I have long held the view that its’ harder to promote race equality within the Liberal Democrats than any other party for one simple reason: the huge gulf between self-perception and reality. What the Lib Dems need, more than diversity schemes, is a chief psychologist.
For some members, widely-held views that diversity and tolerance are engraved on their collective hearts are wildly at odds with backward attitudes displayed whenever challenged about why they have failed to make progress.
This is why the party needs a shrink. I fear it will take many sessions on the couch to get to the root of the problem – about why their self-image about being “nice” and being the only party to truly value honest, robust debate and dissent fly out the window whenever confronted by home-truths about the shocking lack of black representation in their ranks.
Of course this is only true of some in the party. There are a great many party members who desperately want to embrace the multicultural 21st Century. But the backwoodsmen appear to thrive, in the cities and the country, and make the loudest noise in diversity debates. When it comes to race we have our very own Tea Party inside the broad tent.
By contrast the Conservatives – so long the “nasty party” on these issues – have long since morphed into an organisation divided between a shrinking minority who recognise themselves as prejudiced and proud, and the majority who are reconciled to embrace diversity for electoral reasons and because they have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of those who were admitted into parliament.
Labour doesn’t need a psychologist either. Virtually everyone in that party genuinely wants more black and Asian MPs, just so long as they’re not another Bernie Grant or Diane Abbott, and that BAME wannabe’s don’t get in the way of favoured, fast-tracked, Young Turks from the Westminster bubble. The message from party bosses to those pushing for greater diversity is: of course we’ll go further, it just won’t be you!
So while Labour and the Tories each have their issues, at least black activists know where they stand. The situation is far less clear with the Lib Dems, which may help to explain why they have zero BAME MPs while their rivals can count 29.
After proposing a diversity motion to annual conference in 2010 – which you can watch here – I was stunned when speaker after speaker argued that it went against the party’s principles that everyone should succeed on merit. Positive action was illiberal.
The absence of black and Asian MPs pained them every bit as much, they insisted, but hold fast to our interpretation of Liberalism and it will all come right in the end. But thanks for reminding us about the issue, it’s really very important and we must do something… just not the something you’re proposing.
In other words, trickle-down equality. The debate in Lib Dem Voice was at times equally condescending. Here is a selection from the thread underneath this story:
“@ lester you say ‘no one is accusing the Lib Dems of racism’. Well actually the only racists on this thread are those like you who want to disadvantage white people on the basis of their race. If that isnt racism I don’t know what is.”
“Could you also show me the institutional racism by the Liberal Democrat party?”
“The colour of the party should not be the primary factor in why someone joins our party, it should be for the beliefs and principles it stands for. If Lester or Meral cannot sell our party based on the beliefs rather than the colour, gender or any other trait, then maybe they should ask themselves what they are trying to sell to people.”
“I’m sorry but I don’t see where you are coming from. I believe that whoever a candidate is, that person should be the best person for the job and their ethnicity sexual orientation or gender has no part in making this [selection] decision.”
“[Anyone] would think there was something unusual about the Lib Dems that we do not have many people from ethnic minorities involved. In fact this is the case not only for most parties but for most organisation in the UK, white middle class people dominate, [not] because of discrimination but because they are the people with the time, confidence and interest to get involved. If you really want to look at an under represented group look at the white working class.”
“So far, nobody has supplied any evidence that demonstrates that BAME candidates are discriminated against by our approval and selection system, merely that they don’t get selected for, and elected to, Parliamentary and other seats.”
“It [positive action] is not only illiberal, against the Constitution but also illegal.”
“I live in a town that had murals up celebrating the great day when they expelled all the Irish immigrants and shut down the Catholic churches, that happened just over a century ago. Would the descendents of those expelled from my town get minority status by the definition?”
“If Lester wants to tackle discrimination then maybe he should tackle it across the board, not just for the people he obviously feels comfortable fighting for.”
“Are you suggesting that more people from minorities are not selected becuase of racism? So your answer is more racism?”
