It is with a mixture of sadness and sympathy that I learnt of the defection of two prominent BAME Liberal Democrats to Labour. There’s no getting around it, James Allie and Nader Fekri are both highly able and experienced councillors and former parliamentary candidates.
I am sad because the Lib Dems can ill-afford to lose its’ most talented BAME activists. We need more good people like them to help fight for the soul of the party.
They are the biggest defections of black and Asian members for three years and represent a huge loss of talent. Tellingly, both men spoke of their deep disappointment with the Coalition Government.
More evidence that the glamorous cut and thrust of Government can cause lasting damage to the foothills of the party.
Cllr Allie, who was the lead member for housing in Brent before the Lib Dems lost control of the council, is particularly peeved at the closure of the A&E at the Central Middlesex hospital. Cllr Dr Fekri JP, from Calderdale, spoke about the Coalition’s “attack on the poor.”
I feel their frustration. Ruling in Government can take an immense toll on principled local politicians who see their party seemingly riding roughshod over core values. I’ve been there, as a Labour activist in the late 1990s as Tony Blair took office.
Last September I wrote about the need for a progressive alliance against the Conservatives. The list of Lib Dem achievements in Government was notable but not enough. Without a return to Social-Liberal principles on equality and social mobility the second half of our term in office would be increasingly overshadowed by a Tory agenda that negatively impacted on the poorest in society.
That’s why both Nader and I joined the advisory board of Liberal Left, to fight for our party. I’m very sorry to learn that my friend has decided to quit the party now. I’ve always been of the view that it will take multiple shocks to the system to gain a critical mass of the party to demand a change in course. Last May’s election results was the first of those shocks. There will be a lot to play for in the future.
Labour in opposition are appealing but it is Labour in Government that we need to be concerned about. That is why we need a genuinely radical Liberalism to work alongside Labour which differ but also can complement the Lib Dems. As parties we are both broadly progressive at heart. Let us unite to stop the Bullingdon Boys!
From a Black political perspective it is especially sad to lose Nader and James. Back in 2009, I wrote on Lib Dem Voice about the defections – to the Conservatives – of Nowsheen Bhatti, Chamali and Chandila Fernando and Sajjad Karim MEP. At the time I was slightly more optimistic than I am now about the party’s commitment to change.
But the last three years have brought progress. The leadership know, absolutely, that the party has to deliver Black MPs at the next general election. The forthcoming selections of MEP candidates will include ‘zipping’ of BAME candidates on the shortlist to give them a fighting chance in the contest. Not nearly enough, but moving in the right direction.
The big issue, for me, is that so far Lib Dems have not delivered policies worthy of mention that are aimed at specifically combating racial inequality, discrimination and disadvantage in society. That is why the party set up a Race Equality Taskforce to try and fill this policy vacuum. The acid test remains what can the party deliver in this area that will really make a difference before the next general election.
If the party cannot meet this challenge black party members will have nothing positive to say to the community on the doorsteps regarding tackling race inequality.
The doomsday scenario would be again failing to elect a BAME MP while failing to deliver significant policies for the black community. If we do not enact policies, as opposed to merely announcing them, and find that we still have an all-white Commons team I predict an angry reaction by black and Asian members.
We are not at that stage yet, and hopefully we will not reach that point.
I am staying in the party because I want to contribute what I can to our race equality policies and prompting the urgency of achieving BAME political representation.
I am also instinctively a believer in the principles the Lib Dems espoused in opposition, an admirer of the party’s radical reformist social-Liberal traditions, and I also recognise that despite everything we have achieved some good things in Government such as raising the tax threshold and the pupil premium.
In Labour, the dynamics and challenges are different to the Lib Dems. I fear that Nader and James will find themselves in a much bigger Labour outfit where there are many more BAME politicians, and as politics is tribal they will have to overcome suspicions that most defectors face.
I hope they will prosper in their new party. As someone who remains a Lib Dem, these defections are yet another reminder of the need for the party to find its’ soul again.