When I was a growing up in Coatbridge, near Glasgow, I told my mother when I was about 13 that I wanted to work in politics. She said don’t be silly. Politics wasn’t for people like us. Politics was for white, middle class people from political backgrounds, not the place for a Muslim daughter of immigrants. Best be a doctor, an accountant or a lawyer instead she said – the typical immigrant parent plea. I really wanted to prove her wrong.
I was squeamish, wasn’t very good at maths and hated my law degree. So I did a bunch of other stuff including working in a call centre, becoming a civil servant, becoming a stand up comic, working in the music industry and then after many attempts, getting a job with the Labour party as an adviser to Harriet Harman.
I did that job for about 8 years, a job which I loved. I worked on gender issues and the Equality Act and worked my way up to also eventually advising Ed Miliband when he was Labour leader.
During my time in politics, I didn’t see that many other senior people from ethnic minority backgrounds – especially women – apart from Baroness Warsi who I used to get mistaken for a few times by House of Commons staff. Not sure who that’s worse for.
I worked with loads of wonderful, kind, clever and committed people – but I was always very much in a minority. That is true of all political parties but the Labour party has always prided itself on pushing for more equality and has delivered more than any party.
The British political establishment including politicians, advisers, officials as well commentators, editors and senior journalists are largely still male, white and Oxbridge. That is the way things are and things aren’t changing speedily. But most people do at least acknowledge that this is not a great state of affairs and is one of the reasons why politics feels so disconnected from the public who are just a tad more diverse.
I was at a debate on Saturday organised by the New Statesman about how electable the Labour party was. It was a good feisty debate featuring Zoe Williams, Melissa Benn, Charles Clarke, David Aaranovitch and a young local council leader Ashley Walsh. We all disagreed about how you make Labour electable. I made the case that we need people to trust us on the economy, persuade people who had voted Tory last time to switch and that we needed a head and heart vision for modern Britain. The other side had a different view, think we lost because weren’t left wing enough and feel confident that the new members’ fizz of enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn will sweep the nation. That’s OK. It’s a debate. Clue’s in the title.
But something happened at the end. It was small, but it happened and I’ve been dwelling on ever since.
I pointed out that the room we were in was not representative of the population and modern Britain. We were debating Labour politics at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Saturday afternoon at the same time as the Grand National was taking place. We were not like normal people and I do include myself in that, by the way.
Anyway. I then pointed out that the room was also very white.
Zoe Williams then attacked me for pointing it out. She dismissed it in a way that made me feel small to have raised it. She made out that raising the issue of race was some irrelevant side issue to distract away from the big debate.
I’ve been trying to work out whether I’m just been too sensitive… But I did feel weird about being made to feel silly for raising race in an all white room debating the future of the country.
She also made a throw away comment about how people who disagree with Corbyn say things like “there aren’t enough women in senior positions” – again dismissing genuine concerns about gender equality as a “distraction” from the higher cause.
I don’t believe that we have made enough progress on women in this country but that is positively sunny when it comes to race and power. There is glaring lack of ethnic minority participation in politics and we have to acknowledge it.
And if we don’t even admit we see it, how can we try and have a more inclusive political debate and system?
In Parliament, a black or Asian person is more likely to serve your lunch than be an MP and we were all appalled at Dawn’s Butler’s recent revelations of being mistaken for a cleaner. It is still rare to have black or Asian faces on our flagship news and current affairs shows discussing politics or writing newspaper columns.
Bonnie Greer wrote recently for Progress about the dangers of an ethnic desert and this is all the more serious at a time when we have a growing ethnic minority population who feel disconnected from democracy and politics.
Zoe is lucky. She has a great platform with a national newspaper column and that’s great. I disagree with her views but good to have a bright woman in the mix and she has more reach and influence on public opinion than many senior MPs. But I’m all the more surprised that she doesn’t get why I raised the race issue.
She wrote about the debate in her Guardian column on Monday. At the end of her piece she argued that “the charge is: you are too rich to take a view; you are too privileged to take a stand. And the rebuttal is: I may be doing all right but I want to live in a better one”.
And she is right. It’s refreshing to hear her state that lots of privileged rich white people want the opportunity to leave the world a better place (I assume that applies to Tories too?) but let’s be honest, politics (and I do include political commentating) is not exactly short of those super clever, nice, well-meaning folk.
It would be nice if we could acknowledge that we could do with inviting a few different people and voices to join the debate, or at least notice the fact that they’re not in the room. Or at the very least not dismiss diversity as a distraction.
I found Zoe’s reaction depressing. And I don’t think I’m that sensitive. I get called all kinds of things on social media. A Tory bitch. Ugly. A spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn. Ugly. A Muslim (yes – that’s now a stand alone insult). Last week I got called a coconut (old school). That I only get “allowed” on telly because I’m a brown woman etc etc. But I never imagined I would be dismissed by a Labour person and a Guardian columnist for pointing out that we were in an all white room while having a discussion about opening up politics.
Disagree with me on the electability of Jeremy Corbyn, but please don’t dismiss my concerns about diversity as a distraction. Not only do I hate my mother being proved right, but if we can’t be bothered to open up the new politics to different communities then we not only harm our electability, we harm our democracy and betray our basic Labour values of equality.