independence using both the ballot and the bullet. Finally, Irish nationalists had mass support by the time they achieved independence and independence was put to a vote in the Dáil. If another referendum is agreed and the SNP have popular support behind them, then the Scottish people have expressed their desire for independence democratically and should not be denied. The DUP cannot bring the problems of the past to a commission that should be designed to create a more harmonious union, with the input of all regions and democratically elected representatives. 

A commission to seek to strengthen the Union through consensus by investigating and addressing the causes of increasing discontent and separatist feeling should be an important part of the next government’s plans. However what the DUP proposes is exclusionary and is open to being abused for the purpose of party politics rather than good governance of the United Kingdom. The best way to deal with the separatist threat is not to exclude them, the DUP should be familiar with the absolute failure of Thatcher’s policy of excluding Sinn Féin from any peace talks in Northern Ireland, banning their voices from broadcasts and many other incidents. Any party who chooses to negotiate with the DUP should look at this proposal carefully and ensure that any commission deal will be progressive rather divisive. Organising the commission, as suggested by Robinson, with only pro-union parties involved will only lead to increasing discontent, particularly if as polls suggest the majority of Scottish MPs are SNP MPs and are therefore excluded. Strengthening the United Kingdom must involve all of the United Kingdom, not a select few. 

Photo: Getty Images
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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.