There’s one short speech I regret delivering however well-meaning it was at the time. Back in June 2009 at the Liberal Democrats’ London headquarters, the fresh-faced new leader of the party Nick Clegg and Vince Cable were present to launch a diversity initiative called New Generation.
I began by reminding guests that the Liberals had elected Britain’s first-ever MP of colour, Dadabhai Naoroji and went on to explain why Labour historically had such a grip on the ‘Black vote.’ It was, I opined, down to the fact that when the first wave of immigrants arrived with the Empire Windrush in 1948 the Liberals were at their lowest ebb with a parliamentary party so small it could fit into a telephone box.
Throughout the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s it was a straight choice between a Labour Party that appeared welcoming and piloted through Britain’s first race relations laws, and a racist Conservative Party. Whatever the liberal or conservative – with a small ‘c’ – views held by immigrants at the time there was only one choice: Labour. The Liberals were so irrelevant they simply did not figure.
Liberals had just six MPs in 1958 and nine seats when the infamous ‘If you want a n***** for a neighbour…’ campaign in Smethwick took place in 1964. The Liberals had increased slightly to 12 MPs in 1968 when Enoch Powell gave his Rivers of Blood speech.
But now, with 52 MPs, the Liberal Democrats under the leadership of Nick Clegg were in an ideal position to make up for lost time. No party has a claim on the ‘Black vote’ and Labour had too often taken Black communities for granted. More supporters were coming over to us and we had a duty to reach out to them, identify with their concerns and adopt policies that will change their lives for the better.
Everyone looked happy. There was nothing wrong with the content of my speech per se; I still agree with every word! The problem with it was that it unwittingly let the party off the hook for not making more of an effort in the past, regardless of how few MP’s we had. The election of a single Green and Respect MP in recent times has shown that a parliamentary party of one individual can make a stand for what is right.
The party today need to ask hard questions about how it was that the Liberals and the SDP-Alliance could exist through 60 years of post-war immigration, from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent in particular, and not be known for any views on the issues that faced these communities – from the Sus Laws to Stephen Lawrence.
Why were past leaders that we still venerate today so apathetic when it came to speaking out on some of the major issues of the day and, when they did, why did their words never reached the communities most affected?
Is there an inherent contraction between our party’s belief in equality and its’ absence from public debate on issues like the New Cross Fire or the inner city uprisings of the early to mid-1980′s?
Yes, we have ground to make up but let us not gloss over the reasons why there is so much ground in the first place, or dismiss the question entirely owing to the small size of the party in decades past. There is no excuse.
We have to ask whether the root cause of our an “anaemia of deeds”, to quote Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, was a deep-seated schism when it came to equality. Did they want action for gender equality but nothing more than middle-class liberal sympathy for the plight of Britain’s Black and Asian communities?
Why did the seam of internationalism and love of other cultures not transfer to welcoming those communities into their own party? And to what extent does the party still suffer from these traits? That’s what I should have said in the speech.
We Lib Dems have some soul-searching to do and some explaining to do out on the streets. We need an answer to the question: ‘Where were you Liberals when we needed you?’
Indeed the answer opens the door to addressing the fact that what little support the party enjoys from BAME communities – six percent in 2010 by some estimates – is ebbing away further under this coalition government.
Why are we not speaking out about the hugely disproportionate rates of Black unemployment? Or the fact that Black youth are up to 43 times more likely to be stopped and searched under police section 60 powers, the new Sus Laws? Why do we not protest about disproportionate school exclusions of Black children? Why do ministers not recognise that austerity is hitting BAME communities hardest, and why do they not acknowledge patterns of racial bias in court sentencing?
These are just some of the issues facing Black communities today, yet the Lib Dems are as silent about them today as our predecessors were in past decades. We badly need Black and Asian MPs, but even more acutely we need parliamentarians who can articulate the issues BAME communities are suffering and understand how this fits into the context of the struggle to fit in and prosper in Britain.
As a party we must be able to see the barriers, both mental and institutional, before we can design action to combat the problems.
Leaders from Clement Davies to Jo Grimond, David Steel to Paddy Ashdown, all bear responsibility for not doing enough to articulate the concerns of Black Britain. If we lived by the words of our constitution from the time Nottingham and Notting Hill rebelled against racism in 1958 the Liberals should have shaped the Westminster debate. But they didn’t.
Past leaders have won many battles on a range of subjects but on race equality they have abjectly failed. The question is how long are we going to continue to fail? Dismantling the Equality and Human Rights Commission, weakening anti-discrimination protection introduced in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, and scraping Equality Impact Assessments show that our party’s heart is not yet in the right place.
Apart from Clegg’s Scarman speech there has been precious little said, and even less done, since the 2010 election. The Race Equality Taskforce delivers it’s first report, into education, early in the new year. Embracing it’s recommendations and driving them through government is an essential first step to winning back the support and confidence of Black communities and will hopefully be the first in a series of policy-papers specifically aimed at tackling unequal racial outcomes.
I am hoping to see Clegg next month and if given a chance will say to him: when you saw me speak at the New Generation launch back in 2009 that was only half the story. Just as in times gone by the party is still turning a blind eye to racial injustice in society. The 2011 census shows how rapidly Britain is changing and time is running out for the Liberal Democrats to change.
We need policies that are going to level the playing field of opportunity and dismantle every brick in the wall that holds Black communities back. But we also need to understand those communities and speak up not merely for ‘fairness’ but also about equality.
‘Where were the Liberals when we needed you?’ We must be frank; we weren’t there in the past and that is a massive failing, but it is imperative that we build a case that we are there now and will be in the future.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway