Tag Archives: bme

The Fernandos expose a wider failure

This has become an incoherent babble but I was determined to finish it. My apologies.

The defection yesterday of the Fernando siblings, on one level, is quite easy to laugh off. If Chamali and Chandila are “senior” party members on the basis that they have failed to get elected to any prominent position within the party (to be fair, Chamali did get elected to the FPC, but resigned almost instantly), then I must be one of the most senior party members out there. Been a member for five minutes? Not elected to anything? Well, on that basis David Cameron wants to hear from you too!

The Fernandos activities over the past couple of years have been a breathtaking example of ambition blinding individuals to harsh reality. One got a sense that Chamali was really angry at not getting selected as the mayoral candidate and wouldn’t brook the quite reasonable argument that a man who has helped run a London-wide authority (in his case, the police) was better qualified. A similar arrogance ran through Chandila’s presidential candidacy like a stick of rock. The sense of entitlement was palpable; one almost got the impression one had intruded onto the set of some dynastic soap opera.

Once the laughter dies down however, the party needs to wake up to some home truths. Specifically, we really are failing get BAME candidates selected in winnable seats. In terms of gender balance, we are actually making good progress. Of our 25 most marginal seats, 10 selected candidates are women. Of the top ten, 4 are women. If you exclude Tory marginals on the basis that we are unlikely to take them, 6 out of 13 selected candidates are women. Clearly we could still make improvements in this area, and incumbancy will always dent our progress, but it could be a lot worse. However, none of them are from an ethnic minority (quite happy to stand corrected here).

And it isn’t just the Fernandos that are defecting. Obviously there was Saj Karim in 2007, but earlier this year there was Norsheen Bhatti. I tend to be pretty dismissive of Saj as he threw his toys out of his pram despite coming second in a list of candidates in a PR election. We could have won that second seat; he simply wasn’t prepared to take that chance which was pretty shoddy. Norsheen is different. Unlike the Fernandos, Norsheen had done her graft. I first knew her back in 1998 when she was on the LDYS Equal Opportunities Committee with me. She had fought two thankless elections, as the candidate for Battersea in 2005 and Brent East in 2001. Yes, Brent East. My understanding is (again, happy to be corrected) she was out of the country when Paul Daisley died in 2003. It must have been pretty galling for her to see us go on to win that by-election.

What concerns me is less the specifics of each individual defection and resignation but the trend (with apologies to Antony Hook, who seems to think we should only ever look at this problem at an atomic level). We don’t appear to have made any meaningful progress in terms of getting ethnic minority candidates in place. The vibes I have felt coming from the Ethnic Minority Lib Dems in recent years have been a growing sense of despair and frustration. Sometimes this has been aimed at the wrong targets (if targeted at all) and lacked a proper analysis, but it is no less worrying.

There seem to be two main problems here: one is simply a question of priorities while the other is more intractable. The first one is that we have serially failed to implement anything even vaguely resembling a coherent strategy in terms of encouraging, developing and supporting candidates from under-represented groups. The model we have successfully used for women in recent years, whilst under-funded, has delivered results. For the most part, it could be reapplied to encourage ethnic minority candidates or disabled candidates. It was broadly agreed that this would happen when Navnit Dholakia was president back in 2003, but as soon as Simon Hughes took over that agenda was scrapped while Simon spent years pursuing his own preferred solution of imposing ethnic-minority shortlists and quotas in urban ghettoes. Under Clegg, we have seen the development of this Diversity Engagement Group, which is welcome, but it has taken us a breathtakingly long time to get that far. Meanwhile, Clegg’s promise of a “leaders’ academy” still seems to be lost in the ether. Maybe, post-election, we will see more progress made on this, but that certainly did not happen after 2005.

The second, harder problem is how we do politics. Simply put, there are very few jobs out there that are tougher and less thankless than being a Lib Dem target seat candidate. That is true whether you are black or white, male or female. The male target seat candidates of my acquaintance are all pretty much working at it full time at largely their own expense and have been for a couple of years now. I have to be honest and admit that I don’t personally know any female target seat candidates – I do however know several former female target seat candidates, for the most part because of what a dreadful job it is.

