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“I didn’t go into politics to be a hero to the Mail"

When Maurice Glasman called for a freeze on immigration, his fellow Blue Labour supporters distanc

Until very recently, I would not have believed that I would share with Rupert Murdoch the need to make a public apology. But though I would not go so far as to say that this is the most humble day in my life, it does rank with the worst of them.

There are rules that you learn in community organising that inform effective action. "Relationships precede action" is an important one and "Don't allow the position to move ahead of the relationships" is another. A third might be "Don't engage in theoretical speculation in the Fabian Review". I have been punished, and rightly so, for forgetting rules I used to teach and it has felt quite wretched. There is a saying in Italian that there are two kinds of idiot, and the bigger idiot is the one who didn't mean it.

Being described as the "voice of reason" by the Daily Mail is not, as David Cameron says of the cuts, "what I went into politics for". The worst part of it is that Blue Labour is a form of collegial politics, the work of many hands with varied opinions. It was just beginning to find its common themes - about relationships, power and action, democratic resistance to the exploitative pressure of capitalism, broad-based coalitions in support of the common good that defy power elites, and the radical potential of tradition - when the Fabian Review piece was republished in the Daily Telegraph on 18 July. Then it was suddenly all about immigration.

I am sorry for the crassness and thoughtlessness with which my views on immigration were expressed. I made a few mistakes early on and should have learned the lessons. It did not cross my mind that anyone could think that I support the English Defence League (EDL), which I consider a thuggish and violent organisation. When I said in an interview with Progress magazine in April that we should listen to supporters of the EDL, I was arguing that the best way to defeat fascist organisations is to engage with their supporters in a politics of the common good that addresses issues of family housing and safer streets, the living wage and a cap on interest rates.

These are policies that defy market distributions and strengthen the form of common life that we call democratic politics. In the Progress interview, I was making the point that these were not really features of New Labour and that there is a relationship between disconnected elites and right-wing populism. I thought it was an internal discussion with eight Labour Party members and one who couldn't decide whether to renew. But it ended up in the Sun. If I had known that would happen, I would not have used the term "EDL" or said Labour had "lied" about the extent of immigration.

This was a big mistake on my part, as Labour's tradition has always been defined by building relationships between those who are divided: immigrants and local people, atheists and believers, men and women. I knew that the biggest danger was that this would be mistaken for right-wing populism, because the language of Blue Labour is vivid and emotional. It is patriotic, and tries to honour what is honoured by people and work with that. It was a mistake, but I thought I could be forgiven because it was the first time and I had to learn. I vowed to stress in future that this was an anti-fascist, broad-based, democratic and relational politics.

My argument is that Labour was robust in defeating fascism and communism precisely because it had the faithful support of a working class that was loyal to its own form of radical traditionalism. There is a battle with a nationalist politics going on in England and, to win it, we need to work with people whom we have lost; people who feel abandoned and betrayed. Our elite institutions, the City, parliament, the police and the media, are all corrupted in the eyes of the people.

That is the root of fascism: a rage against invisible power and the will to destroy the hold that the elite have over honest, hard-working people. It is also the source of the Labour tra­dition, which emerged from the limits of liberalism and Marxism and argued for ­organised resistance to the rule of the rich through the democratic renewal of ancient ­institutions. This was to be achieved through broad-based organising
between estranged communities: Catholic and Protestant, the skilled and the unskilled.

Labour represents a sublime tradition that I am only just beginning to appreciate. We defeated fascism in Britain with ease, and were not undermined by Stalinists or Trotskyites. For a large part of its history, Labour worked with the idea of a democratic constitution within firms, so that workers would be treated with respect and have power in their working lives. The honouring of work, and its degradation by capitalism, were the common experiences that brought people together and around which Labour organised. There is still exploitation at work; and there are still issues of corporate governance and vocational training and standards that can form the basis of a Labour politics of the common good. That is the point I wanted to make, but it didn't come out that way.

My conversation with the Fabians has been crucial in developing my arguments. So when they asked for an interview I felt honour-bound; and I respect the interviewer, Mary Riddell, whom I find intelligent and fair-minded. I still do. She came to my flat and we spoke on my kitchen balcony. The conversation was wide-ranging and enjoyable. The only problem was that I forgot it was an interview and when I remembered, I thought, it's the Fabians, they'll understand. It ended up on the front page of the Telegraph and then in the Daily Express.

