Opinion: Race, reckoning and renewal? The EMLD leadership hustings

EMLD HustingsOn 30th June the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats held a dramatic leadership hustings, described by Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, and guest chair as Tim and Norman’s “most difficult, yet most inspiring hustings event to date in front of a largely BME audience.”

It was certainly the highlight of the campaign for me. In his blog, Mark Pack noted that Simon took questions on themes, “intervening with follow ups and switching to the floor on regular occasions to explore issues in greater depth.” Both candidates handled a range of questions from a sceptical, if still hopeful audience, but whichever of them wins it is clear that they – and the party as a whole – has a lot of work to do to regain the trust and confidence of a great many ethnic minority party members and members of the wider public.

EMLD’s Marisha Ray had some revealing stats: for any given ethnicity except white British, the proportion of new members self-identifying as such were at best half as numerous as we would expect given the racial makeup of the UK today. This is worrying, especially in light of Mark Pack and former Cambridge MP David Howarth’s research finding that those describing themselves as ‘not white British’ are disproportionately likely to share values that ought to make them natural Liberal Democrats. Indeed, Simon Woolley revealed that the winning margin in many of our Tory-facing seats was smaller than the BME vote. Had the Liberal Democrats successfully courted it, we might have rather more MPs today.

There were some hopeful signs. It wasn’t long ago that Nick Clegg promised support for all-women shortlists in an attempt to address the party’s chronic failure to promote a more representative range of candidates for parliament. Both Tim and Norman appear to recognise the problem, and while stressing that such a mechanism would require the support of the party, both want the principle introduced and extended. Tim promised not only to ensure that 50% of target seats in 2020 are represented by women and a minimum 10% by black, Asian and minority ethnic (BME) candidates, but to support diversity zipping for list-based elections and to make sure that his team of advisors and spokespeople was representative too. Norman also backed affirmative action and took on the claim that changing our selection procedures to promote a greater diversity of candidates was patronising, arguing on the contrary that it was frankly illiberal for us to remain so unrepresentative.

As we rebuild the party, I hope that our new leader will stand by the commitments they have made, such as commissioning and implementing the findings of a ‘Morrissey 2’ investigation. It is frankly embarrassing that as Lester Holloway says, we have “failed to elect an MP of colour at a general election since 1892 when Dadabhai Naoroji was returned in the old Finsbury Central seat.” Both Tim and Norman made other positive commitments too however, and I am sure that the hustings was as useful and informative for them as it was for the audience. So thanks very much to the organisers. If you would like to listen to a recording of it, you can do so here.

Photo credit: Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera

* Jonathan Brown is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate of the Chichester Party and founder of the Liberal Democrats for Free Syria.

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  • Sammy O'Neill 15th Jul '15 - 5:01pm

    “EMLD’s Marisha Ray had some revealing stats: for any given ethnicity except white British, the proportion of new members self-identifying as such were at best half as numerous as we would expect given the racial makeup of the UK today. ”

    I do not find this at all surprising to be honest. The Lib Dems have become to a large degree a party full of middle class white men, with the associated worldview that brings. You just have to look at some of the views often presented on LDV for evidence of that. Any mention of house building and the focus is on if they are carbonless or if the green belt is at risk, not whether they are affordable for people to actually buy. Talk about gender equality and you’ll get countless men claiming there’s no problem at all or trying to derail the discussion with irrelevant contributions. Dare talk about the failure of the Lib Dems to change to reflect the changing demographics of places like London and you’re met with comments like claiming we won Tower Hamlets in 1990 so it can’t possibly be true. No recognition that the world has changed in 25 years.

    It’s sad that many of the party membership seem to know more about Gladstone than they do about what is going on in the real world today. It’s not really a shock that in light of this that we struggle to attract members from a diverse background.

  • Jonathan Brown 15th Jul '15 - 6:08pm

    @ Sammy – No, it’s not surprising, and sadly I think your conclusions are quite right. I don’t think it’s uniform across the party or the country, but overall it’s still a significant problem.

    @Andy – If the implication was that the BME vote was a courtable bloc then yes, that would be insulting. Thankfully, that wasn’t the implication of Simon’s remarks, nor of the questions and discussions raised during the hustings. Indeed, there were pointed questions and reflective answers on how liberals campaign for the votes of socially conservative BME voters as well as on whether various changes we could make would be seen as crass and/or insulting by the people they were aimed at.

    That said, we shouldn’t continue to let fear of (or continue to use the excuse of) appearing condescending as a reason for not addressing issues and developing policies that are important to large numbers of voters we could and should be working to include and represent. We deliberately create policies designed to help those affected by lack of access to mental health care, or those who want us to create a less carbon-intensive economy. Why shouldn’t we develop policies designed to help those held back by institutional racism, for example?

