It was obvious to me as a long standing member that there was something wrong with race representation within the party. Quite often it was a painful experience. Whether the reason was outright racism or unconscious bias it was tremendously difficult to break through barriers.
As a person of colour one recognises these barriers and lives within these constraints. These barriers are subtle, unspoken and invisible. Many times I would sit in conferences or fringe events where the lack of BME representation was being discussed but no one would think to ask the BMEs present what the solutions were. It is hard to get a word in when you are ignored to begin with. Your opinion feels valueless.
For these reasons I almost cried at Lord Alderdice’s declared starting point which is to admit that there is a ‘serious problem’. It goes on to state that, ‘This is a substantial problem for a party which has committed itself to equality and diversity and the under-representation is so stark that it does not require a statistical study to demonstrate it’.
The report by the Lib Dem Peer titled, ‘Race, Ethnic Minorities and the Culture of the Liberal Democrats‘ dares to go where few do by tackling the issue of a lack of race representation, in this case in the party. People in all settings whether it be in the workplace, in politics or in social spaces fear broaching the subject of race for fear of saying the wrong thing. Lord Alderdice has tackled it head on in a frank and uncensored manner.
It feels like bridge building time with ethnic minority members.
I always carry the memory of my conversation with two ethnic minority women members at a regional conference many years ago. One of these women felt that she was only useful during Diwali when asked to organise a ‘Curry and Politics’ type of evening. The other was a Black woman who felt that her lack of English fluency was a barrier to being included in the party. They asked if I could help them seek representation. Being a new member I was powerless. Little did I realise that I was to remain powerless for many years after that.
The party structure works in an inclusive manner at local level (where I live anyway) but at macro level it falls apart. There is a disconnect between local representation and in the higher structures.
Lord Alderdice questions why the party is not being seen as the natural party of race and ethnic diversity by many BAME communities. His findings show that an overarching answer is an elusive one because racism or rather the experience of it can be subjective. In many ways this is a more valuable finding to a political party seeking new ways of solving a problem. In recognising subjectivity the party is also recognising that there is no dominant BAME type that exists (except in parodies like Ali G jokes).
What is important is to recognise that a lack of BAMEs is a cultural problem first and foremost. If positioned as a political priority it will miss the reasons why people like me have felt excluded. I recoiled when I read this article on Libdemvoice because it lacks a core compassion for those who have been left out and instead sets out a corporate style stakeholder engagement plan. Visits, more visits and office holders isn’t the answer as a primary solution. These ought, instead, to be outcomes.
I also worry about long standing members being overlooked in favour of newcomers when the party decides on how to act on this report because it does have a peculiar fascination with the latter. This is not me, by the way, jostling for position. I am thinking about the two women I referred to earlier.
At the very least what this report does is validate the sense of isolation that many BAME members have felt for a long time.
Lastly, I want to applaud the Lib Dems for being inclusive in many other instances and this is also mentioned in the report in relation to LGBT and women members. But, in my case, I am grateful for the way members at conferences have always welcomed my daughter, Maelo Manning, Libdemchild who gave her first speech at the age of 10. She was always treated with respect despite being so young. I doubt any other political party would have been this welcoming of someone so young.