I have been requested by a visitor to this blog, a fellow councillor, to post the contents of my speech to the A Window On Extremism conference, which was hosted by the London Borough of Hounslow in November 2007 and which I addressed alongside Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action in the House of Lords. Whilst to my knowledge the event was not recorded on video, I retain my notes and am happy to summarise them below.
The Cantle Report, commissioned by the new administration at the London Borough of Hounslow and on which the Conference is based, deals both with religious fundamentalism and with the potential threat from the far-Right. It is important however that we recognise that the two are not mirror images of one another. All the same they do have two important factors in common. The first is they each are the product of disengagement and a feeling that those for whom they speak are disadvantaged or disciminated against. The second is that they result in misery for the wider community.
My own specialist interest is in the activities of the far-Right (I need to point out at this juncture that the term "far-Right" is not one which all my colleagues within the coalition feel comfortable with. Being Right-wing in a political sense and being racist are not in any way the same thing. Nevertheless it is a term with which people are familiar and I use it here out of that familiarity, and out of laziness). This is for two very good reasons. The first is that whilst religious fundamentalism is perhaps more evident, its profile especially high whenever a bombing or such atrocity is committed in its name, it is the far-Right which has the potential to present the bigger threat to good community relations in our society in the long term.
The second is that I personally have a history of far-Right involvement, having been a member of the National Front for twelve years between 1977 and 1989, and of a locally-based grouplet affiliated to the International Third Position for two years after that. Whilst I regret my past associations and assert that my views today are as far removed from those I held two decades ago as they could possibly be, I draw upon them and the unique understanding which they give me in my work today.
The young people in our survey who felt that the far-Right was potentially a bigger threat to our community than religious fundamentalism were in my opinion correct. However at this moment in time the actual membership of far-Right parties is tiny and fragmented. The current membership of the BNP, as declared to the Electoral Commission, is around a third of that which the National Front had in its heyday. And yet the BNP has a number of elected councillors, something the NF never managed to achieve, and can call upon the votes of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, in the large majority of cases people who wouldn't contemplate for a moment actually joining a racist organisation. It is clear that these votes are a cry for help. If we are not prepared to talk to these everyday people and listen to their concerns then we should not be surprised if they turn to those who are.
So we need to be engaging the frustrated, sometimes misled, sometimes excluded white working-class community. We need to be pragmatic. We need to recognise that there are times to talk, and times not to talk. We should not mainstream racism, but at the same time we must be prepared to listen to and engage those genuine concerns which it exploits.
It is this pragmatism which should inform our dealings with the far-Right. Being pragmatic does not mean that we abandon fundamental principles. But where we take a position we should do so for a reason, and not at the behest of some mantra chanted idiot-style but the logic behind it only half understood.
One of the slogans which anti-racists were very fond of during my time as a far-Right activist was "No Platform". It meant that under no circumstances would we legitimise racism by engaging its proponents in debate of any kind.
"No Platform" undoubtedly has its merits. I would not have been happy to have had representatives of the BNP or NF sitting at the Conference, far less sitting at the platform and making a speech. That would have been quite absurd. But I would like us to consider the case of Maureen Stowe, a former BNP councillor for Burnley in the North West of England.
Maureen Stowe was elected to the Council in Burnley on a BNP ticket. But not long after being elected she discovered to her horror that the BNP was a racist party, and severed all links with it. She went on to serve with distinction as an independent councillor working for the benefit of the whole community. It may seem difficult to believe that somebody could be so naive as to stand, and be elected, on a BNP ticket without realising that it was a party with racist views, but the fact is the party is small and it is clearly so desperate to find candidates that it will put up people from the fringes, people who don't know what is going on, people whose understanding of politics is limited. Maureen Stowe, it would seem (I have never met her so my information is second hand), is a basically decent person who was misled and has now seen the error of her ways and has gone on to do good things. To give credit where it is due I believe it was the Labour Party in Burnley who helped her in this process. Clearly a policy of "No Platform" directed at somebody like Ms. Stowe would have been counter-productive. With nowhere to turn and no way out, she may well have just become progressively more deeply involved with the BNP and with its ideology. By being pragmatic, anti-racists in Burnley had a result. So it is important that we tailor our strategy according to the nature of the problem. One size doesn't necessarily fit all.
Another area which calls for clarity is where equalities and diversities fit into the Community Cohesion agenda. It is often suggested that the practice of celebrating differences undermines the objective of trying to build a more united, cohesive community. And in some cases it clearly does.
In my experience there are broadly speaking two schools of thought. At their most polarised, what they amount to is this. One school of thought has it that if ethnicity and culture are simply not mentioned, any divisions or problems associated with them just cease to exist. If we just pretend that everybody is the same, with the same life opportunities, then that state of perfection will axiomatically come instantly into being.
The other, conversely, is the victim mentality. As a member of a minority I will always be discriminated against, I will never be accepted by others, and only by legislating to protect my rights can the extent of my misery and hardship be minimised.
Both of these schools of thought, in my view, run contrary to the spirit of Community Cohesion.
Diversity is a fact of life. People look different, dress differently, eat different foods, pray to different gods, or pray to the same god in different ways. This is not to be despised or resisted. It would be a boring world indeed if everybody looked the same, acted the same and thought in the same way. The key to Community Cohesion is in accepting and respecting diversity, whilst subordinating it in the larger scheme of things to the much more important qualities which we have in common, to our common humanity against which all our differences are inconsequential.
On the other side of the coin if we want people to be the same then we must ensure that people are treated the same. It is a necessary prerequisite of Community Cohesion that everybody has the same life opportunities. We cannot say to people that they must be like us, and then deny them the opportunities which we have. We cannot expect people to buy into a concept of "Britishness" while there are people, and institutions, that refuse to accept them as British with all the rights and duties which that entails.
I have long had grave concerns about how we monitor opportunity. We frequently hear the term "BME" - Black and Minority Ethnic. I handle reports which tell me that we have some percentage or another of "BMEs" working in a particular department or using a particular service. What the hell does that mean? Where, on this planet, is BME land?
We have scores of different ethnic groups, speaking over a hundred languages, in this borough. Some of them have different problems to others. More recent arrivals quite often have difficulties in employment, in education and so forth. Some of the more established minority groups, though they may once have experienced the same difficulties, maybe don't experience them today. By lumping all these people together as "BMEs" there is a danger that we just mask a problem.
In order that we can create the conditions for Community Cohesion we need to tackle discrimination and inequality where it truly exists. We need to tackle hate-crime head-on. In Hounslow we are now doing this proactively through Hounslow Against Racial Harassment, a multi-agency partnership driven by a truly excellent team of officers who it is my absolute pleasure and good fortune to work alongside. There must be no tolerance of hate-crime whatsoever. Our watchword must be: "Where there is ignorance we educate, where there is hatred we legislate".
It is also vitally important that we take race out of party politics. Sadly it is our experience that it is not only the far-Right parties who are prepared to fan the flames of racism for political advantage. There should be an agreement between the democratic political parties and groups not to do this. We should not be talking up racism, smearing people and frightening people in the quest for their votes. The well-being of our community is too important to be placed at risk in this way. If you are responsible for doing this and you have any decency in you, please stop it now.
These are some initial thoughts. They are not exhaustive, they may not even be right. But we need to have the debate, and if this serves as a launchpad for that debate then it will have achieved its objective.