Frankly, we shouldn’t treat people like this. It’s horrible. But to be honest, it is hard to see how we can afford not to treat people like this. We don’t have money to pay them a stipend or give them more support (let alone things like childcare) and if we reallocated funds from elsewhere, we would be forced to fight fewer seats (this applies to investing more in training and development as well, although you can at least make the argument that better trained candidates tend to be better fundraisers, etc.).

The flipside of this approach is that it predetermines specific kinds of candidates. By putting so much emphasis on local campaigning, we have helped fuel this obsession with parochialism. These days, if you can’t actually trace five generations of your family all being born in the constituency, you get labelled a carpetbagger (I exaggerate slightly). The Lib Dems did more than most to encourage this culture, but all the parties play this game these days. Clearly such an emphasis is bad news for candidates whose parents or grandparents are immigrants (furthermore, it is no coincidence that this emphasis on the “local” has gone hand-in-hand with the greatest period of centralisation in British history, but I’ve written about that before).

Finally, another factor tied up with this emphasis on the ground war is the unfortunate tendency to play ethnic minority communities like mindless cattle. This is one aspect of local politics where the bad habits were established by Labour rather than the Lib Dems but it has become ubiquitous nonetheless. All too often, political parties treat BME communities as an homogenous group. It has to be said that there are plenty of people within those communities who, for reasons of their own, are all too happy to play along. So it is that ‘elders’ and (usually self-appointed) ‘community leaders’ like to act as middlemen (and it does tend to be men), negotiating votes in return for favours. The result invariably leads to greater racial tensions and segregation. And out of the system arise a number of politicians from ethnic minority backgrounds who are used to playing this game and all too often have a totally unrealistic idea about how politics is played elsewhere. Alongside all this comes entryism (the practice of flooding local parties with members who don’t necessarily even know they’re joining and all too often don’t share the parties values with the aim of stitching up candidate selections). It leads us with curiosities such as Irfan Ahmed and is… quaint views about women ending up in the party (I like to think that Irfan can be saved from his illiberal views as he matures; the vast majority of them are founded in ignorance and I have to admit to having some stupid ideas of my own when I was 17. But he doesn’t half push it).

I’m not saying that all politicians from an ethnic minority background come with this sort of baggage or attitude. Far from it. A lot of people, particularly second and third generationers can’t stand this sort of culture. But all too often parties, and the Lib Dems in particular, tend to indulge this sort of ghetto politics rather than side with those individuals who are fighting for a better sort of participation and engagement. Ultimately the problem is that we don’t merely fail to train and support enough BAME candidates; we end up recruiting the wrong ones.

The solution to all this, and in part some of the problems raised by Charlotte Gore a couple of weeks ago, is much less emphasis on “ground war” campaigning in favour of the “air war.” The party needs to identify a stronger public identity and a clearer vision. This will become doubly crucial if we ever gain electoral reform for Westminster.

That however is glib and somehow I doubt anyone reading this will think that is a particularly new thing to say. Nor will it get away from the fact that the Tories have now adopted many of the party’s ground war techniques wholesale, thus making it crucual for us to be able to fight like with like. We are stuck in a tussle that we can’t afford to break free from. And yet the tussle itself is causing the party to become hollowed out, alienates our supporter base and discourages some of our brightest prospective MPs from even considering becoming a candidate. However bad these problems might be for the Tories and Labour, they are that much worse for a party in third place with no safe seats and much lower funding.

It seems to me that we face two unenviable choices: transform our strategic approach and risk destroying ourselves in the process, or carry on as we have been – at best making grindingly slow progress and at worst ending up going in reverse in the process. I happen to think that in the long term the former is more desirable. The prize is not merely a better politics but a system that doesn’t end up excluding so many people from becoming target seat candidates. Incrementalism has had its day and we need to move on. But it will take a brave leader (and future chief executive) to begin the process. Either way, there is simply no excuse for not sorting out a better training and support system for BAME candidates as a high priority.

Is UK politics institutionally racist?

