In the general election of 1964, Peter Griffiths, a “Tory nonentity”, shot to victory with a racist slogan; 'Skin-Deep Democracy: How race, religion and ethnicity continue to affect Westminster politics' (pdf), a new report published today by Quilliam, shows that a lot has changed since then - but also warns that the parties could do more to promote integration through equal involvement in Westminster politics.
In the general election of 1964, Peter Griffiths, a “Tory nonentity”, shot to victory with a racist slogan; ‘Skin-Deep Democracy: How race, religion and ethnicity continue to affect Westminster politics’ (pdf), a new report published today by Quilliam, shows that a lot has changed since then – but also warns that the parties could do more to promote integration through equal involvement in Westminster politics.
The report, which I co-authored with my colleague Anya Hart Dyke, was covered in this morning’s Telegraph. Unsurprisingly, the Telegraph focused mainly on the racism reportedly experienced by some of our interviewees. However, this was just one of the issues raised in it.
The report also explored, for example, how parties seeking ‘bloc votes’ risk damaging integration and representative democracy.
That is to say, we examined the attempts some politicians have made to ‘reach out’ to Britain’s diverse population by engaging solely with leading figures within traditional clan-type structures or religious institutions or by manipulating controversial issues. We found that the results of such ‘engagement’ tended to be divisive and that, at times, it resulted in the promotion of ‘community gatekeepers’ rather than real engagement with voters.
The ongoing case of Phil Woolas has given a new prominence to the question of what it means to campaign ethically, but our report documents other examples, such as one candidate being “hit” for having an East African Asian heritage in an area with a large Asian population. Likewise, Shabana Mahmood MP has complained that, in the days before her election, some individuals:
“… decided to spread lies about me in order to defame my character as a Muslim woman.”
Interviewees also reported a range of racialised, ‘religionised’ and even racist experiences. For example, some interviewees complained that they had been ‘typecast’ as only suited to contesting seats where they shared the same background as many of the electorate. Less common, but no less worrying for that fact, were examples of outright racism, like one candidate claiming that another party member had said:
“People like you clean toilets in Heathrow.”
What can be done about such phenomena? Based on the reported experiences of our interviewees, we warn that parties should avoid short term tactics such as positive discrimination, trying instead to address underlying cultural issues within their memberships.
For example, according to those interviewees who reported negative experiences, these were most often a result of the culture within their local party branches, an issue which positive discrimination would sidestep, not address. Therefore, long term cultural change within the parties is needed to guarantee that everybody who has the desire and talent to become involved in Westminster politics can do so, whatever their background.
Working towards this goal will not be easy, but it will also bring great benefits for British democracy and society.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.