Tackling Trevor Phillips


by Shariq
9th November, 2008 at 2:46 am    

In March, Trevor Phillips wrote an extremely critical piece on Barack Obama. In response to questions about why Britain couldn’t have an Obama, he gave a multi-faceted reply. Firstly, he pointed out that the UK and US have very different demographics with the black population in America making up a bigger proportion of the population. More importantly, Phillips argued that, ‘Black Britons can’t bring centuries of white guilt to bear with the devastating impact that African-Americans have done for two generations.’

After dividing prominent black people into either ‘challengers’ who guilt white people into policies such as affirmative action and ‘bargainers’ who agree not to point out America’s racism if America isn’t racist towards them, Phillips ended with the following. That rather than ushering in a post-racial America, Obama’s ‘charm, skill and ruthless cynicism’ was more reminiscent of Bill Clinton than JFK.

Now, it seems that Mr Phillips diagnosis for why Britain couldn’t have its own Obama isn’t demography or white guilt, but the institutional racism within the Labour Party which prevents outsiders from breaking through. I think he has a point but that he’s over-stating it so lets break it down.

It’s the Math, Stupid

Ethnic minorities make up less than 10% of the British population. On the other hand, minorities make up between 25% and 35% of America’s population depending on how you classify white Hispanics and Latinos.

Now that racism is less of an issue in America (although the Deep South and parts of Appalachia aren’t included in that), its not surprising that given the numbers, they were likely to be first to elect an ethnic President. Also lets not forget that Colin Powell may have achieved this milestone in 2000 if he had decided to run, so despite his talents Obama wasn’t the only person who could have achieved this.

The Democratic Coalition

Matt Yglesias made a really interesting point about how non-white, non-christians now form a plurality of the Democratic party.

There are, of course, white Christian Democrats. But most Democrats are black, Hispanic, Asian, irreligious, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or (like me) several of the above…So a JFK, an Obama, is very exciting — not only to black voters (or, in the right moment, Catholic ones) but really to all members of the pluralist coalition. It’s a reaffirmation that we, too, are all Americans and not some kind of second-rate hangers-on who need a white (ideally southern) Christian to help shield the public from our ickiness.

I would add women and gay people to that list, but on the whole this makes a lot of sense. This isn’t to say that this coalition won’t break apart if the Democrats don’t govern well, but it helps to explain why an ethnic candidate might find it easier to get to the top.

In the UK ethnic minorities don’t really form a part of the core coalition of any of the three parties. As far as I can tell Labor is a coalition of the working class and professionals who moved to it in 1997 but may be moving back. The Conservatives are a coalition between rural folk, middle England and the prosperous South and the Lib Dems are also a largely middle class, southern party (2005 election map). Again, part of this is demography and it isn’t anyone’s fault. Indeed you might say that this is a better state of affairs than one in which the ‘other’ is all concentrated in one party.

The Institutional Problem

“My point is a very simple one – the political system is to some extent closed to outsiders, to people who are not of a particular stamp. This is not just about race, this is a wider point that our leadership class is really basically white, male and professional. It is very hard for women to break in and very hard for working-class people to get to the higher reaches of parties.”

This part of Trevor Phillips argument actually makes sense to me. Control of who gets selected as a ppc depends on either local constituency groups which are horribly outdated or central command which has its own agenda. I’ve argued before that having primaries to select ppc’s would be a very positive thing. Apart from forcing candidates to connect with voters in order to get nominated, it would also hopefully lead to mp’s having more independence when they got into parliament.

Conclusion

I don’t think that Britain needs to feel bad that we haven’t had a minority prime minister yet. However, it would be nice to see some institutional change in how mp’s are elected. I think the black conservative mp Adam Afriyie has it right when he says,

“I do not believe we will see a black prime minister in my lifetime. In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it’s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.”

I think whether or not there will be a black or asian prime minister is pure speculation. However, the ‘outsider’ problem he mentions in the second part is more important to resolve even if it doesn’t lead to an ethnic prime minister.