Trevor Phillips thinks it is:

The public in this country would, he believes, embrace a black leader but the system would prevent it happening. “Here, the problem is not the electorate, the problem is the machine.” It was no coincidence that there were only 15 ethnic-minority MPs, he said. “The parties and the unions and the think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It’s institutional racism.”

I actually disagree with Trevor Phillips in as much as I don’t accept that the UK political system is any more institutionally racist than the US system. The House of Representatives does relatively better than the House of Commons, but the Senate does far worse than either the Commons or the Lords: Obama was the only black senator and he’s now out of the door. Meanwhile, in terms of gender balance, we do significantly better. But Adam Afriye does have a good point when he says:

“In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it’s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.”

If we had a presidential system, it is certainly true that we would create within our own system a similar opportunity for an anti-establishment candidate such as Obama to come out of nowhere. But would we want a presidential system? I can see strong arguments either way, although my mind opposition to directly elected mayors has hardened over the past two years after seeing London’s gradual shift towards post-Livingstone politics. The same system that would prevent the meteoric rise of a “British Obama” also prevents the meteoric rise of a “British Palin.”

But we should also be mindful of the fact that neither Obama or Palin did, in fact, come from nowhere. Obama had been a state senator for eight years before entering the US Senate in 2005. Palin also made it in local and state politics first. The difference between these levels of government and their UK equivalents is that they wield far more influence and power. In the UK, even the Scottish Parliament has very few tax-raising powers; in that respect it is no different from a local authority which can only control how it allocates the cash not make strategic decisions about the level of that cash and how it should be raised. As Mayor of Wasilla (pop. 10,000), Palin had powers that Alex Salmond would hanker for. If we don’t have proving grounds such as these, how can we expect our stars to rise (indeed, I made this point about the London Assembly last year)? Currently the only real avenue is the House of Commons, and that is where there is also the most party control.

The UK Parliament and the system we use to elect its members institutionally favours candidates who are capable of running their own campaigns and working extremely long hours for years before polling day. Inevitably, this tends to favour rich people, successful entrepreneurs and lawyers, who tend to be (but are not exclusively) white, middle class and male. The Labour Party has an additional category of standard candidate background – the trade unionist – but these days these too tend to be white, middle class and male. For every Dawn Butler there are dozens of Tom Watsons and Sion Simons. Labour these days may be unlikely to foster an Obama, but it is unlikely to foster a Keir Hardie either.

Getting elected to the UK Parliament is, currently, an extreme sport. You have to be ever-so-slightly insane to want to put yourself through it. The serious question is whether this is actually healthy? Scrutiny certainly is, but in most parts of the country where we have safe seats, we have patronage in place of that. Fundamentally, we have a system that puts parties, not the public, in control.

Some have argued that the solution to all this is to have primaries, but for reasons I have already rehearsed, I don’t think that will work (nor do I think it works well in the US outside of presidential candidate selections). No, if we are serious about putting the people in control, we need a system like STV which combines a fairer electoral system with a more open system for selecting party candidates. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission are serious about exposing institutional racism (and sexism and all other forms of discrimination for that matter), then they should come out in support of electoral reform.

If TV can’t reflect Britain, what chance has politics got?

Cringeworthy stuff from Gavin Whenman on the topic of positive discrimination again:

To elaborate: Discrimination, of any kind, on a criteria which bears no relation to your ability to do the job, is wrong. It is fair to award party posts, such as PPCs, on the basis of merit only. It is not fair to award it on the basis of skin colour or ethnicity. To say that black or other people aren’t good enough to be MPs unless they have help from the white man is possibly the most patronising, shameful position we can take on this issue, and I hope Nick Clegg sees sense soon.

None of which is particularly inaccurate or misleading (even if it is intemperate), but it doesn’t get us very far, leaves us with a woefully unrepresentative party and begs the question: what would you do then? Clegg hasn’t backed positive discrimination – in fact he’s called a moratorium on imposing such measures within the party for at least two parliaments. What he has done though is back a system of training and support that will receive significant funds, warn the party that if this isn’t made to work then the debate on positive discrimination will need to be revisited and, today, backed enabling legislation to allow political parties to introduce all-black shortlists if they wish (just as we already have enabling legislation to introduce all-women shortlists).