“It’s patronising to minority groups to imply that their concerns cannot be represented to someone who does not come from their group.”
It seems that every online debate I take part in with Lib Dems has an alarmingly high quota of these sort of comments. Of course this is all part of a robust debate, and I have always been equally robust in setting out my ideas.
I admit that I do not seek to flatter, charm or humour those who display ignorance about race equality – especially after I have clearly presented the arguments for change. But – hand on heart – I genuinely believe that I have always been professional and while my views are direct they are always the right side of polite.
Okay, I gave the “race equality minister” Andrew Stunell a hard time at an internal meeting a couple of months ago over why he wasn’t doing anything significant to address racial inequality, but even then I stuck to the issues and was not personally rude or insulting. But I was frustrated! The reason is this: I reckon a poll of members of all parties would find that Lib Dems believe they have the highest regard for equality, whereas a poll of the public would almost certainly place them at the bottom.
Immediately after the online debate (above) one of the contributors to the thread – a senior figure in the party – wrote on his blog that I had been “aggressive” and did not listen to the views of party members. The article has since been removed. Having never met this man I was taken aback by his personal attack on my character, purely on the basis of arguing for greater black representation and challenging any views I disagreed with.
I had forgotten about this until this week when a Lib Dem councillor wrote the following on my Facebook:
“Whilst you will probably not like my final point here, I feel it has to be said. You have a reputation which precedes you within the party for being someone who can at times be difficult, unnecessarily confrontational, and even personally unpleasant. No doubt you will revel in that to an extent, or claim that it is just because people don’t like what you have to say. But it appears to be a reputation earned not by what you say or do, but rather by HOW you say or do it.”
I’ve never personally met this man either, however his remarks did cause me to reflect. Am I difficult, unnecessarily confrontational or unpleasant?
No, I don’t believe I am! My own self-assessment is someone who is very friendly, softly-spoken and easygoing especially with friends. However I am strident and uncompromising in my beliefs, particularly concerning race equality – having been active in the anti-racist movement and black press for the past twenty years.
More to the point, I can’t identify any evidence that I have actually insulted or been rude to anyone on public internet sites or in a meeting or conference. Yes, I’ve told quite a few people in the party they are wrong or misguided but have always explained why.
So what is the problem? Partly, I think that the issue of race equality holds particular difficulties for Lib Dems. Pricking the balloon of denial has put backs up. The popular belief that the party is strongly pro-diversity and that this sentiment – and a bit of training – will ensure that black and Asian MPs emerge naturally and on merit does not sit comfortably alongside analysis of their real attitudes and its’ consequences.
Holding up a mirror to the party has been deeply unsettling for some because when they look at their reflection the underlining question is unpalatable: if we are doing something wrong could this be the result of our own views and actions? In such moments the desire is for black members to reassure them.
“Look, my friend, this is nothing to do with you personally. If it was up to you, Lib Dems would be the most diverse in Britain. I know you want the party to do more to reach out to BAME communities. Okay, you haven’t actually said or done anything to help bring this about, but it’s in your heart and that’s what matters, right?”
Well, you won’t ever catch me saying such things! Political parties should be able to cope with robust but respectful argument – especially a party that prides itself on democracy and valuing honest debate. Yet on race equality, the primary instinct is defensiveness. This relates to my earlier, slightly tongue-in-cheek, point about the need for a psychologist to break through the mental barriers.
I am far from alone in being typecast as difficult or aggressive. Other BAME Lib Dems have faced similar accusations over the years. Indeed the history of Black activism is marked by opponents of progress insinuating that campaigners are unreasonable, rude, incapable of listening etc. But the truth is campaigners, myself included, listen intently. I listen to try to understand the underlying attitudes behind what is being said, and to try and unpick attitudes.
So, no, I don’t think I’m difficult, confrontational or unpleasant. I do think the party finds the issues difficult, does not like to be challenged and feels that the challenges give them an unpleasant feeling.
Howver I will continue to be direct but respectful. Principled and uncompromising… but polite!