    And as ‘courting BME votes’ isn’t all about policy, why wouldn’t we make an effort to ensure that our party – our candidates, our spokespeople, our employees, etc. – more accurately reflect the background and experiences of the society we seek to represent?

  • Teena Lashmore 15th Jul '15 - 8:44pm

    After attending a few recently, I’d like to say this Hustings was electric! An eclectic BAME audience that challenged the potential leader and the politics of BAME in London in 2015! For example, myself. Often described as ‘mixed race’ in public documents and politics when really I’m simply mixed. Another lady shared her frustration of language limitation around her diasporatic Chinese identity – clealry because I listen! As I reflect over this piece and the lively event which was inclusive, unscriptive and spontanuous, my deep calling for social justice and equality leads me to say our party can be the party that reflects our diverse communities. Updating our systems to support equality is like our policy for ensuring children eat in schools. We mitigated against the social inequality that blights children’s chances. Lets do more ‘liberalism’ and modernise our systems. In 2015, it’s the Liberal thing to do!

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jul '15 - 11:24pm

    There were a lot of Ghurkas in Maidstone.
    When Charles Kennedy opposed a war in Iraq there was an increase in BME vote and our MPs.

  • Sammy ” Talk about gender equality and you’ll get countless men claiming there’s no problem at all or trying to derail the discussion with irrelevant contributions. Dare talk about the failure of the Lib Dems to change to reflect the changing demographics of places like London and you’re met with comments like claiming we won Tower Hamlets in 1990 so it can’t possibly be true. No recognition that the world has changed in 25 years.”

    Hear hear! Well said! I share your frustrations. This Party does not seem very supportive to women and to BAME people. Quite why that should be I have no idea but I’m amazed and saddened to find this. It should be the opposite.

  • Jonathan Brown 16th Jul '15 - 1:03am

    @Richard – Indeed! Two good examples of how campaigning on issues which matter to BME members can be effective and don’t require any compromise of our liberal values.

    I wasn’t in the party at the time, but it does appear to me that we sadly rather lost the opportunity to make the most of BME members who joined then.

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Jul '15 - 7:52am

    Like Andy Hinton, I feel really uncomfortable about anyone who ‘chases the BME’ vote. I suppose that is because I accept that there are people of different ethnicities but I believe that race is a social concept. I probably have have more genetic similarities with Lester or Teena than with someone who is defined like myself as ‘white’.

    That is not to say that I do not understand the power of the concept of ‘race’ and way people take a characteristic and use it to divide and discriminate. Nor the effect of this discrimination which is ugly and inhuman. I just worry that talking about ‘communities’,the black vote etc. we are not falling into the trap of delaying a situation where individuals are viewed as individuals based on their character rather than on one outdated indicator of difference. In short, that whole ‘communities’ are treated as ‘other’ and hat they ( I am really interested to hear what you have to say on this Lester and Teena, are accepting this designation).

    Where there is a problem that is shared by individuals, I understand the need for solidarity, but to forge real progress, don’t we need to be arguing that the distinctions are outdated and unscientific, rather that separating ourselves? I just feel that we have taken a wrong turn.

    @ Phyllis,
    I accept that women are biologically different whereas I do not think that people people with different superficial characteristics are. Women menstruate, give birth and produce human milk etc. When we refer to women, shouldn’t that include women of colour rather than be a separate category to BAME women?

  • Meral Hussein Ece 16th Jul '15 - 8:12am

    We’ll done Jonathan for a good piece on the hustings, and the urgent need for a serious conversation, and hopefully action, once we have a new leader later today. I object to phrases like ‘chasing the BAME vote’ I’d say we should be engaing and not campaigning in a linear way, with no targetting, or recognition that voters are not all white middle class and male. The Tories seem to have done rather well in ‘chasing’ the BAME vote- one million more voted for them. I was dismayed when campaigning in a London constituency where around 50% were non white, that there was absolutely no recognition of the significant BAME communities – not even appropriate literature – hence little engagement.
    @Sammy – absolutely! I despair of the negative comments posted here from a small cohort who it appears do not want change, and seem blissfully unaware that there’s nothing liberal or progressive about a non representative political party. If we are to survive, we need urgent change in our culture and a glimpse of the real world.

