It was with a very heavy heart that I resigned my membership of the Liberal Democrats recently.
My reason for ending associations with this party was its’ collective failure to promote race equality and anti-racism both in policy terms and within the party itself. Some of the issues may be internal but as a public party that seeks public votes these are issues that concern us all, regardless of political affiliation or support. Indeed they are issues that, to a greater or lesser extent, affect all parties.
I start from the point that all big institutions are institutionally racist unless they can prove that unequal racial outcomes do not exist. There is no other logical explanation for it. The real question is how parties deal with it, and what priority they give this. All large institutions have equalities policies and procedures, but the measure of whether they are completely effective, are outcomes.
For the Lib Dems, they have a dire absence of public policies specifically to tackle unequal racial outcomes in society, a deficit of Black and Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) prospective parliamentary candidates especially in winnable seats, a lack of BAME committee members and conference delegates, and an inability to crack down on grassroots hostility to issues of race on their online spaces.
In our multicultural society, where 14% of the population is non-white and 168 marginal parliamentary constituencies have a BAME population larger than the majority of the sitting MP, it simply doesn’t make good business sense to not reflect this in the party. The party must be welcoming to BAME communities, reach out to them and appeal to them with policies that address the disadvantages they face in life.
The majority of the party wants this to happen but more often than not shy away from measures to bring this about. Policy proposals for State action to address racism are routinely met with negative reactions, too many members are satisfied with a small number of diversity initiatives that only get ‘buy-in’ from members who are already interested in the topic, and hardly any members argue for the ‘diversity agenda’ to be compulsorily brought down to every grassroots local party. Yes, political parties are comprised of volunteers but that is no excuse not to be professional, and to respect good practice on diversity.
Currently the Lib Dems don’t know how many BAME members they have because there is no ethnic monitoring, and have no schemes to encourage best practice in recruitment or to persuade local parties to think of their BAME members when deciding who their conference delegates should be.This lack of action creates a vacuum, and into that vacuum a small minority of angry white men have grown to believe they can behave exactly how they want towards BAME members, particularly in party online forums. These minority of idiots are mostly not challenged by the majority of well-meaning liberals. There seems to be a feeling that demanding decent standards of behaviour is somehow illiberal. Meanwhile the minority of head-bangers never fail to shout that any proposed action to address unequal racial outcomes is illiberal.
The results are visible for all to see – an all-white Commons team, and an overwhelmingly white party structure and conference delegates. This, in turn, produces invisible results – the lack of radical policies to address racism in society and a lack of mechanisms to address racial diversity within the party. This is a catch-22 situation which I have dedicated the last eight years to try and address, as a councillor, member of the London executive, secretary of Ethnic Minority Lib Dem group and the national equalities policy working group.I have written many articles and held many meetings with ministers and officials to impress upon them the need for change.
Sadly I have now concluded that opposition to change is too entrenched to continue. The toleration of extreme racism on a party members forum – saying Africans did not know what a toilet is – was the last straw. My experience and knowledge was rarely utilised and my opinions rarely sought. I still believe that Britain needs a radical social-liberal alternative in politics, just one that understands, reflects and serves everyone in our multicultural society.
While I remain committed to the ideals of the Lib Dems, as enshrined in the preamble to their constitution, as long as the party does not understand, reflect or serve BAME communities I cannot, in all consciousness, be part of it.
I have concluded that BAME members cannot fight this battle alone, as Ethnic Minority Lib Dem (EMLD) group have been doing. They need the active support of the majority of good party members who believe they believe in equality. They now need to stand up and be counted. If many in the well-meaning majority take this stance I will consider rejoining the party.
But until that happens, I cannot expend my energy and time blowing at a brick wall. There are a few party members, including many fellow BAME members, who are fighting the good fight, and I wish them well. But even our collective blowing has failed to move the wall. What is needed now is a gale that can only be created by a mass of Lib Dems who are prepared to join EMLD in improving the culture of the grassroots. That cultural change will, I believe, translate into wider change – more policies to address racial disadvantage and stronger initiatives within the party structure.
Until the wind of change comes, I shall reluctantly remain apart from party politics.
Former BAME Lib Dem Councillor and Party member