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  1. Tackling Trevor Phillips : Pickled Politics

    [...] Tackling Trevor Phillips : Pickled Politics In March, Trevor Phillips wrote an extremely critical piece on Barack Obama. In response to questions about why Britain couldn’t have an Obama, he gave a multi-faceted reply. Firstly, he pointed out that the UK and US have very different demographics with the black population in [...]


  2. Pickled Politics » Having an ethnic minority prime minister

    [...] was upbeat about the possibility, Trevor Phillips less so, while Shariq provided an excellent comparison between Britain and the USA’s respective [...]




  1. Roger — on 9th November, 2008 at 5:01 am  

    The same factors that stop a “British Obama” also stop a “British Bush”. The British system is much more locally based. The fact that local political parties are now much smaller and so less representative of their area than they were means that it would be better to widen selection procedures, but that’s a result of the destruction of the power of local government.

  2. Boyo — on 9th November, 2008 at 8:44 am  

    I think what Trevor Phillips was saying was that Britain was not ready for Trevor Phillips as a British PM, not least because of the institutional opinion within the Labour Party that he is a bit of an arse.

    But talk about choosing a turd from the jewel box: to all black British people – just when you thought you can do it, yes you can, this prick is saying no.

    The US is WAY behind the UK with respect to racism – it’s even still seen as “radical” to screen mixed race relationships (and was only a few years ago that the “Alex” character in ER went out with an African-American – but then only because she was a Brit).

    The UK has a shining record of pragmatic self-interest when it comes to choosing its PM – it had a Jewish PM in the 19th C and a woman in the 20th C – both of which would doubtless engender gasps of woo aren’t we right-on from the Yanks. The Brits are likely to elect a pair of Eton twats next time around, yet it won’t be because of their class but despite it.

    The only thing this kind of talk does is actually promote antagonism – like much “grievance” sentiment it draws attention to an issue that in most people’s mind had not existed (not dis-similar to the self-generating whine about Islamophobia) and leaves one thinking: people who actually think like this, probably aren’t ready.

  3. billericaydicky — on 9th November, 2008 at 9:59 am  

    What no one is asking is why do we need a black Prime Minister? What has been encouraging and came through very strongly on the comments on the article by Lester Holloway on CiF that I refered to is the fact that no one could see the need unless the person was of sufficient quality to do an outstanding job.

    There are two totally fraudulant theories doing the rounds at the moment which seem to translate as this.

    That if the selection system was fair, non racist and there was a completely level playing field then Parliament, local authorities, police, fire service and every other single public and private institution would exactly reflect racially, down to per centage points, the ethnic make up of the country.

    That this has not happened means that there is racial discrimination be it institutional, unwitting,unintentional, or whatever is fashionable this week. The only way to achieve racial justice is to discriminate against white people by having all black short lists.

    In my experience some ethnic groups tend to be more active politically than others. In Tower Hamlets there are more Bangladeshi councillors than there should be in relation to their percentage of the population. Bangladeshis are therefore over represented, and, under what is being proposed by OBV they should be restricted by law and, in some wards, all white lists imposed.

    We had a local black “activist” moaning in Hackney the otherday that because the local division had failed to recruit twenty five of the coppers that it was short there should be no more white recruitment. What seems to have escaped the lady concerned was that if black people had wanted to apply then with twenty five vacancies they had a chance of being selected provided that they were up to the requirements.

    What has to be taken into consideration is the way that people are selected as councillors and MPs. I have posted elsewhere that the current campaign to “encourage” ethnic minority women to get involved in politics is nothing more than a financial fraud. If people are motivated enough they will join a politicalparty and work within it, no one can be refused membership of a party except in exceptional circumstances. That is step one.

    The person then has to show that they have the ability to be a councillor by doing all the usual hard graft in the ward, making the right connections and then putting their name forward for consideration when a vacancy comes up.

    That is one way is one that many wards across the country use and is what I call the Tammany Hall model basedon the Irish Americans who totally controlled politics in places like Chicago and Boston.

