I got up this morning and on the news I was hearing that the Lib Dems want to diversify, meaning they don’t want to be – as I call it – so Vanilla or as the radio commentator was saying, ‘White, male and pale.” It seems that they are taking action by setting up an ethnic minority leaders programme. I share the cynicism people have about the idea that any political party should seek to get more ethnic minority voters by getting more ethnic minority candidates; at the same time, I can see the logic there – not that ethnic minority individuals better represent ethnic minority individuals, but that the absence of them/us in any Party suggests some sort of lacking when it comes to equality. And as one interviewee rightly summarized, some ethnic minority individuals will welcome proposals for an ethnic minority leaders programme and some will be totally – and understandably – be put off by it.
I laughed when I was listening to all this because I was thinking of my fleeting encounter with the Lib Dems. At the end of 2009, I decided I would like to work with them. This was after attending a Democrats-Abroad UK event where Nick Clegg spoke – I liked what he said. I approached him afterwards and was quickly pointed to one of his special advisors – who, I’m guessing was about 26, blond, definitely middle class (if not higher). A young, bright thing – as the label goes, though I discourage anyone from calling anyone else ‘thing.’ He gave me his card and said to send in my CV with a few sentences about my interests.
I did just that and I mentioned two interests (1) localism and asset-based community development and (2) diversity in relation to public procurement and commissioning. I emphasised that my interests are in policy development. Eventually I got a meeting with someone whom I was led to believe worked in policy. I turned up at Lib Dem HQ in Westminster. We went somewhere else to have a coffee.
And then it became quickly apparent to me – they had me meeting a British Asian person (I’m of Indian descent) who was part of their ethnic minority outreach team – with a remit of trying to attract ethnic minorities to support the Lib Dems. He (I’m not worried about keeping this person anonymous, because he wanted me to tell this story back then – so if you work with the Lib Dems and his gender and ethnicity give him away, well….so be it, as long as this is not held against him in any way!) immediately realised what was going on, after hearing my introductory spiel. Maybe I was being sensitive, but here’s how it read to me: young, bright, White advisor sees the color of my skin and/or my name and blanks out everything I say/write. He never heard/understood that I was interested in policy – let alone my specific areas of interest.
This in mind, I felt very irritated with the Lib Dems and in that meeting. The person I met with said this was pretty standard Lib Dem practice and asked me to write in a complaint to raise the issue more widely. At the time, I didn’t have the energy/inclination for doing that. I regret this omission. Change happens through awareness-raising, which requires people speaking up.
My advice to the LibDems (and any Party) – if you want to outreach to ethnic minority individuals in different ways, e.g. as voters, as potential candidates, and potential staffers/advisors:
- See us as individuals who, like everyone, have diverse interests and backgrounds, which means…
- Make no assumptions about us based on color, name, religion, ethnicity etc.
- Constantly ensure you are reflective – checking your assumptions and beliefs and how they influence your interactions with people who do not look and/or speak like you or have a non-Anglo name.
- Recognise and act on the fact that ethnic minority individuals – like everyone else – want political representatives who share their principles and policy positions, across a range of issues, and not all of us want to spend energy talking about ‘diversity’ (though I happen to be one that does, but only as one of many political and social interests I have)
- Constantly keep thinking about diversity of experience and perspective generally – I imagine it would be a useful exercise, for example, to reflect on how diverse Lib Dems are as simply as a community of White people.
I’m sure there are more tips I could/should be giving you….but this feels like a good start.
And I’m glad I’m finally telling this story – because at the time of the incident, I was really quite angry about it – as Party leaders were saying today: the Lib Dems claim to stand for fairness and equality, but their appearance says different. But let’s be clear here – appearance is merely one indicator and also is not the best performance measure. Ultimately it is behaviors and choices in relation to public policy that tell the story – not speeches, sound-bites and promises – and it is by their behaviors and choices in public policy that any political party should be measured on its performance in promoting equality.
Great thoughts Veena! Perhaps unsurprisingly (given our conversations), I think the ‘diversity of experience’ piece is pretty key. I would imagine that if you asked around at LibDem or any other party’s HQ, some very distinct trends would emerge, in terms of privilege, as well as (broadly) skin colour).One of my fave organisational outreach stories, was American website Democracy.org, setting up an online ‘hyperlocal’ community in a Somali neighbourhood in Minneapolis. Given their generally white demographics in all their previous online neighbourhood projects, Steve Clift, their director, spent 6 months hanging out in coffee shoppes and mosques, chatting w/ everyone he could in the area about the project, until he found a young man with the right combination of tech expertise, roots in the community, and an interest in civil engagement-type-stuff. Then he hired him as project coordinator and let him get on with this.Breaking through any social/cultural barrier is hard, time-consuming, expensive, and often pretty awkward and embarrassing at times… but when it works, it puts all the ‘ethnic minority leadership panels’ and their like, to shame…Thanks for starting the conversation! :-)Liam
Liam – thanks for this response. The Democracy.org example is great. I like it because it involves personal time, energy, and most of all – talking with PEOPLE, lots of people. To be fair, I guess the Lib Dems have started a conversation by saying something about all this – though the question is how much more considered thought will they give to it. In any event, I hope this post has helped at least a few people think more reflectively and expansively about this issue! Peace and metta. Veena