When Conservative councillor John Cherry spoke openly about his fear of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children boarding weekly at a school in the West Sussex countryside, it was reminiscent of language that was not unusual in the 1980s and 1990s. The legacy of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, 20 years ago this month, was to trigger the Macpherson Inquiry, resulting in legislative reform that has driven out the worst such overt racist behaviour by those in public life.
When Conservative councillor John Cherry spoke openly about his fear of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children boarding weekly at a school in the West Sussex countryside, it was reminiscent of language that was not unusual in the 1980s and 1990s.
The legacy of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, 20 years ago this month, was to trigger the Macpherson Inquiry, resulting in legislative reform that has driven out the worst such overt racist behaviour by those in public life.
Cherry resigned before the Conservative party could sack him. All the party then had to do was to distance itself from the views expressed. Cherry served on West Sussex County Council and Chichester Council, and both issued statements making it clear that the views he expressed were unacceptable and not representative of the views of their councils.
The actions of the two councils, in rejecting his statements, were driven by equality legislation that owes everything to the Lawrence case. There is a now a legal duty on councils to promote racial harmony and cohesion, act to promote equality, and act against discrimination.
Analysis of the impact of social and legislative change in the aftermath of the murder of Stephen Lawrence has rightly focused on the significant gains. The Macpherson Inquiry led to the broader recognition of institutional racism in British institutions and established an equality duty in the Equality Act 2010. The Single Race Equality Duty (now part of the Equality Act) has been law since 2001 as a direct outcome of Macpherson, and means that public bodies have a duty to protect people using their services, including staff, from discrimination on the grounds of race.
‘Race’ is often taken to be a characteristic only possessed by Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) people, leading to resentment that a minority is receiving privileged protection. However this legislation protects everyone as we all have an ethnicity, and can be discriminated against on this basis. So the legacy of Lawrence also protects white people from discrimination based on race.
The three leaders of the main political parties, as well as the Mayor of London, attended the Lawrence family memorial service. In light of the recent Conservative Party lurch to the right on immigration, Cameron’s presence at the memorial service might, by some, be viewed as a part of a cynical campaign to recover some lost ground on the ethnic minority vote.
A cynical tactic to win votes?
The Tories have now embarked on a programme to increase its slice of the ethnic minority vote, which Labour has traditionally laid claim to, and this was seen in the outcome of the last general election.
Gavin Barwell, Tory MP for Croydon Central, described the approach the Conservative Party should take to attract Black voters, and hosted a talk at the progressive Tory Bright Blue pressure group recently on Race in Britain.
The Tories need to be more successful with the BAME population to win the next general election. The Party’s campaign strategy must amount to more than attending the Lawrence memorial service to provide a good photo opportunity for Cameron and Johnson.
However, their presence is a victory for the Lawrence family, and is testament to the campaigning stamina of Doreen and Neville Lawrence. In policing, education, public services, the voluntary and community sector, race inequality has a long journey ahead. Periodically, a John Cherry figure pops up and holds a sign post, signalling the long road that is still to be travelled.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.