How political parties select their candidates ought to be by and large a matter for them surely? If people feel they are having a candidate imposed on them there will be a backlash, as Labour discovered in Blaenau Gwent. Surely deregulation is a good thing in principle? Why does Gavin feel white guys need such stringent protection?

By backing this legislation, Clegg is supporting deregulation in principle and making a political point about the importance of parties doing more to recruit ethnic minority activists and politicians. I’m amazed that either of these things are regarded within the party as being a bad thing.

The bottom line is party politics is looking alarmingly white, male and middle class these days. In many respects we appear to be going backwards. The Lib Dems have particular problems. We have a few Asian activists and I can probably mention a token member of most established UK ethnic minorities, but within the black community particularly we are a joke.

But its the anger this all provokes that irritates me. I’ve got quite worked up about this myself in the past, and the establishment of the Campaign for Gender Balance was a result of a number of us trying to come up with an alternative to all women shortlists. But at least we were talking about alternatives – and now CGB is regularly cited by some with no sense of history as part of the positive discrimination agenda it was established to bypass.

We shouldn’t be blind to the enormity of our task though. If the television industry struggles to recruit visible black faces, as Lenny Henry was bemoaning last week, what chance has politics got? Expecting it to sort itself out however is simply ludicrous.

Clegg’s Academy – credit where it’s due

I’ve been hard on Nick Clegg on this blog, mainly because I’ve struggled to find anything of substance that he has said or written during this campaign.

Thankfully, I now find myself in the position of endorsing something he has called for. To wit:

‘My approach isn’t about women-only shortlists or about A-lists. It isn’t about imposing candidates on local parties or picking winners. My approach is about nurturing talent. I will set up a Liberal Democrat academy to support, train and encourage candidates and aspiring candidates at all levels.

‘I will personally devote my time and energy to raising substantially more money for our diversity fund and will extend its scope.

‘But I believe this is our last chance to do it the purely liberal way, without any positive discrimination written into the rules. If, in two General Elections’ time, we have not sorted this out once and for all, we will have no choice but to consider positive discrimination. I want to discuss with other party leaders the possibility of allowing positive discrimination in the future.’

It remains to be seen how exactly this academy will be funded or will operate, but to an extent that is beside the point. Clegg is not only suggesting a positive way forward, he’s locking himself into a process that would result in the party adopting positive discrimination if we fail to meet our own targets.

Finally. Something of substance that isn’t merely flattering internal party prejudices. I agree with him; diversity is important enough of an issue for us to be prepared to adopt positive discrimination if all else fails. We can’t keep bucking the issue. But that does mean doing all that we can to make our preferred alternatives work in the first place. And that means cash – significantly more than we’ve been prepared to spend on diversity thus far – every penny of which the Campaigns Department will argue would be better spent on target seats (I know – I’ve sat in those negotiations). Both Kennedy and Campbell always liked to say what an important issue this is, but given the choice between diversity and defying Lord Rennard, they consistently chose the path of least resistance. In Campbell’s case last autumn, that meant a significant cut in the already underfunded Campaign for Gender Balance grant – the one part of the party’s diversity strategy that has a proven track record.

So it is odd that he chooses to end this piece with a quote from the current Party President – a man who has always talked the talk on this issue but repeatedly buckled under pressure. We must fervently hope and pray that Clegg doesn’t choose him to be the person to head up this academy project idea; otherwise we are all but guaranteed all BME shortlists in 6-7 years time.

John Harris: physician, heal thyself

(argh! this post was meant to go out yesterday! why does Ming have to bloody resign during a heavy work week?)

Question: if you write an article about the Lib Dem leadership contest specifically on the issue of diversity and the fact that Huhne and Clegg are both white, middle-class males, should you a) talk to the various groupings within the party concerned with diversity such as the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, the Woman Liberal Democrats, the Campaign for Gender Balance and possibly even the party’s “diversity Tsar”? Or b) a couple of white, middle-class guys?