    You can look at Tower Hamlets and see the same pattern. Wards are controlled by particular factions from particulat Syhleti villages and if you are not in you are out and thats it. There have been blatant examples of discrimination againsttalented white people in favout of the nominee of a powerful group of businessmen.

    The other way in which the arguments for all black lists falls down, apart from the fact that it is illegal, is that were it to be put into practise we would end up with state sanctioned apartheid.

    Let’s look at how it would work in practise. If it were to be applied on a country wide basis as its protagonists claim that it should then very white areas would have to have candidates for council elections imposed on them from the metropolitan areas and literally bussed in. There is no other way that the balance, in that way, can be achieved.

    If the other scenario were to be adopted then where there are large proportions of ethnic minorities, as in the inner cities, political parties would be forced to dump good existing white councillors and impose ones from ethnic minorities. We would end up with white people in the inner cities effectively disenfranchised and ready to listen to Nick Griffin.

    Anyway, time for breakfast and ten lengths of the swimming pool. I’ll be back later to see what you all think.

  4. El Cid — on 9th November, 2008 at 10:30 am  

    Nice article Shariq. It had depth and balance.
    Although I could easily pick holes in Phillips’s arguments (I won’t because I respect the fact he tries to acknowledge both class and race issues), I am persuaded by your arguments for primaries.
    You’re right to focus on the process by which we get to a fairer system. I think that is just as important as the end. The more transparent, the better.
    I remember the clamours for all-woman shortlists back in the 1980s, and being put off a political career as a result. All I could see was well-to-do and well-connected women gaining at the expense of people like me who had no representation. It’s fair to say that that resentment stayed a long time. And as we all know social resentment is a powerful and dangerous political force.
    Still, I think the issue of gender under-representation, regardless of ethnicity, is a thornier issue and arguably more pressing than BME representation. The practicalities of having a family and working as an MP are very hard to reconcile. So in addition to primaries, we need to think about how we can make the job more family friendly.
    Lastly, I have problems with the term BME and BME stats. They are open to abuse. If you are willing to include Irish, Jewish, and other non-native white tribes, you’ll see the levels of representation in parliament are greater than some have made out. Do we not count?
    Also, can a Bangladeshi from Nehham really rep a Greek Cypriot from Tottenham better than a Scot from Paisley? Can a Nigerian from Peckham represent a Turk in Hackney better than Ray from Romford? Can Manuel of Highbury represent Shipa of Southhall better than Lionel of Golders Green? I’m not convinced.
    Sometimes we can get too hung up on these things.
    It’s not the colour of someone’s skin that matters but the content of their character.
    If the process of selection was made more transparent, then maybe we could all relax a bit more. However, there is one potential danger of a more open architecture to MP selection : that is, if people abuse ethnic linkages to vote en bloc (E.g “All Brown people should vote Tory”). That would be divisive and stir resentment.
    I would want that outlawed by the selection rules (i.e. no campaigning along ethnic lines).
    Think of it as a bargain/social pact between the majority and minorities.

  5. Gege — on 9th November, 2008 at 11:14 am  

    In my opinion, if we introduce open primaries into our political system, more talented people will emerge.

  6. Rumbold — on 9th November, 2008 at 12:30 pm  

    Excellent piece Shariq. However, I still think that local constituency groups should select the the candidates, as for all their failings, at least they are local groups. And they are the ones that do the work and donate at the end of the day.

  7. MaidMarian — on 9th November, 2008 at 1:28 pm  

    Shariq – It is a good article, but a couple of thoughts.

    The most interesting comment in the Times article you link to is actually Sadiq Khan. ‘[Philips] is right to say that the British electorate is a lot fairer and tolerant and can see through skin colour.’

    There is a slightly wider point here (I think BillericayDickey gets at this) which is that the public can vote for whomever it wants to. Phillips can rail all he likes about ‘the system’ the fact remains that decisions are made by those who show up. That some have their noses put out of joint by those decisions is really just too bad. If the public wants to go out there and vote for a specific ‘stereotype’ then I don’t think that party processes are really the place to start. I agree with El Cid that gender discrimination is a more difficult issue here.

