Liberal Democrats are feeling pleased with themselves over the equal marriage vote with hearty congratulations lavished on the former equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, for driving this forward. And there’s no denying that the Lib Dems deserve their share of the credit. Yet progress on other strands of equality, in particular race equality, is going into reverse.
It’s bad enough having an all-white party in the Commons but just as shamefully, the Lib Dems have never had much to say on race. In 2010, their manifesto contained just one idea of note, name-blind job applications. Yet two-and-a-half-years on, this policy hasn’t even been rolled out to all Whitehall departments yet, never mind the rest of Britain.
Last year, the Conservatives commissioned Lord Ashcroft to study the attitudes of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities towards the Tories and the results were dire for the party. But buried in his report was even more devastating news for the Lib Dems. BAME Lib Dem support was in single figures – just nine per cent of Asians and a paltry six per cent of Afro-Caribbeans. And that was after Cleggmania. With the Lib Dems having done so little to appeal to BAME communities since taking power, one can only assume future surveys will need a microscope to detect traces of support.
How different things were when Nick Clegg was the fresh-faced and newly-elected party leader. Then he promised the Lib Dems would challenge Labour in its inner city heartlands. Sadly this was another broken promise. The party entered government without a clue of how to tackle endemic race inequality in Britain. And after two-and-a-half-years of drift, many BAME activists in the party are now at their wits’ end.
On the 20th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, the promise of change symbolised by the Macpherson report couldn’t be further from coalition’s agenda, despite the mounting evidence that Britain is becoming more racially divided.
Disproportionate BAME unemployment has shot up in this recession, not least because cuts to public services have hit black and Asian workers hardest, impacting on families who were first encouraged to fill those public sector jobs when they migrated to Britain in the 1960s and 70s. Meanwhile, youth unemployment in London is running at 56 per cent, a similar level to Greece, and much of that is concentrated among black young jobseekers.
Section 60 stop and searches, under which police can stop people without reasonable suspicion, is targeted at black youth and was a source of discontent that contributed to the 2011 London riots. Last year, the equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), found that black youth were 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched under Section 60, effectively making it the new “Sus” law.
In every area of public life – from education, to health, to criminal justice – there are big issues of racial inequality that demand serious policy answers. Yet despite the Lib Dems wearing equality on their sleeves, the party has singularly lacked ideas for tackling these issues. Instead, they have brought into a Conservative integration agenda which argues that if only ethnic minorities could speak better English, integrate a bit more and shop the extremists then everything would be okay. Yet lack of English has always been an over-hyped myth of the right, minorities are generally more integrated than ‘indigenous’ communities, and the vast majority of Muslims deplore extremism as much as anyone else. On the real issue of racism, the Lib Dems have been eerily silent with the exception of Clegg’s speech on the anniversary of the Scarman report into the Brixton riots of 1981.
Worse still, Lib Dem ministers have been colluding with their Tory colleagues to dismantle much of the equality infrastructure of the state. Having slashed the EHRC’s budget by two-thirds, removed its race commissioners and axed the watchdog’s powers to investigate authorities suspected of discrimination, the coalition is now ramping up its equalities vandalism to a new level.
David Cameron has already announced that equality impact assessments (EIAs) are to be abolished. EIAs are a requirement on public servants to consider equality when designing new policies. They need to be strengthened to stop council officers and Whitehall mandarins going through the motions, not scrapped. But the government intends to bin them altogether, in the apparent belief that if we ignore equality it will magically happen anyway – we just won’t know about it because we aren’t monitoring it.
On top of this, Vince Cable’s Enterprise and Regulatory Bill proposes to repeal the “positive duty” on the EHRC to work towards eliminating discrimination, something that was enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act. At the same time, ministers have convened a Tory-dominated taskforce to review the “general duty” on all 40,000 public authorities to promote good race relations.
This rolling back of Labour’s equalities laws, many of which date back to the race relations acts of 1976 and 2000, and the decimation of the watchdog charged with upholding the legislation, adds up to a disturbing picture of the government’s attitude towards race.
The two coalition partners both share responsibility for this. Meanwhile, time is running out to implement policies that will make a positive difference to BAME communities before the 2015 general election.
Interestingly, the Conservatives have been changing tact lately. Cameron has signalled he wants more BAME MPs to add to the nine elected in 2010 and has ordered party vice-chair Alok Sharma and other ministers to come up with policies that will appeal to black and Asian communities. Tory cabinet members recently had a special briefing on the need to win over BAME voters in key marginals and nullify the negative legacy of Enoch Powell.
The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are still sleepwalking to disaster as far as BAME support is concerned. We’re still waiting for a report on access to bank loans for BAME businesses – a relatively minor issue – that was commissioned by Clegg in 2011. An internal taskforce looking at the issue of education and employment, which I am part of, produced a 20,000 word report after a year of taking evidence only to learn that apparatchiks had expunged it from the party’s spring conference agenda.
And now I learn that the party’s manifesto working group has rejected the party’s foremost expert on race equality, Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, in favour of someone who has little knowledge of the issues and has spent much of her life opposing positive action.
On race equality, it is make-or-break time for the Lib Dems. That is why the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat group has joined forces with the Social Liberal Forum to hold a conference next Saturday to debate these issues.
As a party with a proud history of social radicalism it is time to promote radical solutions to address persistent race inequality in society. Unless we get into gear in the next few months, it may take a whole generation before the party gains credibility within BAME communities and attracts the brightest and best talent to stand for parliament.
Lester Holloway is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Sutton and an executive member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats. He tweets @brolezholloway