I joined the Liberal Democrats in 2008 after being inspired by a Barack Obama speech on democratic engagement during his first campaign. At the time I was Editor of an African and Caribbean newspaper reporting on UK politics every day. The Lib Dems were not the obvious party to join for many reasons.
The party’s interaction with the black media was woeful. My black and Asian Lib Dem contacts were privately not wholly enthusiastic about progress on race equality in policy and representation. Many of my friends were in the Labour Party, which had a more impressive track record on both. ‘Have you gone completely mad?’ was not an uncommon reaction after I joined the Lib Dems.
A year before joining the party my newspaper had devoted acres of coverage to the bi-centenary of the so-called abolition of the slave trade. It was during this period I read more about the ancestry of the Liberals.
While much of the mainstream media celebrated the Tory MP William Wilberforce’s role in abolition the real forces were outside parliament.
It was the slave rebellions (Haiti, Barbados, Jamaica, Florida), the campaigning Methodists and Quakers, the indomitable Thomas Clarkson, the freed slaves like Olaudah Equiano giving their testimony, and the northern working class in places like Manchester who saw a parallel between the oppression of enslaved Africans and their own condition perpetrated by the same rich elite.
However much of the support for abolition within Westminster came not from Tories but from Whigs, although some Whig industrialists opposed freedom.
This coalition of early Liberals, Methodists and non-conformists helped lay the groundwork for abolition, championing a cause that was for a long time unpopular with the establishment.
They stood up for radical change in the face of an international ‘trade’ that struck at the heart of the question of Britain’s wealth and international competitiveness. For them the question that mattered most was ‘what is right and humane?’
At the same time many Whigs were the principal advocates of social change in Britain. Liberal reformists like Joseph Chamberlain were leading the way in tackling industrial slums, installing sewage, gas and water systems for the masses.
Seebohm Rowntree and other Liberals brought social philanthropy to education and housing, promoting a radical vision of reform and universal entitlement to the basics of life.
As I read about these reformers it struck me that, for them, the principle of freedom was intricately woven in in action to free people from the binds of poverty and enslavement, not merely ‘opportunity’.
With perhaps the honourable exception of the 1945 Labour government, modern the British history of social improvement is defined largely by Liberals inside and outside parliament who fought for the betterment of the poor and, when in power, delivered it.
As a Labour member and councillor in my 20’s I had seen first-hand how innately conservative Labour were. Their commitment to the State was almost entirely devoid of vision about what to do with it, and their vision was almost entirely devoid the role society could play to take control of their own lives.
When Obama made that speech it had been eight years since I left the Labour Party and nothing much had changed. If I was to follow Obama’s invitation to “give back” to society as a political activist the choice was between a Labour Party that offered only light relief to the disadvantaged and the Liberal Democrats, who had little to say about race inequality in my lifetime but nevertheless drew their political ancestry from radical social reformers.
If these 18th and 19th Century radicals were alive today, I reckoned, they would see that one of the greatest scars on British society was racial inequality. It would be them, not Labour, who would campaign for change no matter how unfashionable the cause might be.
Achieving race equality is in many ways a Liberal ideal, freeing people of colour from disadvantage. But this can only be achieved by using the levers of State to force change – as they did in centuries past. Waiting for hearts and minds to change of their own accord is a prescription for something between slow and no change.
Instead, driving race equality through the powers of the State is the catalyst to change hearts and minds. Because nothing shifts public opinion quite like digesting radical action and wrestling with radicalism before the realisation this is, after all, the morally right thing to do… and the sky didn’t fall in after all!
Affirmative Action was introduced in the United States between the mid-1930’s and mid-1960’s as a recognition that the historic disadvantage of African-Americans from the times of enslavement continued uninterrupted in subsequent decades in the job market, university selections and other opportunities.
This endemic and in-built disadvantage was not always easy to prosecute but the outcomes were clear from every study; America was suffering from Negative Action, a bias in favour of white citizens.
Correcting it would require quotas, not to discriminate against one section of society but to level the playing field that discriminated against the other.
Britain’s history is different from the United States, but not completely. The UK did not receive many enslaved Africans, she was the recipient of the goods from the triangular slave trade.
But mass immigration, from the late 1950’s, was the delayed consequence of these times. Caribbean’s were the descendants of enslaved Africans, and this was followed by immigration from countries brutally colonised by the Empire.
