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Leader: The government needs to know how afraid people are

We are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.

I can imagine a New Statesman reader looking at the contents of this issue and mentally supplying: "That's enough coalition ministers (Ed)." After all, the NS has never exactly been a platform for the establishment to explain itself. But it seems worth encouraging the present government to clarify what it is aiming for in two or three key areas, in the hope of sparking a livelier debate about where we are going - and perhaps even todiscover what the left's big idea currently is.

The political debate in the UK at the moment feels pretty stuck. An idea whose roots are firmly in a particular strand of associational socialism has been adopted enthusiastically by the Conservatives. The widespread suspicion that this has been done for opportunistic or money-saving reasons allows many to dismiss what there is of a programme for "big society" initiatives; even the term has fast become painfully stale. But we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like.

Digging a bit deeper, there are a good many on the left and right who sense that the tectonic plates of British - European? - politics are shifting. Managerial politics, attempting with shrinking success to negotiate life in the shadow of big finance, is not an attractive rallying point, whether it labels itself (New) Labour or Conservative. There is, in the middle of a lot of confusion, an increasingly audible plea for some basic thinking about democracy itself - and the urgency of this is underlined by what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa.

Incidentally, this casts some light on the bafflement and indignation that the present government is facing over its proposals for reform in health and education. With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted. At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context. Not many people want government by plebiscite, certainly. But, for example, the comprehensive reworking of the Education Act 1944 that is now going forward might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing in the context of election debates. The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument.

I don't think that the government's commitment to localism and devolved power is simply a cynical walking-away from the problem. But I do think that there is confusion about the means that have to be willed in order to achieve the end. If civil society organisations are going to have to pick up
responsibilities shed by government, the crucial questions are these. First, what services must have cast-iron guarantees of nationwide standards, parity and continuity? (Look at what is happening to youth services, surely a strategic priority.) Second, how, therefore, does national government underwrite these strategic "absolutes" so as to make sure that, even in a straitened financial climate, there is a continuing investment in the long term, a continuing response to what most would see as root issues: child poverty, poor literacy, the deficit in access to educational excellence, sustainable infrastructure in poorer communities (rural as well as urban), and so on? What is too important to be left to even the most resourceful localism?

Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present. It isn't enough to respond with what sounds like a mixture of, "This is the last government's legacy," and, "We'd like to do more, but just wait until the economy recovers a bit." To acknowledge the reality of fear is not necessarily to collude with it. But not to recognise how pervasive it is risks making it worse. Equally, the task of opposition is not to collude in it, either, but to define some achievable alternatives. And, for that to happen, we need sharp-edged statements of where the disagreements lie.

The uncomfortable truth is that, while grass-roots initiatives and local mutualism are to be found flourishing in a great many places, they have been weakened by several decades of cultural fragmentation. The old syndicalist and co-operative traditions cannot be reinvented overnight and, in some areas, they have to be invented for the first time.

This is not helped by a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, nor by the steady pressure to increase what look like punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system. If what is in view - as Iain Duncan Smith argues passionately on page 18 - is real empowerment for communities of marginal people, we need better communication about strategic imperatives, more positive messages about what cannot and will not be left to chance and - surely one of the most important things of all - a long-term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy.

For someone like myself, there is an ironic satisfaction in the way several political thinkers today are quarrying theological traditions for ways forward. True, religious perspectives on these issues have often got bogged down in varieties of paternalism. But there is another theological strand to be retrieved that is not about "the poor" as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates - like the flow of blood - is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, this is what is at the heart of St Paul's ideas about community at its fullest; community, in his terms, as God wants to see it.

A democracy that would measure up to this sort of ideal - religious in its roots but not exclusive or confessional - would be one in which the central question about any policy would be: how far does it equip a person or group to engage generously and for the long term in building the resourcefulness and well-being of any other person or group, with the state seen as a "community of communities", to use a phrase popular among syndicalists of an earlier generation?

A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?

Dr Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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.