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Race Equality: We Need Systemic Change, Not Sticking Plasters

Labour’s race equality act launch event descended into farce after equality campaigners and media were banned from attendance — signalling the leadership's dismissive attitude towards black and brown voters.

Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

At first glance, Labour’s package of race equality reforms seems like a step forward, but dig a little deeper and doubts arise about whether these measures will really address the root causes of racial inequality. The first clue is the ditching of the phrase ‘systemic racism’, which represents a recognition that tackling the scourge of racial injustice in society takes more than piecemeal policies.

Rather, the phrase acknowledges that unfair outcomes are perpetrated by a system where racial disparities are the by-product of the elites’ interests in maintaining the status quo. That system upholds a race and class hierarchy with a privileged white strata at the top, a multicultural working class at the bottom, and Black people, Asians, Muslims and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities holding up the pyramid.

Tackling systemic racism necessitates a race-class analysis which is the basis for a unified struggle informed by an understanding that progressive policies raises all boats while recognising the dynamics of racism means a colourblind approach risks leaving people of colour further behind. Viewed through that lens we can see Labour’s race equality offer for what it is; the illusion of progress for electoral gain followed by a shrug of ‘we tried’ when outcomes remain largely unchanged in office.

The electoral calculus is key for Labour. The frontpage of Britain’s only national African and Caribbean newspaper, The Voice, last week declared ‘Starmer don’t care about us.’ It was the clearest sign yet that Labour’s most loyal voter base have had enough of being taken for granted. Parallel to this, Starmer is losing the Muslim vote in droves due to his stance on Israel’s massacre on Palestinians in Gaza, with less than half of Labour’s Muslim base intending to vote for the party at the next election.

This presents a crisis, because previous studies by Operation Black Vote have highlighted how crucial Black and Asian voters are in many swing seats. Despite enjoying huge national poll leads, inside Westminster there is a growing fear that Labour support amongst its traditional voters is weak and vulnerable. The trend of minority ethnic families moving from inner city ‘safe’ Labour seats to more marginal suburbs and satellite towns continues apace, and analysis indicates African and Caribbean voters could be more influential than ever in this years’ general election.

Yet all the indications are that African and Caribbean voters are more disillusioned with Labour than ever before. From the party’s dismissive response to the Forde Report, which unearthed damaging factionalism with racist comments directed at Black MPs, to Diane Abbott losing the whip and a range of ‘internal’ race-related issues, these were all noted in the community at large, which has been frustrated at Labour for generations.

It was inevitable the widely-held view Labour takes Black and Asian votes for granted was going to snap the elastic of undying support at some point. That, combined with the likely collapse in their Muslim vote, and despair from the white working class and progressives at Labour’s changing positions on everything from refusing to raise corporation tax to slashing green investment, adds up to a recipe for disaster.

Factor in non-voting disillusionment and the voter suppression of ID checks at polling stations disproportionately disenfranchising Black and Asian people still willing to vote Labour, and you can understand the panic. So this years’ election is on course to be very different from 2017, when 73 percent of Black and Asian voters supported Labour and pre-election polling put Labour’s support even higher, between 80 to 90 percent.

A Systemic Issue

Keir Starmer first promised a ‘Race Equality Act’ in 2020 but impatience at lack of any details eventually forced the party to set up a working group chaired by Baroness Doreen Lawrence.

We now see the results of those deliberations. There are some good proposals – mandatory ethnicity pay monitoring; access to finance for Black and Asian entrepreneurs; new guidance on police strip searches to prevent another Child Q; and a focus on preventing Black maternal deaths to deal with the fact that Black women are five times more likely to die at or around childbirth among them.

Yet the way all these proposals are framed prompts questions. Ethnicity pay monitoring is treated as a silver bullet but the cause of the wage gap is less about workers doing the same job on different wages, but rather the concentration of people of colour in lower grades.

That is a systemic problem which requires a focus on fair recruitment and promotion, and that in turn means enforcement. But there was no mention of extra powers for Britain’s watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to carry out investigations and issue fines. Also missing was equality in procurement, where the state can use its £300 billion in contracts with the private sector to force change.

Labour was also silent on bringing the private sector fully in line with the Equality Act so businesses adopt ‘positive duties’ to prevent discrimination occurring in the first place. A crucial omission considering the private sector generates far more race discrimination cases.

