I resigned from the Lib Dems last month and joined Labour. But as a former Lib Dem activist, who actively championed better race equality, and left the party in part because of its failure to make progress on this very issue, so I noted with interest the publication today of a report into the experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Lib Dems.
It’s been over a year since party peer Lord John Alderdice stopped taking evidence for his inquiry and this morning he finally delivered his report. This blog is my initial take on the findings. I’ve written before about my personal experiences and observations on race in the party, so there’s no need to revisit that now.
There are some fine words in the report about the need for “a culture change” in the party at large – which correctly identifies where the main problem lies – but he fails to identify the real nature of the cultural problem, or how to solve it. It’s not about simply being more friendly to black or brown new members that happen to stumble into Lib Dem meetings, but also acknowledging systemic and institutional barriers (which the report fails to do) and having a real plan to tackle it.
Alderdice asserts that there is no “racism problem”; says that Vince Cable is fully committed to the issue; and concludes “I [am] not convinced that piling on more procedures will solve the problem”. This is an opportunity missed to fix a series of problems. Yet again we have that classically liberal combination of good intentions and denial.
By concentrating on issues at the grassroots the report lets the party hierarchy off the hook. It looks like he’s blaming the foot soldiers but largely absolving the establishment, when in reality both need to change. And it may take concrete action, enshrined in targets and plans, to deliver change – the very approach he rejects.
Alderdice acknowledges that he was presented with evidence “strongly suggestive of negative attitudes by individuals towards people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds” yet he concludes that “there was no evidence of widespread racism.” That wasn’t the only contradiction.
The report calls on party members to be friendlier by reaching out to new BAME members who find themselves at a local meeting, but that misses the point. Sometimes new BAME members feel isolated, but other times they don’t. The real problem occurs when people of colour show ambition, seek elected office, or try to change things. That is usually where resistance kicks in, however friendly local members were at the start.
As a result, the party volunteers at a local level need training in both awareness (for example recognising biases) and practical, detailed action points (such as recruitment and changing party culture). The truth is that the local parties he highlights share more in common with this peer of the realm than Alderdice realises. They both think the same way. Wanting more racial diversity without knowing why; making statements about what should happen but not wanting to force action on others.
At no point does the report recognise that more people of colour increases the talent-pool and widens the party’s knowledge-base. Instead, the assumption is that lack of racial diversity is embarrassing, in that it doesn’t reflect society, and harms the party at the ballot box. That is true, but equally true is that the Lib Dems are missing out on great councillors, assembly members, MPs and future party leaders.
Alderdice calls for the issue of racial diversity to be the “top priority” but the report lacks a sufficient route-map to enable the Lib Dems to make progress, and fails to ask why various past initiatives had failed to deliver. I believe this is the result of a lack of commitment by successive leaderships.
One good suggestion, buried in the report, is for local branches to assess how representative they are to the local population. This leaves as a blank canvass what specific actions they can take (beyond being friendly to BAME people who happen to stumble into their meetings). And it ignores the problems in the Lib Dems actually identifying the ethnicity of their members.
Alderdice comes out against an “anti-racism training approach” on grounds that it had not delivered “much success in creating social change” in the United States of America. Given that affirmative action is a mechanism to combat entrenched racism, I’m completely lost as to what he is referring to here. But I believe an anti-racist approach is a good place to start. Alderdice, on the other hand, suggests that racial disparities happen simply because the issue is not given enough attention. That is racism denial.
Later in the report, Alderdice says the Lib Dems “will have to engage in direct action – on appointments more than just on elections”, but a lack of definition over what ‘direct action’ entails is bound to cause confusion over what is positive action and what is positive discrimination, what is legal and what is liberal.
It is unclear if references to head-hunting BAME people to join the party is what he means, or whether he is talking about positive action like reserved places on shortlists (elected office and job interviews). One thing is clear; he doesn’t much rate BAME members with experience. “If you want to bring in young people from communities, don’t expect older community leaders to be the most suitable magnets”, he says. There is some truth in there, but he has obviously not encountered the respect that some community leaders and faith leaders command across age groups.
