The age of the ethnic minority manifesto is upon us. Remarkable when you consider how far race equality has been marginalised as a subject over the past decade.
Last Tuesday saw Labour launch mini-manifesto for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities for the first time. A day later the Liberal Democrats launched another one, their first since 2005. The Greens are still cobbling theirs together.
Three BAME manifestos, what’s going on? Partly it’s a reaction to an Operation Black Vote study showing how powerful the ‘Black vote’ really is. It found that 168 marginal seats have majorities smaller than the local BAME population.
The Black vote isn’t a bloc vote but nevertheless ignoring issues more pertinently felt by communities of colour no longer makes electoral sense.
Another factor could be that ‘race equality politics’ may be about to make a comeback.
Not a return to the Black Sections of the 1980s but a recognition that a decade of lumping all equalities strands together – gender, age, sexuality, disabilities etc. – has singularly failed to make a dent on unequal racial outcomes for Britain’s black and Asian communities.
By some measurements, such as disproportionate African and Caribbean unemployment, the figures have gone backwards.
Labour made significant progress on tackling race inequality from 1997 to around 2005 before unpicking it claiming multiple identities – for example being Asian, disabled and a woman – rendered a ‘silo’ approach obsolete.
We now know that despite undeniable overlap in discrimination against different sections of society, a one-size-fits-all approach did not, and cannot, make headway in rolling back institutional racism.
Why? Because the dynamics of discrimination, the various layers of subtlety, and the frequent belief of individual victims with ‘multiple identities’ that they are suffering from one specific form of prejudice, demand flexibility between the silo and a more colour-blind ‘diversity’ approach.
Historically Labour’s greatest successes in tackling racial unfairness have come with specific strategies for tackling it. If you can’t see the target you can’t hit it.
Labour appear to have now accepted this. As shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan wrote in the New Statesman a year ago: “It will be impossible to make Britain a more equal country and close the gap between those at the top and the bottom of our society, without also tackling racial inequality.”
Labour’s race equality consultation last year, which shaped the newly-launched BAME manifesto, achieved considerable buy-in from a range of BAME organisations and experts, creating a sense of ownership of Labour’s race equality policies not seen for maybe 30 years.
So what’s in the manifesto then? Quite a lot, actually.
It starts with a recognition that race inequality extends over virtually every area of life, and must therefore involve a cross departmental strategy “to drive progress across government.”
However this is subtly different from Khan’s original pledge to “put race equality at the heart of decision-making” and observers will be looking for a Labour government to produce real action not just civil service audits that sit on the shelf.
The BAME manifesto promises “more inclusive public services, with our Parliament, police and judiciary representative of the communities they serve” involving an inquiry to make the Bar and Bench more racially diverse, and a greater emphasis on police recruitment to reflect the community it serves.
Last month the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that BAME communities had suffered disproportionately under austerity cuts and that the Coalition had no plan to address this, a point Labour acknowledge needs to change.
Labour talks about tackling unequal health outcomes, the lack of BAME headteachers, a review into City boardroom diversity, strengthening the Equality and Human Rights Commission watchdog, and more.
Labour’s BAME manifesto is undeniably the most progressive document on race ever produced by a British political party.
Yet there is a disconnect between Labour’s main and BAME manifestos which may lead some to worry whether pledges absent from Labour’s main manifesto will be taken seriously in power. Time will tell.
The Conservative manifesto only covers diversity in police recruitment and a pledge to legislate to reform stop and search “if ratios do not improve.” The fact that David Cameron’s party see this as the only issue affecting Britain’s BAME communities is risible.
Despite Tory progress in selecting more BAME candidates for held and winnable seats, fast catching up with Labour, it appears that election strategists like Lynton Crosby have largely written off the BAME vote, a decision that could cost them dearly for many elections to come.
UKIP, unsurprisingly, have nothing in their manifesto that specifically speaks to unequal racial disadvantage, preferring instead to argue for French-style assimilation “into our majority culture.”
The Scottish National Party manifesto is almost entirely absent of any reference to race equality, with just a short sentence about a race committee in parliament to advise the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The SNP talk about pay inequality, but only in relation to gender, and tackling inequality, but only for class. The BAME population of Scotland may only be four percent but it is increasing rapidly. Nevertheless the whiteness of the SNP document shows they don’t understand the multicultural nature of many parts of England, or indeed Glasgow with its 12 per cent BAME population.
The Green Party manifesto takes a less panoramic view on race inequality than Labour. There are a series of vague statements about paying “special attention” to BAME mental health issues, setting targets for the participation of BAMEs, women and the disabled in sport, restricting the use of stop and search, and making all public bodies “reflective of society”.
All useful suggestions but there is little to suggest either a coherent Green vision or much in the way of mechanisms to achieve ideas that resemble notes from a brainstorming session rather than a serious programme. As a first attempt it gets a pass rather than a merit. We will have to see if their forthcoming BAME manifesto fills in these gaps.
The Lib Dems probably have the next best race equality programme behind Labour. Yet their pitch is tainted by five years in coalition during which Lib Dem ministers have fronted a string of negative policies from biting chunks out of the Equality Act and decimating the Equality and Human Rights watchdog to backing a vicious austerity squeeze which has disproportionately thrown BAME public sector workers on the scrapheap. Decisions hardly mitigated by policies to help the poorest, namely raising the income tax threshold and introducing the (non-ring fenced) pupil premium.
Nevertheless the Lib Dem BAME manifesto has some attractive and thought-out offers such as boosting the proportion of BAME apprentices, a pledge to “monitor and tackle the BAME pay gap”, a review of the causes of the overrepresentation of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system, and ‘name blank’ CVs in public sector job recruitment, a policy that was in their 2010 manifesto but not even rolled out properly in Whitehall never mind the outside world.
There were many other good race equality policies piloted through Lib Dem conference since 2010 but they were rejected for both the main and BAME manifestos. I know because I contributed to writing many of them in a special taskforce and an equalities working group.
Policies to tackle disproportionate school exclusions, Russell Group university intake, and a procurement policy for companies delivering services to the public sector, all hit the cutting room floor, and with it the Lib Dems’ chance to at least match Labour.
Exclusion of these policies and lack of consultation with their own BAME members meant the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat group has refused to endorse it, and some members are privately scathing of their party’s efforts. Yet more proof that Lib Dems just can’t get it right on race.
In addition to the offers from other parties, anti-racist groups are also making their demands. Operation Black Vote have produced a good set of proposals looking specifically at making democracy more representative, and this Thursday the Coalition of Race Equality Organisations launch their 28-page manifesto covering the NHS, tackling housing discrimination and more.
This detailed document, plus good ideas from other progressive parties, shows that there is no monopoly on race equality policies just as there is no monopoly on the ‘Black vote’.
While Labour are to be commended on their excellent effort, in government they will need a collaborative approach, utilising all talent and expertise from the grassroots and across the progressive spectrum, if the vision of a racially-equal society is to be realised.
Lester Holloway is a communications executive and former Editor of the New Nation newspaper and New Media Manager at Operation Black Vote. He presents a show on BEN Television (Sky 182) and is a former Labour and Liberal Democrat councillor. He tweets at @brolezholloway.