To truly deliver on One Nation, Labour must introduce affirmative action

13th August, 2014 4:57 pm

Over the last several months there have been a number of cases that highlight the way in which Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are consciously or subconsciously denied, blocked or bullied by mainstream institutions and bodies.


The Met Police again are under fire for discrimination; statistics show universities only have 85 black Professors, which represents less than 0.5% of all appointments; and Lenny Henry is leading a campaign against the BBC, who he says deny opportunities for BAME actors and managers. What’s more, a recent report on the NHS senior management structures has highlighted that over the last ten years for recruitment has gone backwards when it comes to appointing BAME senior managers and non executive directors at board level – particularly in comparison to  when Frank Dobson was Secretary State for Health.

All these examples and many others lead to one conclusion: structural racism and social mobility are major issues in Britain. Too often we spend our time debating about immigration issues, which is often framed around migration of Eastern Europeans from the EU encouraged by the media. By doing this, we miss the real debate about the increasing wealth, income and power of exclusivity taking us back to the Victorian Britain where today working class, women, disabled, LGBTI and BME communities are further disfranchised and marginalised economically and socially.

Affirmative Action in the US, based on the civil right movements campaign for equality, has had mixed fortunes over the last 40 years. It has created the environment for black and minority talent to emerge – enabling Barack Obama to become President and helping to create an African American and Hispanic middle class. However, when it comes to health care, housing, employment, criminal justice and poverty, many African Americans are, in real terms, worse off than they were in the period of Jim Crow.

However in the UK we have a different context around citizenship, identity, and migration which is linked to the former Empire (and now the Commonwealth) that makes the case for Affirmative Action even more compelling for people of BAME  communities to access executive and non-executive top jobs.

The talent and experience is out there but we are not given the exposure and opportunity. The truth is, for the last 400 years we’ve had  affirmation action in place but it’s based on power, patronage, privilege and the legacy of the British Empire. Our form of affirmative action goes by another name –  the Old Boys Network and it’s typified by the current Cabinet.

All we want is an inclusive affirmation action for everyone which provides the same equality of opportunity, access and respect.  And it is important equally for the party through its selections of MPs, Peers or senior staff working for the party that equality of opportunity is transparent and available not only to women but also BME communities.

Organisations like Fawcett Society, Labour Women’s Network, BAME Labour, Black Women’s Network, Labour Black Network, Operation Black Vote, Stephen Lawrence Trust, Bernie Grant Trust, Windsor Fellowship, Amos Bursary, Power List Academy, the trade union movement and many others are trying to change the nature of the current status quo, but we also need a change in legislation.

Labour should amend the current Equality Act and the powers of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to introduce quotas, targets and penalties backed by mentoring and leadership programmes.

To develop a cross-cutting race equality strategy with a robust action plan, we also need to upgrade the Minister for Equality post to make it a senior Cabinet level position. The key priorities areas in the first of 12-18 months of a new government should be the NHS, BBC, Higher Education and the Police.

Sadly kind words, statements of intent, one-off BAME leadership courses and informal shadowing has become inadequate or too passive where a deficit model is assumed for all BAME talent compared to white peers. We need a strong regulatory framework, accountability and political commitment. The Labour Party has the opportunity to use the race equality action strategy to build on and incorporate some of the above suggestions to make One Nation a reality for all.

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  • MonkeyBot5000

    “Our form of affirmative action goes by another name – the Old Boys Network and it’s typified by the current Cabinet.

    All we want is an inclusive affirmation action for everyone which provides the same equality of opportunity, access and respect. And it is important equally for the party through its selections of MPs,Peers or senior staff working for the party that equality of
    opportunity is transparent and available not only to women but also BME

    You’re implying that white males are represented by current Cabinet. We’re not.

  • David Lindsay

    Where are people like Chuka Ummuna, Chi Onwurah and me supposed to go? We are what the Director of Labour North neither jokingly nor affectionately calls “mulattoes”.

    • Could you expand on that comment please?

      • David Lindsay

        What happens to mixed-race people, a very fast-growing category that includes 50 per cent of Britons with an Afro-Caribbean parent?

