Britain after Blair: the future of race relations

I gave this speech at the launch of Britian after Blair, to which I contributed a chapter.

Blair will leave this country far more racially divided than when he came to office. That is the Blair legacy.

I could spend the whole fringe meeting, all day, even all week talking about the problems of racism in this country. But as I’m no William Gladstone and I think you’ll start waning about the third hour of a speech (and our chair tonight is quite fierce), I’ll restrict myself to one small but highly illustrative example.

A couple of years ago, Manchester United’s manager Alex Ferguson was being asked about a transfer shenanigan involving his club and a Spanish club. He was asked about public comments made by the Spanish club. His response, as reported in the Guardian? “You can’t trust these people. You are expecting me to trust a Spaniard.”

The response to this? Well, nothing. The Guardian buried it in the middle of another story on page 5 – of their sports section – and that was about as high profile as it got. But just ponder his words (as reported by the Guardian, libel lawyers please note) again. Dismissing millions of people as being untrustworthy because of their race. What would your response be if I got up and said “All Asians were untrustworthy?” or “All blacks?”

Yet no-one thought this was a story – and indeed if Alex Ferguson’s words were twisted, nor did he think it necessary to correct them.

What does this incident tells us? Well it tells me there is no room for complacency in the fight against racism. With an increasingly diverse population, we can no longer think of racism as only being about whites and blacks – or whites and blacks and Asians. In a multi-cultural society there is a multiplicity of different racisms possible – not all involving white-skinned people and with white-skinned people sometimes being on the receiving end too.

And second, it tells me that far too often we are far too casual about racism. That quote should have been a major scandal – or a major egg on face for the media depending on whether the quote was true or not. We see it too in the shrug of the shoulders and general indifference to the shocking figures of discrimination in the police’s national DNA database.

One third – that’s right, one third, of the black population of England and Wales is already on the database – a number far out of proportion to their share of the overall population. Of course, the racists of the BNP just mutter, “oh well, blacks cause lots of crime so it’s no wonder there are so many of them in the database”.

This does not stand up to examination; what the figures show clearly are that the police are disproportionately arresting black and ethnic minorities. They also show that disproportionately more innocent DNA is from black and ethnic minorities than from other communities – i.e. they are arresting not only disproportionately but wrongly. For example, in London, 57% of all innocent DNA is from black people.

With only 3,000 words to play with for my chapter (although Teather I note you got away with more!) I could barely begin to scratch at the issues of racial harmony, multiculturalism and bridging the gaps between our communities.

And it is the unquestionable result of Blair’s American-inspired foreign policy, played against the backdrop of a rising tide of religious fundamentalism in the world, that matters have worsened. Add to this the pressures on public services – which make it oh so easy to blame people from a different background for your health waiting list, or your lack of school places – and the natural tendency of new communities to stick together – with the divisiveness that can bring – and I think we have to face up to some serious problems.

Labour’s remedy – legislation, the Union Jack and the Britishness test ain’t going to do it. We have to bridge the divisions that Blair has created.

The first bridge must address the divide between those already living here and newcomers as they clash over the pot of scarce public resources. It Presents itself in my surgeries as ‘not fair’ because ‘asylum seekers get all the houses’. But it goes to a very deep and unresolved schism-that of’need’ versus ‘entitlement’.

I argue that we have to address these issues around the Holy Grail of’need’ head on – in order to balance it more fairly with the ‘entitlements’ of the already heres.

This is most acute when it comes to housing. We need not only to introduce a system of allocation that is fair and addresses that clash of need versus entitlement – but to have one that is seen to be fair – published and audited – rather than the often obscure and unpublicised housing allocation rules which can feed rumours and hatreds. And that in order for people to agree that it is fair – you need public participation in decisions over the process and systems in the first place.

The second bridge we need addresses the issue of segregation where it becomes extreme or hostile to other communities. We saw in France and Holland where burying heads in the sand leads: to race riots sparked by the incendiary neglect of inequality and segregation.

Under Blair we have become more segregated – both residentially and socially. I believe we need to rebalance our historical financial support for separate communities with financial incentives for joint working – but obviously without destroying diversity and its benefits.

For example, we need to address issues around schooling – where the current common parental preference for a school where the majority of the pupils match the ethnicity or race of their own child will almost certainly exacerbate segregation unless counter mechanisms are introduced.

Of course the best way forward has to be through ‘soft’ measures. Sport is perhaps the most obvious soft way of bringing communities together – but we need to think much wider – from twinning towns with Middle-East towns,having schools of different faiths sharing common facilities through to looking at what we teach in history – perhaps it is time for more Sulieman the Great and less Napoleon?

And the third of the great divides that we can thank TB for and must bridge- is the growing discrimination against, and fear of, Muslims – which is greater than for any other group.

There has been so much damage done to the image of Muslims with the reporting of news from overseas, where so-called Islamic terrorists often feature – but when those fighting the terrorists, or the victims of terrorism, are also Muslim this often goes unmentioned. The drip-drip effect of linking the word ‘Muslim’ and the word ‘terrorism’ – but not linking “victim” and “Muslim” in the same way – is pernicious.

Part of the solution is to be firm in our values. We live in a democracy.No group-be that Muslims, Jews, Christians, or anyone else has a right to express its disagreement with the democratically elected government by any means other than peaceful protest or political campaigning. That is anon-negotiable first principle.

But we need to also welcome debate and change within the Muslim community.We need a greater cultural exchange and we need much more than my time allows.

Bridging communities in Britain after Blair is going to take improved communication; funding initiatives and schemes that encourage communities together; locally negotiated compromises and fairness and transparency in the allocation of scarce public resources; the use of politics as a uniting rather than a dividing force; a more realistic understanding of the negative impact of our foreign policy; and a greater degree of mutual understanding and cultural awareness.

While these ideas won’t create the melting pot ideal of my youth, they should go some way to ensuring that all the different peoples and communities in our land can live more harmoniously.

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