2013 in many ways has been a year of profound reflection: We lost Nelson Mandela, one of the great liberators of our time; Malala Yousefzai was short-listed for the Nobel peace prize; Barack Obama, a Black American president was paralysed from using his Presidential powers by his mainly White Republican opponents; and at home the Coalition government resorted to cheap populism by creating a policy imperative which demonised BME communities.
Mandela’s vision of a Rainbow Nation asks many questions of our own political system: Why are so many of our national policies continue to be driven by racial populism, as opposed to the well-being of all citizens? Why are racial inequalities ignored despite the economic and social contribution of minorities? Why is government rhetoric and policy towards minorities aimed at perpetuating ethnic divisions?
Notwithstanding the failure of the Coalition government to deliver a fair deal to BME communities, the 2014 European elections will see parties lurch even further to the right as they vie for the popular vote. Having worked in Doncaster, under a mayoral governance model that saw a safe Labour seat lost to an English Democrat candidate, Peter Davies, I have some stark experiences of what a society that defines itself as post-racial, would look like.
Davies’ Manifesto aimed to implement a unique set of policies that abolished political correctness and scrapped specific funding to black and ethnic minority initiatives, including other protected groups, such as women, the disabled etc. The Mayor’s rhetoric opposed diversity as a matter of principle: in fact he claimed that the divisions it engendered had similarities to apartheid.
As an ethnic minority local government Chief Officer working in a largely mono-cultural environment informed by a racialised institutional culture, I have an idea of the challenges and barriers that minorities face in realising their respective career aspirations and having their needs met. During my career I often made the point to my counterparts that BME communities are usually last in line for services and first in line for cuts – compared to other groups and service providers.
The pursuit of ‘colour blind’ policies in Davies’ case or the racially hostile policies towards immigrants, asylum seekers and Muslims in the case of UKIP and the Conservatives, when extrapolated across society, denies minorities the opportunity to achieve their full potential or have their needs met because it legitimises racism, xenophobia and Islamaphobia.
Sadly many of my senior colleagues in Doncaster Council supported Mayor Davies in implementing his policies without democratic scrutiny or evidence of impact. Ironically officers justified themselves by quoting something I read first in Barack Obama’s book, ‘The Audacity of Hope’. Obama states that we all should focus on those things that aim to unite us as opposed to those things that divide us. Obama was certainly not advocating for the abolition of racial equality but emphasising the pursuit of social and economic justice in order to transcend inequality.
I don’t advocate that BME communities should be given special support: I merely want them to be treated with the same fairness, respect, equality, dignity and autonomy as their counterparts – according to their respective needs.
As we approach the 2014 European elections, it is likely that the demonization of minority communities will gather pace as we are likely to see the battleground for votes defined in jingoistic, patriotic and racialised terms. In such a hostile electoral terrain it is unlikely that the field of MEP incumbents will be drawn from minority communities. Just as the absence of BME councillors in Doncaster – and across many other areas of the UK – has meant that local politics does not reflect the communities that it serves, similarly the failure to draw from an ethnically diverse political talent pool in the forthcoming 2014 European election will result in the European political agenda being framed in xenophobic and parochial terms.
One could of course counter-argue that the recent Electoral Commission Report about (potential) electoral fraud in areas with high levels of diversity – particularly of voters from South Asian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds – highlights that having an ethnic minority candidate does not necessarily lead to better political representation.
Coming from an Indian / Pakistani background myself, I am well acquainted with the concept of ‘biradrie/clan or block voting,’ usually to support a self-proclaimed community leader. Whilst ‘the system’ has provided South Asian communities a safety net in times of need, it has led to political alienation of those who are outside the ‘clan.’
However for those who wish to criticise the ‘biraderie’ system, my experience in Doncaster has highlighted that when the majority voted for Peter Davies they too were engaged in a version of ‘biraderie’ politics – they were exercising their vote not on the basis of well-formulated policies aimed at delivering politics for the common good but the cult of personality rooted in an ‘exclusionary’ vision of politics.
Notwithstanding the political failures outlined above, there is a clear imperative for reform if the democratic aspirations of an increasingly young and diverse BME electoral constituency are going to be met. In the light of these challenges the community leader must play a crucial role as a facilitator who opens up the political system and enables new and young talent who can be effective advocates for equality to come through.
In the final analysis, I believe fundamentally that for true participatory democracy to thrive, both central and local governments have a crucial role to play in fully engaging the electorate and raising their understanding of their democratic rights and responsibilities. Otherwise there is a real risk that the democratic freedoms that we have collectively fought so hard to attain will evaporate if left to the will of political demagogues.
Nadeem Murtuja – political strategist and social justice advocate