Opinion: The Defection Spiral

It’s a case of déjà-vu all over again. The defections of Chamali and Chandila Fernando seem to have produced carbon copy internal debates to the ones that greeted Norsheen Bhatti and Sajjad Karim’s walkouts.

As a party we really need to start learning some lessons from these regular blows because I, for one, am tired and frankly quite bored of witnessing the same depressing spiral of losing bright young BAME talent followed by a debate more notable for its heat than light, as the membership lob brickbats at the defectors.

All too often there is precious little by way of actual solutions to improve racial diversity in the party, but no shortage of insults. Arrogant, selfish and over-ambitious individuals who saw advancement in the party as their entitlement… good riddance to these jumped-up scumbags, I hear you say. Over and over again.

The trouble is, once we’ve stopped furiously kicking up sand there is virtually no energy left to tackle perhaps the biggest elephant in the room – our failure to look like a diverse party. Having made significant in-road in the inner cities, the lack of visible diversity is one crucial blockage we must clear in order to surge into Labour’s ‘territory’, where they have taken black and Asian votes for granted for so long.

Given the virtual collapse of Labour, I suspect if we had got serious about diversity earlier, then by now the whole party would be feeling the benefits of BAME communities supporting us in greater numbers. Let’s not forget a borough-by-borough breakdown of the European Elections in the capital seemed to indicate that neighbourhoods with the highest BAME populations continued to be wedded to Labour, despite everything.

Proportionally, BAME communities appear to be the last section of the electorate still prepared to vote Labour in any numbers, even though most indicators of race inequality have hardly improved over the past 13 years.

The sad fact is that we Lib Dems are still failing to convince enough black and Asian people that we are a diverse party which understands the multicultural society they are part of. This is especially true in the large chunks of London where we do not have a major local presence.

Polling by Operation Black Vote has shown just how highly BAME voters rate the issue of ‘Black political representation’ as a reason to support one party over another. If we are to properly respond to this we need to challenge gut instincts that reject ‘putting people in boxes’ or fret about a ‘silo’ approach, because the desire of people from ethnic minorities to be treated equally, and not to be pigeon-holed, is just one side of the coin.

Most of the same ethnic minorities also agree that institutional racism and unequal racial outcomes need to be challenged and, like it or not, this process requires us to see colour and analyse why discrimination happens on different levels. Quite often that means targeting BAME communities, where they are under-represented, or altering structures when attitudes of officials (or party members) are not changing fast enough.

After Bhatti’s defection I wrote on the Lib Dem Voice Members’ Forum that we cannot afford to sit back and wait for the next defection. Action not recrimination was the order of the day. This is exactly what Nick Clegg and Chris Fox, working with Ethnic Minority Lib Dems (EMLD), led by Meral Eçe, have been doing. The New Generation, launched earlier this month, aims to provide personal development and media training for BAME candidates. We also have a good diversity officer in Issan Ghazni.

After years of token moves and good intentions that don’t deliver, finally under the current leadership we have something approaching a solid programme. I am excited that this initiative is heading in the right direction, but even this is only half the battle. The other half is the party at large demonstrating a passion to provide BAME members with the same support and encouragement that is available to white young members born into Liberal households, for example.

And if BAME members are ambitious to succeed in the party, not treating them with any more suspicion than white people from privileged backgrounds. For all the accusations flung and the Fernandos and Bhatti about assuming ‘entitlement’, few can match Oxbridge graduates for delusions of entitlement.

The New Generation project can polish BAME members to a mirror finish, but it is the party that select and campaign for candidates. Unless there is a greater shift in culture and attitudes, my own view is that we should consider ‘un-liberal’ measures like all-BAME shortlists to force change, for the sake of the party.

Nobody wants to see measures imposed from above, not least in such a federal party as ours, but I am clear about what is far worse: continuing to have not a single MP, MEP or regional assembly or parliament member from a visible minority.

There is, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, a ‘fierce urgency of now’ to work together and bring about more diverse party. So are we ready? The membership’s reaction to BAME defections indicates ‘no’, but I remain hopeful that the smell of coffee will yet waft up our collective nostrils. Become a truly diverse party? Yes, we can!

* Lester Holloway is a member of the New Generation initiative and former editor of New Nation, and news editor of The Voice. He is currently freelancing and editor of OBV Blog.

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  • I simply don’t understand this article. In Stockport we have had a Lib Dem BME cabinet member and Mayor. She got there through her own efforts and nobody stood in her way or declined to campaign for her. Her mayoralty was a matter of great pride for local Lib Dems.

    Yes, we could have done more and did – by electing Saj Karim as an MEP!

