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Why Labour struggles to find its voice on race

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HOW ambitious would a Labour government be in office? The party’s scaling back of its flagship green economy investment plan dominated the past week in Westminster. But this was also a week in which it sought to illuminate its plans on racial equality.

Keir Starmer did two things to respond to the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests in the summer of 2020. He posed with his deputy Angela Rayner, both taking the knee and tweeting out the picture. He also proposed that Labour would introduce a Race Equality Act. The photograph, in his Westminster office, comes over as awkward and clunky. It is now much more likely to be referenced by Starmer’s political opponents than his allies. Rishi Sunak used it as a jibe at Prime Minister’s questions. Yet attacking Starmer for taking the knee contains as much risk as reward for the Conservatives.

Labour’s plan was to unveil the substance of its policy. The commitment was made mainly because a flagship race relations act sounds like the sort of good thing that Labour governments should do.

Governments legislate for many reasons. The King’s Speech can signal that issues matter – hence the proliferation of criminal justice and immigration bills, often banning things that are already illegal.  Anneliese Dodds, the thoughtful shadow equalities secretary, says legislative change will help. Just because it is illegal to discriminate does not mean it is not happening. There are different rules for anti-discrimination claims on the basis of gender, race and disability: the party will consult over competing views of which are most effective.

The jury will remain out on how far the Race Equality Act is intended as a primarily symbolic measure, tidying up and tweaking the legislative framework, or a more substantive change.

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LEAD Comment INSET Labour Keir Starmer Angela Rayner CREDIT X
Sir Keir Starmer taking the knee with Angela Rayner (Pic credit: Twitter)

Labour’s policy challenge is this. The UK has a strong legislative framework for equality, and the most comprehensive framework for data collection, even if it could be improved further. But significant ethnic disparities remain. Black women have much higher levels of mortality giving birth. Levels of trust and confidence in policing and criminal justice reflect the perception and reality of unequal experiences of key public services.

Labour would make ethnic pay gap reporting mandatory for companies of over 250 people. There are many practical reasons why it will be more complex and challenging than on gender reporting. Gender remains a primarily binary category in aggregate data. Ethnic minorities are a smaller aggregate group, with complex outcomes across different minority groups, further complicated by the demographics of diversity across generations. This is a deliverable reform, but Labour is probably over-invested in how far that might deliver significant changes. Large firms will be able to crunch the data as part of their Equality and Diversity offerings. There is a much bigger gap for medium-sized and smaller companies and charities in how to adopt good practice for recruitment, retention and progression without that type of human resources capacity.

Sunder Katwala
Sunder Katwala

The most compelling evidence that there is more to do to achieve race equality in Britain is that the name on your CV still affects how likely you are to get an interview. The Reframing Race initiative found this argument has the strongest public cut through across minority and majority groups. A race equality strategy should put front and centre the constructive solutions to tracking and eliminating this disparity. The EHRC could be given powers to apply the insights from academic ‘mystery shopping’ studies in real time, piloting models – from the civil service and law firms, to construction and supermarkets – for how to track and eliminate this disparity, across the parliament.

Labour did not publish any outline of its plan, beyond briefing some media outlets on some of its proposals. The cancellation of a launch event, later held online, risked further fracturing tense relationships between the party and civic society voices working on race equality within and beyond the party. The abiding impression given by an on-off launch was of race as an issue on which Labour is nervous about its ability to engage with constructive and critical challenges.

There are many reasons why Labour struggles to find its voice on race.  The pattern of outcomes and opportunities has never been more complex, across groups and generations. In an increasingly diverse Britain, Labour faces different challenges within and across different minority groups. The implosion of Labour’s by-election campaign in Rochdale has called into question the depth of Labour’s cultural change on antisemitism, at the same time as it is struggling to maintain fractured trust with British Muslims.

Minority or majority disadvantages are often set up as causes we must choose between, making a social democratic mission of building broad coalitions for mutual solidarity more difficult. There is much more work to do on how a Labour government would integrate a vision of race equality into its national mission to break down barriers to opportunity for all.

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