Political parties must be fit for purpose to tackle societies’ persistent race inequalities. In the report “The Ideal Party: What People Want To See In Parties Today”, when describing their ideal political party, the public’s second most used word was ‘representative’.
At OBV we have been campaigning for nearly 25 years for greater representation for Black and minority ethnic individuals in parliament, and with some success. When we began there were four BME MP’s, now there are over 50. Labour’s Shadow Front Bench is the most diverse bench parliament has ever seen, but we still are about 40 BME MP’s short to see that critical mass that would translate into political parties being brave enough to say, for example, too much of the Brexit debate has had a xenophobic tone and is damaging our society, or introduce policies that could effectively close persistent race inequalities.
When Black and minority ethnic communities talk about wanting racial fairness from our political parties, civic and democratic institutions, it is not something theoretical. A demand for fairness driven by our political elite would touch every aspect of individuals’ and communities’ lives, including jobs, health, criminal justice, housing and education.
This would make a huge difference in outcomes for individuals and enable the challenging conversations we need for change across society. For example, during the centenary year celebrating the end of the First World War, a meme was being shared on social media primarily by young black students. It said:
“37 million people died during WW1, but 60 million people died during slavery. Why should I care about Remembrance, when they can’t show any respect for us during Black History Month.”
One black student in a top London school not only shared the post but printed it off and placed it on the wall of her college. According to the student, her mother was called by a senior teacher who told her under no uncertain terms that the she was racist for putting up the poster, and as a consequence she would be expelled from school for four days, and sent into isolation for ten days to do her mock GSCE exams. The young girl, who had never been in trouble before, was utterly devastated. Her mother was distraught and with the sense of powerlessness that no parent should feel.
The facts around education for black students are about as depressing as they could be: African and Caribbean students are four times more likely to be expelled from school than their white peers. Those who are expelled are, once again, four times more likely to go to prison than their white peers. Finally, in spite of Black parents pushing their children to go to university in record numbers, their experience often isn’t satisfactory and the end result - their grade - is less than their white peers who were accepted into university with the same grades.
I outline this ongoing education nightmare because if education works well, inequality, and in particularly race inequality, is better tackled. So, when Black families are asked what do they want from our political parties and our institutions, the answer is always the same: fairness. Pure and simple. They want to see representative parties and reprehensive polices, in particular, policies that begin to tackle burning injustices such as what transpired with that young Black student.
And yet racial fairness is still some way away from all the political parties, which in turn then translates to political policies still lacking the necessary drive to close the persistent inequality gaps.
That type of inequalities see young black students legitimately raise an issue that society should address: Why don’t we have an anniversary memorial to remind us of the 200 years of slavery, 200 years of colonialism with its economic legacy that still sees western businesses own much of Africa’s resources? Instead of confronting the issues raised by the young girl, she is brutally punished, has her education jeopardized, along with the stigma of being expelled.
The failure to reform will undoubtedly mean that many from BME communities will refuse to engage in a system that is continually working against them, thus perpetuating the cycle that sees many conclude, ‘political parties have never and will never serve us’, so there’s no point getting involved’.
It is vitally important that we break that cycle and ensure our political parties are truly fit for the 21st century.
DISCLAIMER: This blog was produced by Simon Woolley as part of a blog series following the publication of “The Ideal Party: What People Want To See In Parties Today” report. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Involve, University of Sheffield or the ESRC.