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Lib Dem’s race policies could be so much more radical

Lynne Featherstone with Qassim Afzal, who hopes to be MP for Manchester Gorton

By Lester Holloway

A start, but a lot more work to do. That’s my assessment of a race equality policy paper by the Liberal Democrat’s spokesperson for equalities, Lynne Featherstone.

The five-page report by Featherstone, and the responses of two academics, was published by the race think-tank, the Runnymede Trust  this week.

What few concrete proposals there are, are solid enough. But overall, the paper lacks substance, analysis and solutions. More of a sketch than a genuine attempt to holistically tackle racial disadvantage in the UK.

Featherstone does make some decent proposals – introducing name-blank job applications to cut out one level of employer discrimination, and mandatory pay audits of firms to highlight any discrepancies in their pay structures stand out.

Yet there are whole issues that seem to have escaped the author’s attention altogether – racial inequalities in education and health to name but two.

Criminal justice gets a name-check but that’s just about all. And a proper critique of Labour’s failures on race equality is similarly missing.

The paper is a very long way from being a comprehensive attempt to devise a range of policies to combat racial disadvantage, or indeed to properly understand the history and dynamics of racism in the UK.

Which is a shame, considering that the party could be leading the debate and pushing the other two, rather than merely dipping its’ toe in the water.

As the forthcoming Black Manifesto, led by the campaign group Equanomics UK, will show, there is much more to tackling racism than a small handful of ad hoc policies tinkering at the margins.

Interestingly, the report does not appear to have been covered by the website Lib Dem Voice, despite the close connections between LDV and Featherstone, the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green in north London.

Featherstone’s paper reads like the first thoughts of a race policy rather than the finished article, and highlights the need for more academics, campaigners and BME party members to contribute to the Lib Dem’s policymaking process.

Thankfully employment gets some attention, but the solutions seem piecemeal and far from radical, in stark contrast to the size of the task. When you consider that the ‘ethnic penalty’ – the percentage difference between working-age white and BME people – has remained stubbornly static over the last three decades is name-blank job application forms really the silver bullet to solve the problem in one fell stroke? I think not.

The main ‘social policy’ to tackle racial disadvantage appears to be the Lib Dem’s commitment to raise the income tax threshold.

But while that would disproportionately help BME communities who are disproportionately in the lowest earner bracket, that does not address the question of why BME communities find themselves so much more disadvantaged in the first place.

Featherstone, as a member of the Commons select committee on the Equality Bill, has clearly given more thought to the need for enforcement of equalities laws, and proposes that employees be given the power to take out class-action cases against their bosses.

This policy has merits, but remains a specific suggestion rather than a holistic outlook to overcome entrenched racial disadvantage.

The wider debate about how the public sector should respond to race and equalities laws, and what the penalties of racism should be, are absent.
For me, the paper is deeply disappointing. Thin in size and depth, it shows little understanding of the issues or the type of action needed to be effective. I predict it will wither in the shadow of the Black Manifesto, to be launched later this month.

The reason why it is so disappointing is because the Liberal Democrats could, and should, offer so much more. Electorally, it makes perfect sense for them party to be the most radical on race. But Featherstone appears to have merely opened the door to that path, and taken one tentative step outside.

The Runnymede document carries the critique of Professor Harry Goulbourne, from London South Bank University, who said that Featherstone had proposed “relatively minor changes to law and policy… [but] little attempt to consider the underlying philosophy of race relations or equality. British Liberalism should have a great deal to contribute to this wider, more fundamental discourse. He was disappointed at the failure to “boldly tackle” race inequality.

Dr Claire Alexander, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, added: “What the Liberal Democrats can offer on racial inequality has never mattered more. It is unfortunate, then, that Featherstone’s policy statement is so short on context.”

Lester Holloway is a member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats

(PS: Qassim Afzal, in the picture, did not contribute to the report)

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