    In the NW we also campaigned solidly for an Asian female candidate – problem was she didn’t actually canvas or go out on the streets campaigning much herself!

    You can lead a horse to water…..

    We could also try harder recruiting from the BMEA community. Doubtless we could try harder with every community!

    The Fernando’s always seemed to me like `entryists` although I did vote for Chandila no 2 after Ros simply to show a willingness to hear his ideas.

    I think this is more of a problem with the Asian community – its political identity needs to grow so as not to grasp hold on to one party. Hence, it’s no longer assumed or thought that if you are of Asian extraction you vote Labour as there are second and third generations who think for themselves. Thus, some came to the Lib Dems and now some are going to the Tories.

    Likewise we shall see some come over to us in our more deprived communities.

  • I’m curious to know where all-X shortlists begin and end. If we have all-BME shortlists, do we also have all-LGB shortlists, all-woman shortlists, all-disabled shortlists, all-transgender shortlists? These are all areas where we could do with improving our diversity…

  • Good article Lester. I think there will always be resistance to any change, but with the New Generation Programme, we are moving in the right direction.
    John – I know Shan in Stockport very well, and yes she is an asset to the Party. Trouble is we only have around 16 women councillors from BME backgrounds out of a total of 4,300 councillors, and I’m pretty sure that we could count the numbers of BME cabinet members, or even leaders, on one hand. So we need many more like her at every level of the Party, and we urgently need to address the deficit of diversity in all our Parliamentary groups.
    “We could also try harder recruiting from the BMEA community. Doubtless we could try harder with every community!”

  • I think a lot of the diversity organisations like EMLD, CGB, DELGA, LDDA and so on need to work together more.

    I know from personal experience that DELGA have been making efforts in this direction, and I hope it’s something that we can encourage in future.

    I’d agree with John that in some of the specific cases mentioned, it seems that the people, regardless of their race, didn’t appear to be putting the same effort in that we might expect as a party. I’m wondering if it might be that there are barriers they were having to overcome which simply aren’t visible to white candidates – this is definitely the sort of thing that EMLD should be highlighting and helping the party as a whole to understand.

  • Lester, what suggestions do you have for the party as a whole to play a part in improving our BAME representation? I agree entirely that it’s something that needs to be done. Do you have any evidence that BAME members do not receive the same support and encouragement as white members born into Liberal households? As a white council candidate, campaigning alongside BAME council candidates and a BAME PPC, I don’t *think* I’m getting any more support than them – but of course, I might just be blind to my privilege.

    Similarly, were the accusations of claiming entitlement levelled at our defectors because of their race, or their actions? I have met many humble Liberal Democrats who work hard to earn their candidacies and elected positions, from all backgrounds. I find your statement about Oxbridge graduates confusing – are ethnic minorities not graduating from Oxbridge any more?

    I will agree with you about suspicion. Certainly some of the Asian candidate defections have led to increased suspicion of Asian candidates in general. I feel that this partly rises from political campaigning within the Asian community appearing to be more about networking within the community and gaining influence through extended social networks, than the traditional household-by-household approach with which white campaigners are familiar. Improved communication on all sides may be the only way to tackle this.

  • Herbert Brown 19th Jul '09 - 5:43pm

    Just curious.

  • Tony Greaves 19th Jul '09 - 6:50pm

    Come on, the Fernandos were nothing to do with ethnic diversity, they were a pair of right-wing libertarians trying to use the party to promote their own illiberal ideology.

    What is shocking is that either of them got as far as they did in the party, given their loony-right views.

    I was very pleased to see them go. I hope the rest of their small group of crackpot friends will go too. (At least it won’t do us much harm in the activist department!)

    Yes, I am all in favour of getting stuck in on behalf of black and Asian candidates etc, but be careful who you choose to support. I have no idea what the New Generation project may be but I do hope it is not as top-down and elitist as it sounds. If you want a revolution you have to work at it from the ground upwards. A bit of help would be a good thing.

    Tony Greaves

    Oh yes – I’m sorry if anyone is offended by my upper-class Oxbridge graduate delusions of entitlement! After all we can’t allow the plebs into their Lordships’ House can we?!!

  • It would be helpful if operation black vote put some pressure on Labour for STV.

    Also, it might actually be the case the some people aren’t very liberal, which seems a good reason for them not to support the Liberal Democrats.

  • Grammar Police 19th Jul '09 - 8:21pm

    I think Lester’s article is right in that the party can do more, but as the chair of a branch in a black hole area (a) I’m keen to know exactly what you think I should be doing differently and (b) it’s not just BAME candidates that I struggle to find and support.

