Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust.
David Cameron is leading a charge into land that was once undisputed Labour territory: tackling racial inequality. His recent comment that the failure of top universities to recruit black students “should shame our nation” has been followed by the appointment of David Lammy, the Labour MP, to head a review into race and criminal justice. The Government has set other wheels in motion to investigate various aspects of unequal racial outcomes although it is unclear whether they all fit together in a coherent vision.
There has been little debate in Conservative publications about these interesting moves, even though they could potentially form an important part of Cameron’s legacy. Perhaps Tories are taking it all in their stride, having grown comfortable with modern multicultural Britain. If so, the party would enjoy a smoother transition than Labour during in the 1980s.
But how serious and long-standing this commitment will be in terms of addressing race inequality is unclear. This is so also when it comes to where the Prime Minister sees the issues in the context of the Government’s mission and Conservative political philosophy.
Last year, he told his party conference of his anger over the fact that a black person has to send out twice as many CVs to get a job interview, and got sustained applause for saying it. This seemed to lay down a marker that Tories are now taking race inequality more seriously, having already travelled a long way from the days of Enoch Powell.
At the last election, the Conservatives saw 17 ethnic minority MPs elected and picked up over a quarter of BME votes. Perhaps the latest moves on race equality are a bold incursion into Labour territory to consolidate and increase the ‘Black vote’. With the BME population over 14 percent and rising to 30 percent by mid-century, such a development could weaken Labour’s prospects significantly – just as George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse appeals to aspirational professionals in booming northern metropolises.
During recent weeks, the Government has also announced a review on integration. Ruby McGregor-Smith, a Conservative peer, will lead the review on employment and a FTSE-100 chairman has been suggested for the review on diversity on boards. Matthew Hancock is investigating diversity in Whitehall and the public services, and Maria Miller’s Women and Equalities Select Committee has announced an inquiry into the barriers that Muslims face in the labour market.
There is a lot of evidence already – the Runnymede Trust has almost 50 years of reports on all these issues – so the Government will ultimately be judged by its actions and results. Nevertheless, Cameron is showing leadership in highlighting directly to his party and wider British society the persistence of racial discrimination in twenty-first century Britain. Without his leadership, it is doubtful that we would be seeing this flurry of announcements, and this is an important lesson for any organisation seeking to make progress.
The Prime Minister first suggested targets to address racial discrimination, particularly in employment, in front of a mostly non-white audience in Croydon before the election. The local Conservative MP, Gavin Barwell, ended up winning an ultra-marginal in this highly diverse seat.
There is much to do. Recent news that the civil service has an even less diverse intake than Oxford University, and the failure to equality audit the Budget, show that the Government needs to get its own house in order as well as tackle wider issues of race inequality.
Furthermore, the ‘20/20’ Government pledge to improve disparities in employment are less ambitious than they first appear when the demographics of a growing black and minority ethnic working population is taken into account. A target of 10 per cent of apprenticeships being ethnic minorities may be an improvement on 2010-15 figures but it falls far short of the 20 per cent of the 18-24 year old population that is an ethnic minority. Similarly, the higher education targets barely meet the growing share of BME university applicants.
There is a need for the Government to join up the various inquiries, reviews and targets in a strategic way, underpinned by a common vision that has buy-in from the party faithful to make them long-lasting – whoever takes over from Cameron as Prime Minister.
A clear direction of travel is required because different issues intersect. Ethnic minority labour market outcomes would be much improved if their univeristy degree performance matched that of white graduates, while ex-offenders face enormous barriers to employment. Without a clear plan or strategy there’s a danger that the various strands of policyt won’t be effectively linked togethet to maximise the possibility of successfully overturning racial inequalities.
To ensure that racial discrimination is significantly less in 2020 than when David Cameron first became Prime Minister will require more than a flurry of positive announcements. Ongoing leadership and joined-up thinking will be necessary if the Conservatives are to show they have made a difference in making Britain more racially equal and fair.