Lester Holloway submitted the following article and SLF Vice-Chair, Gordon Lishman, responds
The latest Social Liberal Forum newsletter encouraged members to vote for SLF candidates who are standing for federal party committees. Nothing wrong with that. Apart from the fact that all eleven candidates are white.
I raised concerns only to be informed that the previous SLF newsletter had included a call out for any SLF members who were standing to respond, and the promoted candidates list had not excluded any responder. That missed the point entirely.
Promoting an all-white slate for internal elections is a problem. Not noticing it is a bigger problem. Having the problem pointed out and still not seeing the problem… an even bigger problem still.
Which begs the question: on the issue of lack of racial diversity in the party, is the Social Liberal Forum part of the problem?
To answer this let me take you back to a rainy Saturday in Shoreditch in the summer of 2013. A ‘race conference’ jointly organised by SLF and Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats was in full swing. A packed hall, of which at least half were SLF members, were enthusiastically applauding speeches from the likes of Vince Cable, Tom Brake, Gareth Epps and Naomi Smith on addressing lack of ethnic minority representation.
It felt like the beginning of something. Prior to this SLF had been the grouping most likely to support or constructively amend proposals to tackle unequal outcomes while other corners of the party mouthed sympathy with the cause only to vigorously oppose any attempt to solve it. Race was generally low down the list of SLF concerns, and the organisation was rarely proactive on the issues, but when called upon you stood up, listened and joined in the action.
In the three and a half years since the Shoreditch gathering the Social Liberal Forum has been a major disappointment on race equality. Not because it is less interested in racial deficits than before, but because it has not become more engaged despite an immersive conference where many SLF members expressed dismay at the state of racial inequality in Britain and lack of BAME representation in the party.
One member after another stood up and called for a greater focus on the issues. Yet this energy and concern seemed to evaporate soon afterwards. It was as if SLF were not listening to themselves. In 2013 there was one visible minority on the SLF Council and that remains the case today. Back then SLF had one on the Executive. Today, zilch.
Major reports on race inequality in Britain from bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission and United Nations pass without a single mention. On race and representation, the various SLF members on federal committees are of no use. If there is a diversity motion at federal conference SLF members are queuing up to speak in favour of it but in between these set piece events, silence.
Whether this lack of energy for tackling race inequality leads to fewer ethnic minorities joining SLF, standing for SLF Council and Executive and the party’s federal committees, or whether a lack of ethnic minorities is contributing to a lack of energy on the issues is perhaps a chicken and egg situation. Either way there is an issue in the chicken coop.
An all-white SLF slate for the internal elections could disadvantage visible minorities who are not SLF members and increase the possibility of more all-white committees, further reducing the voices of people of colour to speak for themselves. And that makes SLF part of the problem.
More than that, some active BAME party members expect more of SLF on racial diversity than they do of the libertarian Right. This greater expectation heightens the disappointment when the forum proves to be no better at addressing colour disadvantage than orange or blue liberals.
Being part of the problem is bad enough. SLF is in danger of puncturing hope that social liberals will actively promote solutions. If solutions are not promoted by social liberals they are not likely to come from any other wing of the party. There is an onus on SLF to do better, both within the group and in working with party members of colour to make progress.
Response to Lester Holloway
SLF agreed to publish this article because we take seriously our commitment to race equality generally and in the Liberal Democrats. We are publishing this response so that members can assess our position on a number of the issues he raises.
The position in relation to the SLF Council is that it contains two members with South Asian backgrounds, one with a Jewish background and two first generation immigrants. This compares reasonably with the national situation.
We discussed candidates for party committees with the Council and encouraged members to stand. People are entitled to decide that they cannot put themselves forward because of work or personal commitments. It is also fair to say that the new three-year terms for members of federal committees are something of a disincentive. In relation to other names on our recommended list, that was entirely up to SLF members and supporters to inform us when we solicited the information in our regular news letter. As it happens, the most recent version of the list contains at least one of whom has a South Asian background.
The SLF addresses a wide range of issues amongst which race equality, BAME representation and issues of discrimination and relative deprivation are important. There is no reason why Lester should know, but it is a fact that some SLF members of committees, including me, have supported the case for BAME quotas as well as quotas for women. We have also supported the investigation that John Alderdice will be undertaking on the Party’s attitude and approach to BAME representation.
It is also fair to say that some of us have long records of activism on these issues, going back 50 years in my case, including a role in setting up the EHRC and working with a range of BAME groups to encourage and enable their participation in that body.
We accept that we could do more on the issues that face BAME individuals and communities. We look forward to Lester’s constructive participation on these issues and, indeed, on many more challenges that the Liberal Democrats and our society face.
Gordon Lishman, SLF Vice-Chair