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5 January 2021updated 11 Jan 2021 1:20pm

Marsha de Cordova: the government should “stop with the culture wars” and focus on equality

The shadow secretary for women and equalities on systemic discrimination and the future of work.

By Alona Ferber

When Marsha de Cordova first became an MP in 2017, she faced more challenges than most newcomers to Westminster. Born with nystagmus – an involuntary movement of the eyes – she lives with visual impairment and is registered blind. In interviews during that first parliament, the 44-year-old talked about on-the-job frustrations, such as sometimes receiving papers late because, unlike other MPs, she needs a very large font to be able to read them.

“The fact is, if there’s a budget, I should have my budget papers the same time as any other MP,” she told me in a recent Zoom call. “What was really quite….disappointing…is the fact that it was still happening, but I’m really pleased to say there has been a great improvement.”

These days her papers, she confirms, are “generally coming on time”, but the pandemic has thrown up new problems. Like many of us, MPs have had to “jump on to Zoom and Teams” but “neither application [is] accessible for people living with a visual impairment”.

After her election as member for Battersea, de Cordova first served as shadow minister for disabled people. In 2020, Keir Starmer promoted her to shadow secretary of state for women and equalities. One of a handful of disabled MPs, and one of few black women in the House of Commons, she took on the role in a year when, as has become almost a cliché, a spotlight was shone on inequalities, both between the genders and in terms of racism, in health outcomes, in wider society, and in the workplace. 

The pandemic has had a disproportionate economic impact on women, who have taken on more of the care burden, been at greater risk of losing their jobs, and are over-represented in high-risk sectors for Covid-19 – such as healthcare – and job losses, such as retail. At the same time, the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd led to greater acknowledgment of systemic racism. Various firms, from Facebook to Estée Lauder, made public commitments to tackle discrimination in their workforces. And these things intersect. According to a Fawcett Society survey, 43 per cent of working women, and 50 per cent of working BAME women are worried about their job or promotion.

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“It was absolutely the right thing for….businesses and everyone to really make [commitments] to wanting to do their bit in terms of reducing racial inequalities in workplaces,” says de Cordova, but she wants to see the practical outcomes of those pledges.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto made a series of promises on improving equality for workers. These included making the state responsible for enforcing equal pay legislation, pay gap reporting for BAME groups, requiring employers to be better trained to support disabled workers, and introducing disability pay gap reporting for firms of 250 employees or more.

Top of the list of things de Cordova wants to see the government doing now is to reinstate gender pay gap reporting, which was suspended in March due to the pandemic. According to a Financial Times analysis of data of the 5,822 firms that submitted their gender pay gap data regardless, the average difference between men and women increased from 11.9 per cent to 12.8 per cent.

But de Cordova would also like to see the introduction of mandatory ethnic pay gap reporting. Such measures “will really encourage businesses and employers to take more steps towards career progression, more flexible working, but also it improves diversity and we all know that diversity at all levels within the business make business better”.

Covid-19 has changed the way people work, and brought a revolution in flexible working, she notes. “We really need to make sure that the way we think about the future of work… really is about being inclusive,” says de Cordova. “We are currently facing an economic crisis…we are pretty much in one and post-Brexit, post-Covid we really need to make sure that the response to government has to… place equality at its heart.”

In June, Boris Johnson announced a commission on racial equality that was due to produce recommendations by the end of 2020 (it still had not at the time of press). De Cordova has publicly criticised this latest initiative, pointing out that the government already has plenty of yet-to-be actioned recommendations to choose from. The litany of reviews and commission into inequalities and racial injustices in recent years include the 2017 McGregor-Smith Review into race in the workplace and the Lammy Review into criminal justice that same year.

Read more: The biggest problem with Boris Johnson’s new race commission chair is that he has a job

“We’ve got a wealth of recommendations that if implemented could go some way to reducing some of those inequalities,” she says. When it comes to this new commission she adds, “if there’s no plan for implementation then it just renders the whole process pointless”.

In December, equalities minister Liz Truss announced a new government approach to tackling discrimination. Truss said debate had been led by “fashion”, not “facts”, and that the government would take a datadriven approach not focused solely on race, religion, sexual orientation and disability.

In an email following our interview, de Cordova denounced this as “gratuitous provocation”, adding, “When Liz Truss dismisses ‘fashionable’ causes she actually dismisses the devastating impact of discrimination and unfairness in peoples’ day to day lives”.

Earlier last year, the government had made its views on the Black Lives Matter movement clear during a parliamentary debate on Black History Month in October. Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch caused a major backlash when she told the Commons that, “Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory as fact, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law”. Badenoch also said schools should not openly support “the anti-capitalist Black Lives Matter group”.