        • Oh I see, i’m familiar with the area and this is a very good article that underscores your point. I’m actually beginning a research project on it.

          I don’t see how a mixed raced dynamic creates a problem at all. It really depends how you define “black”. A significant majority, id go so far as to say the vast majority of mixed raced people would define themselves as “Black” in their every day lives – if not all the time. I know one of those MPs you named extremely well and they self identify as Black.

          I think the fundamental difference when emphasising mixed raced heritage is that it tends to be a genetic recognition rather than an aesthetic one. Politics, sociology etc is concerned largely with the latter.

          The Afro-Caribbean population is itself a mixed population. This is also true of Africa. East Africans have mixed Arab and African heritage over thousands of years. They are as “mixed” as Chuka and Chi are genetically but nobody would call them that, and i’m yet to meet one that defines themselves that way. Half the problem is the way we administer ethnicity in the UK because it’s basically still the “one drop rule” or “Brown paper bag test”. It needs to be less about colour and complexion and more about geography:

          The language and experience is slightly different but African American is a fantastic example of a catch all term. If you’ve read either of President Obama’s books he doesn’t self identify as “Mixed raced” he switches between African American and Black, neither does General Colin Powell.

          There are a million headlines and interviews like that he doesn’t correct their assumption that he is “Black” :

          Lisa Nandy is a fantastic example. She is half Asian. The vast majority of the media and people generally have no idea because of her complexion and she is treated differently because of that. Nobody uses her as a poster girl for “BME issues” the way they do with MPs who have a dark complexion or who are “obviously BME”.

  • Sylvia

    Affirmative Action was disastrous in the US. Everyone assumed any people of color who succeeded did so because of Affirmative Action. It is only popular with champagne socialists and ethnic communities.

    • PoundInYourPocket

      I think you’re over exaggerating more than a little.
      By “Everyone” I presume you mean “many” , but you should really provide a figure for roughly “how many”, a majority ? or a vocal minority ?
      “It is only popular with champagne socialists and ethnic communities”
      Is it really that simple ? I agree with affirmative action but I’m neither “ethnic” nor a champagne drinker.

      • Sylvia

        Affirmative Action in the US has come under incessant attack in the courts – and many cases have been won. Its day is more or less over. And please don’t go simple on me: the term “champagne socialists” is not a literal, but figurative description in common use.

        • PoundInYourPocket

          I presume you missed the recent headlines “Court Upholds University’s Affirmative Action Admissions Policy” seems that AA is alive and well in the States contrary to your post.

          • Sylvia

            No, I am aware of it. But it is one battle among several large ones that were lost. And the other issue facing universities, in particular, is the worsening rate of class as opposed to race diversity, where they are also failing.

  • RWP

    No to all forms of positive discrimination.

  • swatnan

    Vernon makes an excellent case for advancement for BAME.
    We need to create a climate of opportunity for all where even the BAME sons and daughters of bus conductors and poor immigrants, can aspire to be in the Cabinet.
    But we still have quite a way to go; could we see that in my lifetime? I doubt it. So far all we’ve had are BAME who have been privately educated and coming from a cushy background using connections by working as Spads for MPs, climbing up the greasy pole. So Vernon is right, legislate with quotas, and bring about that change.

    • Dave Roberts

      No it won’t. The most discriminated majority in this country are white working class women.

    • Hugh

      “So far all we’ve had are BAME MPs who have been privately educated and coming from a cushy background”

      Apart from Diane Abbot, Adam Afriyie, Rushanara Al, Rehman Chishti or Helen Grant to take the first five alphabetically – none of whom appear to have been privately educated, which rather undermines your claim.

      I’m not convinced that if you worked through the rest of the list you’d find the proportion that were privately educated or had jobs as spads is much different to the average in their respsective parties.

  • Dave Roberts

    I see white dissenters are now excluded from this discussion.

  • engineer1972

    Normally, people are promoted according to their ability – on merit.

    If two candidates apply for a role and the candidate given the role is done so because of some minority list (such as sexual orientation, skin colour, nationality or religion), over ability/merit then this is wrong.


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