  • I understand where Jayne Mansfied is coming from on this and I know that her position is widely and sincerely held across the party. But “outdated and unscientific distinctions” aren’t going away anytime soon. If we want a party that appeals across the social spectrum then we need to look like a party drawn from across the social spectrum, especially when it comes to candidate selection. This is the best way to create “a situation where individuals are viewed as individuals based on their character rather than on one out-dated indicator of difference.” In the short term this will mean active engagement with under-represented groups. Labour are good at engaging with such groups on an ‘institutional’ basis, and this is a reflection of JM’s concerns. As Liberals we must recruit Liberals from such groups, not the groups themselves. We do however need to get better at it.

  • Thank you Jayne Mansfield, as usual your post is thoughtful and also thought-provoking. My posts on the other hand, are usually rushed out in a ‘shooting from the lip’ fashion, mostly because I am usually rushing doing five different things all at the same time, and also because my fingers are fat and my screen (usually) quite small.

    Yes I stand corrected. Women should of course include BAME women. I suppose the question is are we our gender first and our ethnicity second or the other way around?

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 17th Jul '15 - 9:11am

    Thank you Jonathan for this thoughtful article which sadly far too few people have responded to.

    We have an untapped resource of knowledge, understanding, skills and ability within our Party amongst its BaME and race equality aware members, and hopefully our new Leader will decide that the time has come to change, and genuinely engage with them. For too long unelected SpAds with limited, and often judgement led beliefs regarding race inequality have ‘had the ear’ of those in power.

    EMLD is a valuable resource to tap into, for we can assist in creating the environment, policies, procedures and practices that will encourage further BaME members within society to realise that the Liberal Democrat Party is genuine home.

    As for attracting ‘liberals’ from BaME communities, this will be made easier if, we genuinely accept and cherish diversity of thought and action, and do not expect all liberal believers to agree with how things are sometimes presented by the majority. We all have different life experiences and this will influence how we express and enact our liberalism.

    I am genuinely hopeful that we can under the new management move forward positively, but the time has come for some positive action to demonstrate that the Party means business.

    How about explicitly BaME aware and friendly candidates for the London Mayor and Assembly elections as a start?

    If the candidates for these and other elections, no matter where they may be, desire EMLD’s assistance, they only need ask.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Chair – Ethnic Mimority Liberal Democrats

  • Jayne Mansfield 17th Jul '15 - 9:23am

    @ Robin Lynn,
    And why aren’t outdated and unscientific distinctions going away any time soon, Robin? Do some people have a vested interest in making sure they don’t?

    My own view is that people do not need a hand from patronising ‘liberals’ (small l), what they need is for patronising liberals to critically examine their own attitudes and beliefs as individuals and ask why so many years after the Windrush generation, we are where we are. Quotas don’t seem to me to address the fundamental problem in fact they seem like a way of side stepping it. People in power are choosing people who look like them and come from the same background as them.

    I am not accusing people of being guilty of something that I have not been guilty of myself, but since I left my own all white working class village at the age of eighteen , I’ve been through a pretty excoriating process at the hands of friends who are people of colour, and I still have to be mindful of my own socialisation process , even though I am now matriarch of a family that resembles the United Nations.

    My fear is that if we do not tackle the fundamental problem, the attitudes and beliefs of people like me, quotas will lead to people who have not gone through this process, believing wrongly, that some people can’t compete and get into positions of power on their own merits, something that I do not believe for a minute.

    Different people have, I realise, different ideas, as to how best one can best achieve social justice., but I am now seventy and I am weary of excuses for the status quo.

  • Jonathan Brown 18th Jul '15 - 1:51am

    @Jayne – I agree with much of what you’re saying, but think that you’re also missing an important point. That by saying we treat everyone equally we support institutions and systems that favour people from certain backgrounds over others. On a practical and a tactical level, we can’t overlook the positive impact that positive action can bring about either.

    Labour’s 1997 all-women shortlists created a conflict of interest of course (politics is full of them, so this shouldn’t be a shock or necessarily a problem). But they also changed the culture of the House of Commons in a way that ‘treating everyone equally’ did not.

    Companies, charities, public services and political parties that make a conscious effort to seek out people from different backgrounds, to become more representative, are far more likely to become representative (a worthy goal in itself) but also to be betterinstitutions to work for.

    I don’t support quotas because I want power carved up and shared between interest groups or people who self-define in different ways. I support positive action – which can include quotas in some circumstances – as a lesser evil by far than just hoping that our ‘committment to equality’ will work. It hasn’t. It hasn’t worked for other parties or organisations either. Things only change when we consciously try to make things change.

    Or to address your point about patronising liberals needing to critically examine their own attitudes (I agree!), I would say that affirmative action is a way to confront such people (and I don’t exclude myself from this, despite my best efforts) and give them the opportunity to change their views.

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