With structural unemployment and increased competition for jobs this Negative Action, an innate preference for white over black, really kicked in and has been with us ever since.
Britain has a wealth of data about the extent of racial disadvantage, from disproportionate BAME unemployment, health, education and housing inequalities, to greater criminalisation through policing and the courts.
Much of these unequal outcomes have remained largely static despite decades of multiculturalism and integration. Britain’s social mobility may be seemingly intractable but, by most indicators, citizens of colour face higher hurdles to equality based on the colour of their skin.
The case for Affirmative Action in Britain today is that every effort to tackle disadvantage in a colour-blind way has failed.
Comprehensive education saw black children labelled as educationally sub-normal and we continue to witness higher school exclusion rates. Police authorities giving civilian oversight has failed to address higher stop and search rates. Equal access to employment tribunals and race equality laws have failed to stop disproportionately in the job market and differences in rates of pay.
While society’s attitudes towards explicit racism have changed for the better racial outcomes have remained stuck, as study after study has shown.
Rapidly increasing racial diversity and entrenched institutional racism is now a fault line of ever-building pressure under the crust of society. Erasing race from the political agenda and discourse is pretending this fault line does not exist.
To address the problem requires bravery to get ahead of the curve, beyond the point where the wider public feel comfortable. Action will bring out the forces of conservatism who will ridicule and scorn, and claim that we are seeking to divide black from white.
As Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr said, these detractors will argue for a “negative peace, which is the absence of tension, not a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
France’s assimilationist attempts to impose a blanket ban on addressing racial disparity under the guise of ‘all being French’ has resulted in a series of mini tremors of urban discontent. Yet the division in French society is studies of racial disparity.
Action to address this is absence of justice is bringing society together.
I believe the question that early Whig and Liberal social reformers would grapple with, if they were alive today, is: ‘what is the true extent of racial disparity, and what action is needed to really make an impact in a short period of time?’
With BAME citizens twice as likely to be unemployed, to take one indicator, it is clear that the problem is huge and action must be radical.
Britain has seen one example of Affirmative Action, in Northern Ireland to speed up fair and equitable distribution of jobs between Protestants and Catholics following the peace agreement. It worked.
The excuse for prejudice – “we don’t discriminate, it’s just that the best person for the job always happens to be a Protestant / Catholic” – crumbled and society began to heal.
The opening line of the party’s preamble to its’ constitution begins: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
The two key elements are the word “build” – every building requires building blocks – and a declaration that “no one” shall be held back.
All the evidence shows that people of colour are being held back, enslaved by the denial of opportunities. If we genuinely want to build a fair society free of racial disadvantage then the building have to comprise not of Lego pieces but be a major construction project.
As with the case for social reform to tackle industrial revolution poverty and the abolition of transatlantic enslavement, eliminating modern racial disadvantage requires radicalism and bravery in proposing solutions that no-one else is prepared to advocate. Action like Affirmative Action.
The case is morally right and, in freeing people from disadvantage, a deeply Liberal cause.
There is already some movement towards Affirmative Action to address the lack of women and BAME candidates in target seats with the recent statement by leadership candidate Tim Farron that he wants to see 50 percent of target seats for women and ten percent for ethnic minorities.
Leaving aside projections that show the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) population rising from 14 percent at the 2011 census to over 20 percent by the time of the 2020 election, Farron’s comments break new ground for a party that has previous rejected ethnicity targets for parliamentary selections.
If we can embrace such moves for internal party selections then the party should extend this principle to social policy too.
I would like to see a permanent committee dedicated to policy development around creating a racially-equal society, taking evidence from external experts and practitioners much as the Race Equality Taskforce, of which I was a member, did in 2013 on education and employment.
Tackling our democratic deficit in representation will deal with the reputational damage of being an undiverse party, but having radical policies to abolish unequal outcomes will do more for Britain as a whole.
After resigning from the Liberal Democrats last November over the toleration of racism on online forums I have re-joined the party because the Lib Dems are, despite our heavy electoral defeat, still has the potential to be the best place for radical thought and policies on race equality, just as our political ancestors did on social reform and abolition of slavery.
I may be ‘on the Left’ yet I want to see our party not simply move Left but reimagine an equal society, including a society where people are not held back because of their race, colour or creed, and for us to design a programme that will get us to that promised land. That is what the great social reformers of centuries past would have done.