Thursday, June 07, 2007

Mixed race in the Liberal Democrats – an oppressed minority?

As I occasionally note, I fall into the approximately 1.2% of the population who define themselves as ‘mixed race’, and therefore supposedly part of the BME community.

I say ‘supposedly’ because, in the past week, it has become abundantly clear that those in the Party who speak so boldly on behalf of ethnic minorities care very little for me, my needs or my interests. The ongoing debate following the GLA selection has been entirely couched in terms of ‘visible’ ethnic minorities, and the assumption is that your status as a minority is therefore entirely defined by skin colour. If only it were that simple…

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceMy mother was born in Keith, a small town about midway between Aberdeen and Inverness, and brought up in East Sussex. She has pale, occasionally almost translucent, skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. My father was born and raised in Mumbai, came to this country in the early sixties. They met, presumably fell in love, and have now been married for over forty years. He is brown-skinned, with brown eyes and, once upon a time, black hair. He is also from the generally overlooked minority Catholic faith.

Me, I’m brown-eyed, with dark brown hair (tending to grey these days, I’m afraid) with the skin tone of someone who has been out in the sun for just the right amount of time. When I look at myself in a mirror, I increasingly see my father, and there are much worse things to recognise, I can tell you.

I have always felt closer to my Indian family than to my English one, perhaps for no better reasons than that we think alike and that I am comfortable in their presence in a way that I never quite have been with my mother’s relatives.

Accordingly, I have always identified myself as half-Indian and proud of it. Occasionally, when my English friends are getting a little carried away with the sheer wonderfulness of being English, I like to remind them that my ancestors were building great civilisations at a time when painting yourself blue was considered the height of fashion here.

So you might therefore understand why the viewpoint of senior figures within both the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and the Ethnic Minority Election Task Force troubles me. Their suggestion appears to be that only certain BME groups, as defined by them, are worthy of their attention and concern. The rest of us, who don’t quite fit with their view of the world, are somehow disposable and our views either an attempt to patronise or, worse still, to block meaningful change.

I’ve spent most of my political life below the surface of the Party’s processes, attempting in my own small way to create opportunity for all. The fact that I have no personal electoral ambitions appears to make some more cynical souls convinced that I have some other agenda. Clearly, if I had been more nakedly ambitious, my motives would have been more acceptable.

And so my public attempt to persuade the wider Party to make real efforts to create that mystical level playing field is at an end. Instead, I will try to find ways of using the machinery of the Party to experiment with new ideas, consulting with my friends to do so. It just isn’t worth the abuse of doing it any other way


a radical writes said...

Don't give up or feel too dismayed! It's rather sad how the party is coming round to the new more patronising arguements on 'ethnic minorities'. What are your ideas then as to how the party can be more 'multi-cultural' and 'ethnicly supportive'? do we actually need to?

Anonymous said...

Mark, I'm sorry if EMLD, or indeed I, have given you the impression that we are rigidly fixated with 'visible' BME communities in London. This is not true on my part. As a Turkish woman I am not particularly visible BME, unless I leave my hair in its natural tight curly condition!
I remember when I first met you and you told me of your ancestry. I would certainly consider you a person of BME background. In fact people from a mixed race background are one of the single categories that will rapidly rise in the UK over the next 10 years.
The term we use of 'black' is in the politcal sense and means Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities.

Duncan Borrowman said...

You know my views Mark, and I wish you well in your endeavours. But to make them understood by others. I don't think the London Assembly debate is about BME v non BME. It is about what I see as a lack of fairness in the process. That the advert was too near to the cut off, that there was really no time for people to sort approval (unlike the euro elections where there was an advance ad on that subject). That if people asked for the rules, they were told they would get them when they applied (unless of course one of your team is on the London Executive). That the whole system was a brick wall of bureaucracy.

I think big walls of bureaucracy particularly hit those who feel they are outside of "the loop" e.g. BME candidates.

The rules were too complex, and unneccesary. As you said in your last blog post:

At the moment, the trend has been to bring London's Selection Rules into line with those for Westminster and Europe. Perhaps we should actually look at using the London Rules as a laboratory for new ideas, freeing candidates to campaign in new and creative ways, attempting to create genuine equality of opportunity (sorry, I still don't support the notion of mandatory equality of outcome, I believe in genuine merit in selecting candidates). We've talked about a bonfire of regulations in government, perhaps it is time for a bonfire of restrictive Selection Rules.

I would set just one ground rule. In any discussion of any part of the Rules, existing or otherwise, the mandatory question should be, "How will this create opportunity?", instead of, "How do we police this?".

Spot on!

Mark Valladares said...


My apologies if my comments are uncomfortable to you or to EMLD members generally. However, that is the way I now feel, having read the debate and responded to it where I felt it might be of help.

The comments that were made, particularly earlier in the piece, made it abundantly clear that there are two classes of BME member, and that isn't what I joined this Party to calmly accept.

And, after all that has happened in the past two years, to be asked, "Have you ever discussed how you are going to increase diversity in the London Region? Have you taken a lead on this?", is perhaps more than a mild slight.

There are so many other things in the Party that make me glad to be a part of it. There are so many things that I still hope to contribute. So I'll stick to them, thank you, and watch from the sidelines, another victim of so-called friendly fire.

Anonymous said...

Sadly the leadership of EMLD has had a habit of seeing the organisation as a vehicle to get them (the leaders) elected, rather than a body genuinely campaigning for wider diversity and supporting BME candidates in general.

Isn't it time for someone whose primary interest isn't their own prospects to take over EMLD?

You'd be perfect, Mark.

Anonymous said...

It’s very easy to feel ‘out of the loop’ in this party you don’t have to belong to the BME community, whatever its description. How about a new ambition for every part of the party, valuing each other as individuals and no special interest groups, a real level playing field. As to rules about selection why don’t we start looking at what the electorate want and need rather than constantly facing inwards on what other members want. You never know electoral success might follow!
Don't give up Mark.