If your answer is (b), I suggest you’re doing something wrong. Okay, both Ben Ramm (yes, that Ben Ramm) and Lembit Opik have non-visible minority ethnicities, but then so does Clegg (and Huhne as well for that matter IIRC). What does it say about a journalist that he professes that such issues are important but can’t be bothered to reflect them in any meaningful way in his own article?

It’s not as if I disagree with his fundamental point, after all it is the subject of one of my standard-issue rants. But the ill-informed mudslinging of as partisan a journalist as John Harris won’t actually change anything, which is possibly his intention.

Bottom line, the reason there doesn’t seem to be any choice other than Huhne or Clegg is that both are bloody strong candidates. Last time around, until Huhne threw his hat in the ring I was in despair. I was torn between voting for Campbell as the anyone-but-Hughes candidate or Campbell as the anyone-but-Oaten candidate. A lot of other people agreed with me. While I have no doubt this campaign will become more bad tempered as time goes on, neither of the candidates, as far as I know, evoke that visceral sense that if he wins the party will go straight down the toilet in anyone. It’s just possible that we had a poor choice paradoxically because we have such a good choice.

And we don’t actually do too badly when it comes to not being lead by toffs. Neither Campbell or Kennedy came from arisocratic or even upper-middle-class backgrounds. The last Etonian to stand for party leader was David Rendel (a man, I hasten to add, I have a lot of time for) in 1999. He came fifth out of five.

Harris also presses another of my buttons, which I’ve only just blogged about, by referring to ‘meritocracy’ as an idea. Parliament is a meritocracy – that’s the problem. It is batshit crazy talk, the sort of batshit crazy talk that I thought Harris hated about people like Tony Blair, to suggest that you need a meritocracy to achieve equality of outcome. So why is he now stealing their rhetorical clothes?

If you want to write a serious article about the Lib Dems’ failure to internalise diversity and equality issues, John, you’re going to need to dig a lot deeper than simply having a quick chat with a celebrity boyfriend and the editor of a literary magazine.

Racist or clown?

Just a bit of housekeeping from my appearance on 18DS’ Vox Politix on Monday (it’s still available to view at the moment), to follow up on an issue that has been bugging me.

Caroline Hunt took great exception to my reference to the various attacks that have been made about Boris Johnson’s views on black people in recent weeks. To be clear, I didn’t call him a racist; that isn’t an argument I’m particularly interested in having (I note however, that it was an argument the Tories were jonesing for a few months ago). What I was trying to say before we were moved on is that public figures are accountable for the words they say and write and that it is thus entirely justifiable for political opponents to attempt to make capital out of them.

Johnson’s feeble jokes about ‘watermelon smiles’ and ‘picaninnies’ may not count as explicit racism, but they are appallingly insensitive. It simply isn’t good enough for him to say that he didn’t expect to be taken seriously when he wrote that article while simultaneously demanding that we take him seriously now. There are far more extreme examples of politicians’ utterances being used against them. Jody Dunn springs to mind, and compared to her experience Johnson has got off lightly.

His views on the Macpherson report are more interesting. After 8 years, it is time we cast over this report with a critical eye. Its definition of ‘institutionalised racism’ and that effectively racism in the eye of the beholder are problematic for any liberal. It is hard to see what progress we have made in race relations over the past decade. But, to be brutally honest, it is a third rail issue and one that it will be difficult to tackle without being portrayed in the most unflattering terms. Frankly, if Johnson was serious about wanting to do something about them now, having a back-catalogue of less-than-nuanced articles behind him is not going to help.

The question is, will Johnson make anything of this issue in his campaign, or is he going to shy away from it completely? It will be a tough call. His rivals will pore over his every word and be eager to make hay if they can. If he tries to sweep it to one side on the other hand, then it will look as if he lacks the courage of his convictions; not a good thing to be labeled in a campaign if you are also a dilettante who has cultivated such a comical public image. And there’s a serious democratic issue too: if he runs away from the issue, we can have no idea what he would do if he got elected.