    Within the last few weeks a mother with a young child told me she didn’t think she could be a target ward candidate, because she’d underestimated the time commitment. The local team and I had worked with her to make suggestions as to how she could support the team in ways that didn’t require her to be tramping the streets or evening meetings – both of which were difficult for her because of childcare issues – in the run up to the Euros. However, none of it ever really came to anything – and as much as anything, I think her reason for giving up was guilt that other potential candidates were doing more.

    I’m pleased that my local PPC is a BAME candidate and two of our six potential target ward candidates are non-white (although both male) – but sadly, I feel this is more by luck than judgement on my, and my local party’s, part.

    I should point out though, although I regret the defections of Saj, the Fernandos and Norsheen, if you look at their individual cases, it does often seem that their defections had more to do with opportunism than the reasons they gave for leaving (look at Chandilla’s reasons from defecting from the Tories in the first place).

  • I think I actually agree with Tony – the first part anyway! Both Fernandos wouldn’t join EMLD, because they didn’t support our work. Tony – the New Generation programme is most certainly not elitist, or top down. We have over 40 individuals from very diverse BME backgrounds, across regions; some are PPCs, some are councillors, and some are very new members who are keen and committed -all have a contribution to make. We need to support, develop and invest in talented people and build a base of grassroots support.

  • Seriously people this is exactly why we get laughed at, this type of internal, inward looking talking about ourselves.

    I am “technically” an ethnic minority, although the very term makes my skin crawl, any pigeon holing does.
    I never did and never would join EMLD or any other organisation set up because of someone’s skin colour or ethnic background.
    I have never understood to fate why we can condone these types of groups(or the Black police Association…why not white/tanned or slightly pale?) but would never countenance a white only/rich only/men only/people with big feet only(ok maybe that one) group…and rightly so.

    Yes I know Merel and others will go on about the work they do and what they promote but frankly in undermines everyone.

    People in the street or when you knock on doors don’t give a toss about this.
    So lets stop wasting time on internal anguish about 2 very selfish, self promoting and dishonest(to their political beliefs & their party friends) and others and get on with the real problems…..and its not people joining a group that makes them feel the “belong” in some way.

    One thing both Chamalie & Chandila got right(and many others) is membership of no group will help you up….you get out what you put in….they put in very little!

    All groups have self interest at heart and most people out their know it.
    So lets be brave, dispense with all the groups(Gay, Lesbian, EMLD…..)and be seen as one party, no matter who/what or where you are from…God knows we are not a big enough party to justify so many splinter groups!!

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Jul '09 - 12:29pm

    An “elephant in the room” is an (overused) phrase meaning something everyone is aware of but no-one talks about. The “failure to look like a diverse party” is clearly not such a thing, we certainly do talk about it, it has been something that concerns us and we have tried to find ways of resolving it for years.

    The real elephant in the room is the fear that discussing this properly may involve saying things about the attitudes predominant in different cultures which may be construed as racist. When my wife (who is BAME) describes someone (who may be of her own cultural background) as “very English”, we both know what it means, and it isn’t meant to be a compliment, yet it does imply amongst many things a certain sort of bloody-mindedness very often found amongst successful long-term LibDems.

    There is a circular problem that the lack of high-profile BAME members leads to BAME people not considering us as an option, leads to a lack of high-profile BAME members, leads to … . I think we honestly want to break this, I don’t think anywhere in this loop is racism amongst our members stopping BAME members from progressing, or a lack of desire to recruit BAME members.

    The great danger is that the short-term treatment of the symptoms in order to break the loop is itself causing problems – we are so anxious to see BAME members succeed in our party that we push them forward without asking questions we might of others. To me, this is behind this rash of defections, and I remember other cases from times further back or lower profile, fairly recently the loss of a BAME councillor in LB Lewisham who in retrospect ought never to have been put forward as a candidate in the first place.

    The Fernandos did not seem to be particularly happy in our party, so I can’t accuse them as I have others of defecting purely for careerist reasons. Someone who changes party after a period of agonising which they are willing to share with colleagues is a better person than someone who just says all the right things and seems to be 100% in support of it one day, next day is bad-mouthing it from a position of being in another party. Chandila’s agonising came in the form of running for President with a very definite idea of what he wanted for the Party, but it was one which ultimately marked him out as more suitable for the party he has now (re)joined – so good luck for him there. I don’t remember Chamalie saying anything in particular, her London Mayoral bid seemed so tokenistic, there was just nothing in her career which marked her out as suitable for the post.

  • Lets not forget that a couple of years back at conference Chadila was invited to sit at the “top table” during a certain session by the then President Simon Hughes.
    I know that Simon invested some time with both Chandila & Chamali and on a personal level he must be greatly disappointed in them.
    Also as many will know they are from a well off family, hardly struggling and both have had many chances in their personal lives.
    The whole issue blaming their lack of advancement in the party on race or sex is just boloc*s!

    Like a person blaming their tools, its an excuse a pretty shoddy ne at that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Jul '09 - 5:42pm


    What do we want to do?

    Pick those who have a genuine commitment to the values of the party and can be relied on to do a good job as candidates.

    How can we do that?

    1) Give them a pile of leaflets and ask them to deliver it. Carry on doing this for a while.

    If they can last this, next is:

    2) Stand them as a paper candidate – their job then is to be a token, to keep quiet and not to moan when they aren’t given support – they’re not MEANT to be given support.

    Now, anyone who can last this has shown the necessary strength and humility that I wish to have in a politician. I don’t want some pushy careerist who moans about being given menial jobs, who won’t be a team player who accepts being part of the team may mean the light falls on someone else, who thinks so much of themselves that they can’t bear anything except instant promotion to the top.

    Doing this isn’t time consuming – being a paper candidate takes little time, doing a regular leaflet round is a few hours a month.

  • Mark Sherratt 21st Jul '09 - 5:00pm

    Mark Valladares wrote: “we’re seldom innundated with offers to run as candidates. What we aren’t always good at (and there are a number of honourable exceptions) is recruiting people from across our diverse communities. Ironically, that often has nothing to do with ethnicity, it’s to do with the fact that we’re not very good at recruitment full stop. Asking people to join is bad enough, but asking them for money? But they might say no!”

    A very good point. Personally, I joined the party via the national website, heard nothing from the local party for six months so started badgering them via email to find out if they had any events where I could meet other members. Eventually talked my local councillor into allowing me to help deliver focus leaflets during this years election campaign and am now officially ‘in’.

    If we are this bad at utilising people who join the party, imagine how bad we are at getting suitable people to join the party in the first place!

  • No Sam, sorry on this your are very wrong.
    They have family ties to the party going back 30 odd years so them”not knowing what the party stands for” is just not true.
    They had a clear ides of what the party stands for, they felt they could not climb the greasy pole within it(down to them more than the party I dear) and jumped ship on a flag on convenience….not good and leaves a unpleasant taste in the mouth.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jul '09 - 10:59am


    WTF yourself.

    What do you mean “Give and Receive”? You’re writing as if political parties have pots of money and professional people they can use to do this giving. They don’t, at least, ours doesn’t, that’s the point I’m making. Somehow we do need to get across the message that we are an organisation which runs on volunteers and voluntary donations, these are short on the grounds, and that’s why those of us who do care and do put in the effort to keep them going are often run ragged doing so. Do you know how much of my time and money I’ve put into the party over the years I’ve been an active member of it? When you say “give” are you saying I should dole out yet more money and time? Our party works only because people put in time and money to do things like get leaflets out regularly. If someone joins and wants immediately to be propelled to some nice position and thinks it beneath their dignity to have to put in hard work because that’s for the little people like me, and then goes flouncing off accusing it of racism or whatever because they weren’t immediately offered high office, what do you suppose I think?

    I have, again and again and again, put forward the message in this site that we should change the way we promote ourselves so that we are more honest about what we are. We should do more to sell ourselves as an empowering organisation, to sell the benefits of membership, to say what active democracy means in terms of getting together in political parties not just voting very few years – we should be doing this in our publicity every bit as much as we do top down promotion making ourselves look like some consumer brand and asking only for the passive vote. This way perhaps we can recruit more members and get this party working as we should. So why don’t we? Because we have too many people from a Public Relations background at the top who can’t think beyond the idea of selling us like a brand of baked beans, and who anyway don’t really like the idea of “activists”. Mr Fernando with the ideas he put forward in his presidential campaign took this approach to its limits, which is why I feel good riddance now we’re shot of him.

    You tell me to “wake up” when I’ve recently been devoting far more time than I really have available (I have a little as I’m not currently deeply involved as a local activist) to trying to promote this different vision I’ve always had for how our party could be. Do you suppose I’m not interested in more members? I certainly am, and I have been putting forward the way to get them – it means stop selling our party as the Nick Clegg fan club and start selling it as something you join because only by little people getting together and using the machinery that democracy provides can we beat the power of money and privilege which so pushes down all who are not part of the smart club in this country.

    As for the US, I think you will find they don’t have strong participative political parties there either, and like us very little in the way of activist political culture. So I fail to understand the point you were making in your final paragraph addressed to me.

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