In terms of recommendations, the report rehashes the conclusion of the recent Federal Board’s investigation into the Ethnic Minority Lib Dems group, that there should be a new group set up for BAME issues along the lines of the Campaign for Gender Balance.
I support the idea in principle – indeed it originally came from EMLD themselves – but unfortunately some in the party have twisted the principle and see this as an excuse to turn EMLD into an uncritical recruiting sergeant and thrower of Sari and Samosa style diversity events, while members of the other group are selected by HQ and tightly controlled.
His report opposes all-BAME shortlists, asking: “Are Liberal Democrats campaigning to change the law in order to overcome ethnic prejudice in other parties, or in the Liberal Democrats?” I would hazard a guess he’s out of step with the majority of BAME members on that.
By the eighth page, the report rapidly heads south. Strangely it suggests that donations specifically from BAME supporters should be syphoned off to pay for training for BAME members. Why can’t the party do this from general funds?
It gets weirder. “Hindus will not be focused on the same issues as Muslims or Christians”, he pronounces. “Role models are important and the party already has some.” “What about Afro-Caribbean music and other cultural activities that go beyond the usual English conference functions?” This is precisely why Alderdice needed help from experienced BAME advisors. I, and others, called for that but were ignored.
As a result we are treated in the report to a bizarre ramble about Lord Alderdice’s diverse extended family, and an extremely confused passage about signs outside boarding houses in past decades reading ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’. I have been involved in race equality for over two decades and cannot make head nor tail of what he is trying to say on the latter.
He makes an even more bizarre suggestion that “in more rural parts of the country where there are very few substantial BAME communities… the party has the opportunity to seize the initiative of being the natural party for incoming individuals from BAME backgrounds.” You literally couldn’t make it up. It smacks of an amateurishness unbecoming of his vast experience.
Alderdice then throws in a complete red herring with the false assertion that EMLD “has been more successful in attracting members from some Asian backgrounds than from black African or Afro-Caribbean communities.” That’s just plain untrue. While Lib Dem HQ have yet to cough up ethnicity monitoring statistics on the membership (they have been stalling for over a year), a cursory look at the ethnicity of EMLD Executive Committee’s past and present would show a good balance between the two groups. Indeed, I would say that people of African descent are better represented on EMLD than the membership at large. The fact that the Lib Dems are so poor at attracting black African and Caribbean people is because the party are not reaching out to those communities. That’s not EMLD’s fault. EMLD have been telling the party that for years.
The report got a soft launch today with no publicity in the media, in stark contrast to the ‘Morrissey’ report into sexism in the party, launched after the Lord Rennard scandal. Alderdice was supposed to be a ‘Morrissey 2’ but it lacked resources and commitment from party HQ.
When I met Alderdice, as part of a delegation from the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats in late 2016, I was among those urging him to take on one or two independent BAME advisors. The names of Professor Gus John and Linda Bellos were put forward. This was ignored, and his main help came from an intern.
I did not submit evidence because my first contact with Alderdice (a Twitter private message conversation shortly after Tim Farron announced the inquiry, in October 2016), led me to believe that he was the wrong person for the role. I told him to his face that if he didn’t get good BAME advisers I would have no confidence in the process, and that in those circumstances he needed to consider whether he was the best person for the job.
The final results, 15 months later, show a well-intentioned liberal approach that the problems can be solved if everyone is nicer to each other. Yet by dismissing the existence of racism, failing to even mention unconscious bias, and failing to recommend training for anyone apart from BAME members themselves, I fear the report is little more than good intentions wrapped in confusion and timidity.
And while there are a couple of good suggestions it fails to present a coherent route-map that local parties can use while appearing to absolve the party establishment of responsibility. Once again it falls upon existing BAME members to come up with the details. But if they were not listened to before, why should they be now?
I was a Lib Dem member from 2008 – 2015, and 2016 – 2017. I have now returned to the Labour Party, where I was a member from 1991 – 2000. While in the Lib Dems, I served as a councillor; secretary of Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats; and a member of national Lib Dem’s Race Equality Taskforce (2012-13), Equality Policy Working Group (2014), and Immigration and Identity Policy Working Group (2017).