Ultimately, Johnson’s problem is not that he is a ‘colourful’ character. British politics could do with more mavericks and he is surely that. His problem is that he lacks authenticity. His stock in trade is vagueness and it will be tough for him to present himself as anything other than even more vague every time someone trots out another potentially embarrassing thing he wrote or said in the past. He’s also the top hatted toff to end all top hatted toffs. For a certain demographic that is screamingly hilarious and endearing. The same demographic thought that voting for Robert Kilroy-Silk would be a good idea and look how that turned out. Even if he won, he’s in danger of making the Conservatives look less like a serious party of government than they were before the election.

More BBC nonsense

Dawn Butler and Diane Abbott are having a pop at Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson:

Ms Butler highlighted a 2002 article in which Mr Johnson referred to the Queen being greeted in Commonwealth countries by “flag-waving piccaninnies”.

She claimed he also said that he expected, during a mooted visit by Tony Blair to the Congo, that “the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief”.

Hang on a minute; this isn’t a “claim” – it is a matter of public record. Why do the BBC persist in this policy of interpreting balance to mean that even established facts have to be treated as hearsay when they come out of the mouths of politicians?

My favourite Ealing Southall leaflet

Tony Lit leafletThis is my favourite leaflet from the campaign (click on it to enlarge). It was being delivered on the morning of polling day in particularly leafy part of Southall near the Grand Union Canal (for the record, I picked these two examples up from the street).

Why is it in so-bad-its-good territory? Well, the message on it will mean nothing to non-Hindus; indeed I would imagine it would put a lot of their backs up. What’s more, I would have thought that a lot of Hindus themselves would feel patronised, being effectively advised that it is their religious duty to vote for Tony Lit (and not the Hindu Vivendra Sharma).

If you’re going to mix religion, ethnicity and politics up in this way, why not go the whole hog and include a Hindi translation? I’m sure there must be one or two individuals out there who would be receptive to the message but don’t read English.

But for everyone else, how is this leaflet worth delivering on polling day? What does it tell them? There isn’t a tactical message, information about polling, a phone number to request lifts… anything. I could come up with 101 things that you would be better off getting your activists to do on polling day.

In fact there was a better leaflet being delivered just a few streets away. Overall, the impression one gets is that the Tory campaign team were caught with their trousers down on polling day and were just flailing about in a vain attempt to keep people busy. A less generous person than myself would say that just about sums up their whole campaign.

The Lab-Con Hokey Kokey

You put your right leg in, your right leg out, in, out, in, out, shake it all about

There is a serious side to all this. The degree by which the Tory and Labour camps in Ealing Southall are attempting to manipulate the Sikh and other communities is truly breathtaking. More to the point, I’m not sure it is all that effective. Throughout the 80s and 90s all parties, but particularly Labour, tended to treat minority ethnic groups as handy block votes that could easily be bought and sold by offering the so-called “community leaders” morsels such as a community centre here, a link with (read: money siphoned off to) a school in Kashmir there, etc. etc. It was the height of cynicism, but it generally worked and the minority ethnic communities themselves were the worse for it because they found themselves in a perpetual state of ghettoisation, with individuals emerging as major power brokers simply because the political class felt they were useful.

This has been slowly changing however. The Iraq War was a major corrective, at least as far as Muslims were concerned, but there have been broader generational shifts. Over the past couple of years there have been a growing number of initiatives designed to counteract this corporatist approach, such as the New Generation Network.

What I seem to be seeing in Ealing Southall is Labour coming a cropper of years of adopting the old approach. The Tories’ response however seems to be to walk into the same trap at precisely the time when it ceases to be useful. How impressed will Southall’s young second and third generation Sikhs be with all these shenanigans? Tony Lit started by trying to present himself as something new and fresh, but has spent the last week embracing the old guard. This tactic would surely be useful if the Sikh community was a homogenised block, but is that true?

More to the point, is the Sikh vote that important? In Southall, sure, but across the constituency they make up just 18% of the population. Are the Tories banking on the Hindus and Muslims (who, combined, make up another fifth) following in line with their turbaned neighbours? If so, then they are dafter than I thought. And what is the majority white population making of all this effervescent silliness that the Tories seem obsessed with?

We shall see, we shall see. But I can’t help but suspect that for all their noise, the Tories may end up in not that much stronger a position in the constituency after the election than they were before it. Either way, they will have a long term price to pay.