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Wake up, Labour

The party must tap in to the energy and liberating excitement of the anti-cuts movement.

The party must tap in to the energy and liberating excitement of the anti-cuts movement.

"Often, it takes some calamity to make us live in the present," wrote the American cartoonist Bill Watterson. "Then suddenly we wake up and see all the mistakes we have made." The early months of 2011 have been punctuated by big by-election wins for Labour and even bigger demonstrations, suggesting that the electorate is already regretting the choices it made at last year's general election. But don't be fooled. The second decade of the 21st century has echoes of the 1980s, when the left was seduced into thinking that it was right and proceeded to lose one election after the other. Despite the Barnsley Central election victory on 3 March and the Trades Union Congress demonstration planned for 26 March, something is wrong. We need to understand what that is, and fast.

Let's start with some counterfactual history. Imagine that Labour, against the odds, had won the general election in May 2010. There would have been much celebration. Then what? Then this: a Labour government implementing the harshest cuts to the public services since the Thatcher era; rubber-stamping huge tuition-fee increases, introduced through John Browne's review - which was initiated by Labour; sanctioning yet more academy schools; introducing destabilising welfare reforms. Throw in what Labour promised but never delivered during its first three terms, such as Trident renewal and the full introduction of identity cards, and the thought becomes decidedly uncomfortable.

Then remember what Labour did in office. It said that ownership didn't matter and there was nothing wrong with people becoming filthy rich. It indulged Rupert Murdoch and the bankers - and we cheered as taxes went down and house prices went up. It was Labour that allowed alcohol to get cheaper and made access to gambling easier. It was Labour that tried to sell off Royal Mail and opened the way for the privatisation of the NHS and education.

Successive Labour chancellors boosted the economy by inflating an unsustainable debt bubble and proclaimed that they had ended "boom and bust". On Labour's watch, the far right grew in strength, because immigration was used to undercut wages. Worst of all, the poor got poorer and the planet burned.

But what about the good stuff? Not enough has lasted, because Labour failed to put down any moral roots or build up a wider progressive alliance to protect it. Why? Because too little was about labour and too much was about capital. In the ten months since the last election, Labour has turned from exhaustion to confusion. It may be able to summon up plenty of righteous anger against the cuts - 80 per cent of which Alistair Darling would have been making, too - but seems happy to forget that its share of the vote was just 1 percentage point higher than what Michael Foot gained in 1983. Renewal cannot be based on hoping that people forget. Nor can it be built on denial, or happen in the absence of reconciliation.

I fear two things: losing the next election and winning it. Any Labour government is better than any Conservative government but, if we win next time round, what guarantee is there that it will be any different from last time? Little will change unless we outline plans for a "good society" that we are proud to share with the electorate, a vastly different political economy to underpin it and a credible progressive alliance to direct, elect and sustain it. There are still four years to go to the next general election, four years in which the coalition plans to cut services now, and taxes just in time - while blaming us for everything that's gone wrong. Labour, too, has a plan: it is that this plan won't work.

Siren songs

Ed Miliband's speeches are sound. He is saying broadly the right things about the limits of the state as well as the market. He has refused to tack back to the right, but it's tough being your own policy "outrider". Ed Balls is now pushing the bank tax, John Healey made a welcome appearance at the Liberal Democrats' spring conference and Sadiq Khan got the line right on prison numbers. But the renewal has to be more systematic and coherent.

MPs such as Chuka Umunna and Lisa Nandy show great promise. Jon Cruddas continues to push the boundaries of left-wing thinking. Maurice Glasman, new to the Lords, offers fresh ideas on the commodification of labour and land. Yet why is Labour so unable - or unwilling - to tap in to the energy and liberating excitement of grass-roots movements such as UK Uncut? Why didn't any of the Labour MPs join the 1,500 young activists at the Six Billion Ways event in east London in early March to talk about poverty, climate change and the remaking of democracy?

History teaches us that, in opposition, Labour wins by-elections, goes on big marches and feels good about itself. Meanwhile, the Conservatives win when it matters and Labour, out of desperation, eventually ends up occupying too much of the same old policy ground. Labour is lost. The unpopularity of the cuts and the demonisation of Nick Clegg are like sirens, luring us on to the rocks of permanent opposition. Both seduce us into thinking that all we have to do is oppose, all we have to do is wait.

The pillow is being placed on our face. Wake up, Labour - before it is too late.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass. The TUC's March for the Alternative: Jobs, Growth, Justice gathers at the Victoria Embankment, London SW1, at 11am on 26 March

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?

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.