Labour announced the introduction of ‘dual identities’ when bringing employment tribunal cases, but intersectionality is merely a logical modernisation of existing law not a game-changer. And few workers want to go through the stress of this process anyway, aside from the slim chances of success. Labour said the changes would ‘unlock economic growth through better jobs and more secure employment for BAME people, which… could be worth more than £26 billion a year in increased salaries.’

Meanwhile, the party has abandoned its commitment to a single status of worker rights ‘from day one’, even though Black and Asian workers are twice as likely to be stuck in low-paid insecure work in the gig economy, and disproportionately on bogus self-employed contracts. The watering down of workers’ rights moves Britain away from equality and equity and simply entrenches the wealth gap.

This shows that tackling racial injustice at work is more than monitoring pay, it is about the structure of the economy which traps people in poverty. This needs systemic change, such as using the green transition to bake in equality into new jobs. However, the party has massively scaled back their green investment from £28 billion to £10 billion a year.

Announcing the package, Labour’s shadow equality minister Anneliese Dodds boasted: ‘Labour knows that equality and growth are two sides of the same coin.’ This ignores the fact that disproportionate Black unemployment has hardly shifted in the last twenty years despite half of that period experiencing significant growth.

On the justice system, Labour promised to update the Lammy Review but the devil is in the detail. The missing recommendations from that report was disparities in charging and sentencing. Will the former Director of Public Prosecutions tackle his former workplace and the judiciary?

Also missing from the proposals was any statement about ending the hostile environment on immigration and asylum, and a watering down of the previous commitment to remove the Windrush compensation scheme from the Home Office.

Members of Doreen Lawrence’s race equality taskforce were not told of the launch set for yesterday afternoon or sent the press release. We were informed the event was cancelled only to later find out it was going ahead as a drastically scaled down event where no media were invited. A member of the working group wasn’t told where it was, found out and struggled to get in. They are understood to be livid, having spent some time on the topic.

Race and Class: Intrinsically Interlinked

Keir Starmer has an ongoing fixation with the idea that white working class voters in the Red Wall are all anti-immigration racists. While immigration was a central factor in the Brexit vote in such constituencies, this outlook is lacking on two fronts.

First, that working class communities are more multicultural than the rest of society; and second, that Brexit was largely an expression of the desire for radical change to improve their standard of living. Indeed private polling by the TSSA union before the 2019 election presented straight choices between tightening the borders and Jeremy Corbyn’s transformative policies. Most respondents picked progressive change. This underlines the huge potential to win working class communities with a serious programme and a positive narrative to address race and class disadvantage simultaneously and together.

Talking about opening ‘barriers to opportunity’ is not enough. It is outcomes that are the issue. A key example of this is Labour’s proposal for ‘equal access to finance from the government’s development bank.’

Barriers to finance for Black and Asian budding entrepreneurs has long been a problem, but technically high street banks don’t discriminate on race. The entrepreneurs get less start-up loans due to credit worthiness; the result of a disproportionate lack of income, assets and good credit ratings. This is caused by systemic racism in society leading to generational disadvantage in education and employment, poverty and criminalisation. It needs systemic solutions because Black and Asian people have equal access but a less than equal reality.

It is clear Labour want to avoid using the power of the state to force change, let alone bring in penalties for failure to meet targets. They don’t want to upset business or the Red Wall. And they don’t want to pledge cash to incentivise and enable progress. Yet they expect entrenched race equality to come about by ministerial decree and passing a ‘Race Equality Act’. This is either naivety or deception.

Challenging systemic racism must be one of the central missions of a Labour government to make a tangible difference. This involves a muscular approach challenging power and capital, both of which have interests in preserving inequality for everyone else.

But the mission must also be about bringing attitudinal change; and that comes from building common cause between people and communities of all backgrounds, while pointing clearly at the real causes of inequality the political and corporate elites who keep the masses down.

Starmer’s Labour are not going to do that. By picking and choosing individual areas of racial injustice they are letting the system off the hook. And consequently they will let down anyone who is initially impressed by the policy offers.

About the Author

Lester Holloway is an anti-racist writer and trade unionist. He was previously Editor of The Voice, Britain's only Black national newspaper. He also previously worked at the Runnymede Trust and the TUC. He is writing in a personal capacity.