In the part of the conversation about immigration, I was pursuing an argument about democratic politics, not stating a position. Mary asked what I would do about it when there was nothing anyone could do because of European Union law. The first response should have been to say that we need to reimagine the EU. It began as a partnership between Germany and France to resist the commodification of land. The German social market economy, with its vocational training, city parliaments, worker representation on boards and regional banks, is a huge inspiration for me and for others involved in Blue Labour. It has proved more successful than our financially driven, transferrable skills economy. I wrote my PhD on the German social market economy (published as a book, Unnecessary Suffering, in 1996). German ordoliberalism and the social and Christian democratic traditions have all provided important insights, which I have drawn upon in my own thinking. The German social market economy has also proved superior to its rivals in terms of innovation and change. This is a big deal.

The European Union should be about strong city democracy and pro­tection of vocational institutions that preserve knowledge, trust and ethics. Instead, we've got the free movement of capital and people, an EU built around bank takeovers. A crucial part of the Blue Labour agenda is reimagining the EU and returning it to its original principles, which were about strengthening the democratic resistance to a free market in labour and land, in human beings and nature.

I think Labour should take the lead in building democratic alliances across Europe to reassert both democratic politics and international solidarity. I have good relationships with academics and politicians all over Europe who are thinking the same thing - people who are, like me, disappointed with the EU and who wish to see it change.

The cornerstone of my approach to internationalism is my total commitment to free and democratic trade unions in China. The workers there are being exploited without being able to organise resistance to their degradation. We need to support free and democratic trade unions all over the world and renew our organisational solidarity. No one benefits from a low-wage economy other than bosses and tyrants. This is part of the renewal of Labour as a force for democracy and liberty.

Instead of saying all that, I made the argument that a free and democratic people are capable of making their own decisions about immigration and that "we are not an outpost of the UN". That included stopping immigration. What I did not say was that, in the debate, we must be sympathetic to both the immigrant and local populations. They can do harm to each other, or they can build a common life together in which differences and common interests are recognised.

The most important consideration concerns the conditions of poor workers: they should not be played off against each other and nor should newcomers be used to implement a de facto incomes policy that undermines working arrangements, both tacit and formal. This does not lead to economic efficiency or innovation, but to a low-wage, high-churn economy that guarantees neither status nor security for the workers.

For the past decade I have worked through London Citizens with faith communities, many of them immigrant churches and mosques. This has been transformative for me. I have learned that many immigrants put great emphasis on their faith and that this is to be respected. It is precisely because it is necessary to build a common life with new neighbours that we should try to understand their conception of the good and work together on what can be agreed.

The Living Wage Campaign was created and driven by faith communities as a common expression of their conception of the good. In an exploitative system driven by the creation of insatiable desires, we need all the good we can get. The renewal in the years ahead of the common life of our cities, from a combination of new materials, the creation of novel forms of civic life and relational solidarity, is an in­spiring prospect.

What I have learned, above all, is that the present political economy leads to the exploitation of both local and immigrant. If I had been talking about this with Mary seriously, and not casually, I would have mentioned my support for the regularisation of illegal immigrants and my work with the Strangers Into Citizens campaign. I would have spoken more considerately about how hard it is to generate solidarity among people who do not know each other. I would have said that the levels of immigration over the past years have been unprecedented in our history, and how important it is to recognise both the challenge and the possibilities that flow from this. As it was, I talked about what it was possible for a democratic polity to do in principle.

It was a failed action that generated the wrong reaction. It generated not debate, but denunciation; it did not improve relationships but threatened them. It was bad political craftsmanship, and that is unforgivable. There is great energy and beauty in Blue Labour when it strives towards the common good by building alliances and relationships between estranged positions. There is much wrong, however, when it stumbles into an ugly position without honouring the complexity of the ethics and human concerns. Agitation ought to be for a purpose, and this was conversational arrogance. If you mess up, you "eat crow", as they say in the US. That's a golden rule, and I have had to eat loads, and will have to eat more before the true position can be heard once more.

Ed Miliband has opened up great possibilities with his handling of the Murdoch affair. There are now dreams to dream: about the BBC as a regional force for the public interest and for local accountability, vocational training and broadcasting of music; of a renewed local press funded by local banks and owned by local people; of introducing a balance of interest within every institution, in every sector; of a bold Labour politics that brings hope and energy to the people and is worthy of their renewed ­respect and trust.

It ill be a relief to many that I intend to take a vow of silence for the summer. I will reflect on what I have done right and what I have done wrong. And I shall learn from my experience. I will ask how I can help Labour generate a winning agenda by bringing politics and power to people who are alone and bereft, and a vocation and childcare to those without assets. For the vices of arrogance, vanity and carelessness, I am sorry.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the Faith and Citizenship Programme at London Metropolitan University

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile