Opinion: The Highlander who won our hearts, and will never be forgotten!

Together with Liberal Democrat family and wider world of politics and beyond, my brothers and sisters and I within the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) am deeply saddened by the untimely death of Charles Kennedy, and wish to send our heartfelt condolences to his family and many friends.

His brave stance on Iraq has rightly been the subject of much eulogising, and for many members of the EMLD this was the motivation to join our Party in the first place.

It may not have been planned but the impact of Iraq has had a profound effect on Black, Asian and minority ethnic politics in Britain.

Labour lost a hefty proportion of support, especially from Muslim communities, mostly to the Lib Dems, and Labour’s assumed hegemony over the BAME vote was irreparably damaged.

Charles almost certainly did not consider these consequences when opting to do what was simply for him, the right thing to do, and oppose the war in Iraq, but pretty soon afterwards saw that courting diverse Britain was a key part of his plan to make the Party the conscience of, and rooted firmly in the centre left of politics.

After Iraq our Party won control of many metropolitan and other councils and a handful of heavily diverse London boroughs partly with the support of the BAME electorate.

Parmjit Singh Gill won the Leicester South by election in 2004, the first visible minority ethnic Liberal for 112 years.

Under Charles EMLD was born out of a previous incarnation supporting BAME members, and record numbers of visible BAME candidates stood in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, albeit mostly in unwinnable seats.

Charles Kennedy introduced the first ‘ethnic minority manifesto’ in British politics, a boiled-down version of our main manifesto at the time but nevertheless it was a start.

It is a testament to Charles Kennedy’s foresight that the last election saw three parties, including our own, launch BAME manifestos highlighting policies specifically addressing issues that most impact on diverse communities.

Charlie, the boy from the apparent mono-cultural, but immensely accepting Highlands, became to many Black and Asian members an unlikely and an accidental hero, and many non-Party BAME community members are today sharing in the grief of his loss.

An angel, Charles was not, and if fault existed, and I only can single out the one he shared with all his predecessors and successors; failure to appropriately challenge attitudes that have held back progress on racial diversity.  This was and remains a fault within our Party, but for all this I believe that Charles Kennedy as a Highlander, and someone who knew the rich antecedents and diversity of his own homeland and people, he had a natural affinity with BAME communities and their needs and concerns.

The migration of BAME members from Labour wasn’t planned and efforts to promote racial diversity were a ‘wee’ haphazard but there was no doubt that Charles Kennedy’s heart and soul was in the right place.

His anti-war position during his leadership, and anti-austerity comments since, spoke to social Liberals, large chunks of the disillusioned Left, the working class and BAME voters.

Today, as the Labour post-mortem grapples with the very question of what their party stands for amid hardline leadership posturing around immigration and benefits, it is clear that the space for progressives in politics remains largely vacated.

If Charles were at the helm today he would I am sure probably have us marching onto this ground, once again being the voice of the voiceless and the conscience of the caring.

Sadly since Charles Kennedy stepped down as leader there has been a growing inability within the party to confront its’ own demons, which has contributed to an ebbing away of BAME support that meant we were unable to stem the flow away from us over the past five years.

It was during Charles’ time as leader that Labour took race off the political agenda, axing the Commission for Racial Equality, all local Racial Equality Councils, and merging equalities subjects together into a single Equality Act.

While the principle of this approach appealed to Liberal Democrats we as a Party, and myself as an individual, failed to foresee, or heed the words of Labour’s critics as to the debilitating impact this would have on tackling racial inequality.

With our metropolitan and London councils now gone it is time to recapture the spirit of Charles Kennedy’s leadership to relay the building blocks of BAME support for the party.

Our surge in membership presents an opportunity, not to revel in the numbers of new members but to utilise them to campaign on issues that were at the core of Charles Kennedy’s being and that matter to all who are suffering.

The issues Charles cared so passionately about are as relevant today as then. Let us honour Charles’s memory not just by reminiscing on his character but by establishing his legacy that includes taking the Party back to the Centre Left land we vacated.

* Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera is Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats.

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  • Lester Holloway 4th Jun '15 - 3:49pm

    An excellent piece Ruwan, which rightly pays tribute to Charles Kennedy, a great leader who will be fondly remembered. It is right that we analyse race equality in the party during his era in the context of today to continue to learn and grow as a party.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 4th Jun '15 - 4:17pm

    Thank you Lester for your kind words, and may I say it is utterly tremendous to see that you have returned to the Party to assist it to return to its core values, and Centre Left position.

    Just an update to the signature for the LDV Editorial Team, I am no longer either the Liberal Democrat English Party Diversity Champion or a councillor in Newbury, but I am the Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats.

  • Rabi Martins 4th Jun '15 - 4:58pm

    A very worthy tribute to a great leader who laid the foundation of the Party’s electoral success in local and national government between 2001 and 2005 Ruwan,. It was the the defiant stand to the Iraq War by Charles that first attracted BME communities to the Liberal Democrats
    We owe it to his memory to win back that level of support again

  • Well stated!

  • Jonathan Brown 4th Jun '15 - 7:40pm

    Thank you for writing this Ruwan. It’s a very interesting and very relevant perspective.

    It was really heartening to see so many BAME members and supporters at the Human Rights protest in London last weekend. Again, the big influx of members including BAME people, wasn’t planned but I hope as a party we can take the opportunity to become more inclusive, promote talent within the part from the diverse communities we need to represent and build on all the enthusiasm to become a really positive force in British politics.

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