De Cordova was “really quite saddened by the government’s behaviour.” This was the first time that critical race theory – a framework for examining how racial inequalities shape society – had been mentioned in parliament, she says, adding “it’s the government wanting to bring this into public space.. maybe stop with the culture wars and focus on the role of actually creating a fair and equal society for everybody”. In September last year, Donald Trump issued an executive order banning diversity training in the federal workforce and slamming critical race theory as a “destructive ideology”.

Read more: “It gave me a name”: What critical race theory means to its practitioners

When Boris Johnson launched the new commission, he was criticised for saying he wanted to “stop the sense of victimisation”. “If you’re being racially abused or discriminated against it’s not about you being a victim it’s about you being treated less fairly than somebody else,” she says. “Rather than wanting to take things out of the Trump handbook – and aren’t we glad he is no longer going to be president – they really should focus on tackling the structural inequalities and racism that exist.”

De Cordova read law and European studies at university and, before she entered politics, worked at a number of charities that support blind and partially sighted people. She set up her own, South London Vision, in 2014. That year, she was also elected as a Labour Party councillor in Lambeth.

When she first entered the workforce, and also in education, “my disability and my visual impairment was the biggest barrier, so to be honest I didn’t have time to focus on…the racial challenges that I potentially was facing”.

This is still a daily battle, she says. There is little awareness of the inequalities people with disabilities face at work. “When we talk about wanting to see better racial equality in the workplace and better gender balance in the workplace, I also want to see disability equality in the workplace,” says de Cordova. “You think it’s bad for gender, you think it’s bad for race, it’s even worse for disability, so much more needs to be done in that respect, and that’s about changing attitudes and culture as well as ensuring the right support mechanisms are in place to enable disabled people to have a level playing field.”

Beyond the immediate effects of the pandemic, the world of work is changing. Research by the World Economic Forum in October found Covid-19 has accelerated automation. 43 per cent of businesses plan to reduce their workforce due to technology integration. And the transition to a clean energy economy, and the new green jobs this will bring with it, have been a major part of the discussion on postpandemic recovery. Are we joining the dots on inclusion for the future of work, so that existing inequalities won’t be perpetuated in the future?

“That is the big question,” says de Cordova. Equality needs to be “part of your thinking in how you want to do things better”. She notes president-elect Joe Biden’s commitment to racial equity and action on the climate. In “any plans that you have for the future of work”, without consciously bringing equality into the equation, “those groups that have been disproportionately negatively impacted throughout society… will continue to ingrain those inequalities if it’s not formally part of shaping your thinking of your future and your vision, it just has to be”.

Read more: What Joe Biden’s win means for net zero

When it comes to her own chosen career path – politics – she is optimistic about a more inclusive future. Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet is the most diverse to date. In the 2019 election, the parliamentary Labour Party was also more diverse than ever, with 41 black, Asian and minority ethnic representatives, and more women elected than men for the first time.

But she admits that there is room for improvement, including, from her own experience as a councillor, at local government level. “I do all I can to encourage people to think about [what] they are doing, if they want to make a difference, which is what I want to do, that politics is one avenue to explore.” Politics should be more representative, “not just race, ethnicity and disability, but also socio-economic background, class is [a] really important dynamic to this as well”.

As an employer, the Labour Party could do better, too. On top of Labour’s anti-Semitism scandal, last June HuffPost UK reported that Labour was losing black party members over concerns it had responded inadequately to allegations of anti-black racism. Keir Starmer has unveiled measures to boost equality in the party, including an audit into the diversity of Labour staff.

“If you’re going to say you are truly representative, then there has to be good representation across your organisation, from a senior level all the way throughout the organisation. The party isn’t doing very well there,” she says. “I can’t do my job as women and equalities [secretary] calling for organisations to have better representation and leadership when my own party isn’t leading by example, so it really is about also getting our own house in order”.

She “couldn’t comment” on whether the anti-Semitism debacle has made the party a less welcoming place for minorities to work. “But what I do want to say is that I’m really pleased that the party has got their action plan in place and we will be tackling… any forms of anti-Semitism as well as all forms of racism,” says de Cordova, “the Labour Party is the party of equality and so again it is about leading by example”.

But is there a risk that her portfolio sidelines the key issues, rather than ensuring that equality really is at the heart of government policy as the world of work changes? Should her ultimate goal be for her job to become obsolete?

“Well I won’t answer should I put myself out of a job,” she says. Her aim is for equality to “be really interacting and threading through every department… My job is done when equality is embedded and part of everything we do.”

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on the future of work. Click here for the full edition.

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