Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
16 August 1999

Time for a New Deal for Black Britain

Labour consistently sends out the wrong signals on race and ethnicity. Yet it could so easily effect

By Gavin Mensah-Coker

It is three months since Londoners were threatened by nail bombs. Although the bombs targeted minority communities, the Prime Minister spoke of the bombings as an attack on all Britons and invoked the spirit of the blitz. Last week the man accused of planting the bombs appeared before the Old Bailey. Meanwhile, the recommendations of the Macpherson report on racism in the police are working their way into legislation. Could there really be the beginning of a fundamental change in attitude?

It all feels like a familiar false dawn. Governments have long been complicit in presenting black people as a social problem and a burden, and new Labour seems little different. It is still true that almost all discussion of ethnicity is about immigration or social exclusion, as if these were the only spheres black people inhabited.

In 1997, 84 per cent of black and Asian voters supported Labour, whose manifesto claimed to “seek the end of unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists in society or at work”. Yet what is the government saying about black people’s role in public life? No black or Asian candidates were elected to either the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly. There was minimal discussion of racism during the European elections, yet the rise of far-right nationalism has implications for free movement throughout the EU of all black Europeans.

Hardly any black or Asian candidates will fight for seats in the Greater London Assembly, though ethnic minorities make up 20 per cent of the city’s population. No black women got into parliament through women-only shortlists. And Keith Vaz, a front-bench spokesman before the 1997 election, had to wait until a few months ago to be appointed a minister. Black voters are feeling short-changed.

The government is speedily losing the credit it gained through initiating the Lawrence inquiry and recognising racially aggravated offences. The proposals in the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which will leave refugees stigmatised, living with virtually no cash, detained or scattered in hostels and vulnerable to harassment, have caused outrage. These actions undo the good news that the government is to extend leave to stay for the 30,000 asylum-seekers who have been waiting for more than three years for a decision and to speed up family cases to two months. A handful of black and Asian ministers counts for little compared to such injustices as the Immigration and Asylum Bill.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

But new Labour really could make a difference. Past governments have shied away from radical solutions, but Labour is approaching the next millennium on the basis of new contracts in a host of other areas – recognising society’s role to eliminate social exclusion, devolving power from Westminster and playing a more progressive role within Europe.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

It could do the same with discrimination. For too long we have relied on the law. Now the focus should be on an educational and cultural revolution led by government. The DfEE is changing its institutional climate, and the aim to recruit 8,000 black and Asian police officers over the next ten years and to raise the number in senior positions is a powerful statement of intent.

What is needed is a New Deal for Black Britain. New Labour needs a coherent and overt strategy which is both symbolic and institutional. This campaign of institutional and cultural change should be led by the Prime Minister. Tony Blair has rightly signed up to the Commission for Racial Equality’s Leadership Challenge and he should now demonstrate this commitment with the same bravery and vigour he has shown in Northern Ireland and Kosovo.

The government’s willingness to think radically about schooling and education could reap dividends for race policy. The national curriculum has narrowed down ways of looking at history and English and now needs to be made more responsive to local needs. We should bring race-awareness back into schools and banish the myopia that believes colour doesn’t signify.

Likewise, targets for the police, prison and fire services should be matched elsewhere. One in four black academics faces harassment and they tend to be concentrated at the bottom of the academic scale. Ethnic minority doctors are much more likely to face disciplinary hearings than their white counterparts. This is as relevant as combating the 250,000 incidents each year of racial harassment and the disproportionate number of black people stopped and searched and unemployed. The determination to increase black and Asian faces in the armed forces by 5 per cent by 2002 shows how leadership from the top can force through change.

The arrival of a London mayor provides another opportunity. Black votes will count. We should give support to Operation Black Vote, which is attempting to increase the participation of ethnic minorities.

A Home Office report in 1995 found that, on the whole, asylum-seekers were better educated and qualified than the UK average. Legislation that restricts their ability to contribute to the economy and a climate that stimulates hostility stymies this potential. It is a waste of skills.

It should be a diplomatic priority to cultivate the good image of Britain in the minds of the international leaders of tomorrow. Worries that liberal immigration laws damage race relations should be addressed by reporting how immigrants have added to the economy. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has argued, there is no evidence that good race relations depends on tough immigration.

A recent Foreign Policy Centre report accurately identified the Commonwealth as an underused resource. Every year 54 nations celebrate Commonwealth Day. This year it was in March. You could be forgiven for not noticing. As part of a New Deal, Tony Blair could address the nation with a national audit of how far he is meeting objectives on race relations.

Similarly, with Manchester hosting the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Britain should use the prospect of increased tourism to forge closer links with overseas visitors. This would contrast dramatically with the shoddy way in which immigration officials treated Asian cricket-lovers during this year’s World Cup. A country that has had a black man captain its national football side and athletics team and an Asian leading its cricket team should be proud of such achievements.

The other way government could attack institutionalised racism is through business. We should capitalise on the work that local trading networks such as the Manchester Asian Trading Information Network have done to encourage business growth. Some 9 per cent of all business start-ups are minority-ethnic owned; the GDP of ethnic minorities in the UK totals £37 billion; and they have a combined disposable income of some £10 billion.

Many councils already have networks of citizen’s panels and juries. These could work in tandem with Race Equality Councils to find out what people really think about race relations. Research by the CRE in 1998 found that many misunderstood the concept of equal opportunities, believing it meant quotas rather than the prevention of unlawful discrimination.

So there are many things a government can do, and there are precedents for radical action, such as the creation of the CRE in the 1976 Race Relations Act. However, at the heart of a New Deal for Black Britain should be a close analysis of what it is like being black in Britain today. We should know more about how people’s hopes and fears, tensions and opportunities interact. While ethnic minorities as a whole are more likely to live in deprived areas than whites, African Asians and Indians in outer London tend to live in better-off areas than their white counterparts: the pace of change differs by area, as do the priorities of different communities.

Crucially, we need a more sophisticated answer to the question: “what is racism?”. There was a palpable sigh of relief when we found that one man, rather than an organised group, was probably responsible for the London nail bombings. The offences could then be seen as the irrational acts of an extremist rather than part of a wider story. No need then for massive intervention, brush aside such incidents as bouts of millennial madness. Racism is not irrational; it is taught. But it is just as easily unlearnt.

Just after new Labour came to power Chris Smith wrote, “if you try and label British culture or British identity, you have first to recognise its diversity, and diversity is one of its commanding characteristics”. The window of opportunity for the New Deal I am arguing for is shutting fast. Disillusionment is setting in. Tony Blair must make it clear that black and ethnic minority people are integral to his government’s vision of a new Britain.

Gavin Mensah-Coker is a researcher at the independent think-tank Demos, and his research on school exclusions will be published later this year