    The demographics relative to the US do make Obama a bit of a bad comparison but what I don’t really get from Philips is what he feels we should all physically do. He doesn’t really say we should vote BME on the basis of colour, but all this skates a little close to a suggestion that the voters are wrong somehow.

    The other thought is about primaries. Firstly these can be very costly and (on some models at least) favour those able to pay for a primary campaign. Secondly, if the problem is one of ‘mindset’ and some not being willing to step forward as a candidate I struggle to see how primaries, potentially very divisive, will help. Lastly, voters in primaries again can vote for who they like and if the aim is to increase BME participation it is not one that primary voters are compelled to buy into.

  8. Shariq — on 9th November, 2008 at 7:17 pm  

    Some excellent comments. Firstly let me clarify that my conclusion is that it doesn’t really matter if we get an ethnic pm or not – i’m more concerned about transparency in selection procedures.

    Someone correct me if I’m wrong but you either become a ppc by being selected by your local party or being given a seat by the central command.

    If its the local party, then as people have pointed out, its a pretty specific type of person who gets involved. Also, this isn’t the old days where people live in one community all their lives and know everyone else and all participate. How many people at a local level are actually involved in selection?

    If you are selected by the party higher command then your allegiance will be to your party rather than your constituents.

    If we have faith in the voting public then let them choose who they want to represent them.

  9. Sunny — on 9th November, 2008 at 7:45 pm  

    I think the ‘primaries’ factor is important here because the system is very slow and less meritocratic here.

    But saying that, everyone expected Hillary to be the nominee because of her links within the party. So its not that institutions are completely absent in the US. Mike Huckabee didn’t make it partly because he didn’t have the backing that brought in money. That was the reason why McCain initially had major problems and nearly went bankrupt.

    Obama became president because he out-maneuvered two of the world’s most powerful electoral machines – Clintons and Republicans. That takes a LOT of skill.
    In that sense it was a once in a lifetime event because it would have been difficult to become President anyway. And lastly, it was Bush’s complete incompetence that helped people get energised enough to volunteer like crazy for Obama. There are a whole range of factors that make it difficult for a British Obama. These circumstances don’t come around often. The universe conspired to help Obama win, basically.

  10. MaidMarian — on 9th November, 2008 at 10:49 pm  

    Shariq (9) – ‘Also, this isn’t the old days where people live in one community all their lives and know everyone else and all participate. How many people at a local level are actually involved in selection?’

    Yes, but a caveat.

    That does not per se mean that the candidate chosen by a small circle will be poor quality. I realise that you are not saying that primaries will necessarily increase the quality of candidates (or even produce the best candidate from the field).

    Sunny (10) – ‘And lastly, it was Bush’s complete incompetence that helped people get energised enough to volunteer like crazy for Obama.’

    Volunteer for Obama or volunteer for the other guy, whom ever that turns out to be. Maybe Clinton would not have ridden the tide Obama did, maybe not. But I’m not convinced that the universe aligned for ‘the other guy’ rather than Obama specifically.

  11. MaidMarian — on 9th November, 2008 at 10:49 pm  

    Shariq (9) – ‘Also, this isn’t the old days where people live in one community all their lives and know everyone else and all participate. How many people at a local level are actually involved in selection?’

    Yes, but a caveat.

    That does not per se mean that the candidate chosen by a small circle will be poor quality. I realise that you are not saying that primaries will necessarily increase the quality of candidates (or even produce the best candidate from the field) but mass involvement doesn’t always make for the best result.

    Sunny (10) – ‘And lastly, it was Bush’s complete incompetence that helped people get energised enough to volunteer like crazy for Obama.’

    Volunteer for Obama or volunteer for the other guy, whom ever that turned out to be. Maybe Clinton would have ridden the tide Obama did, maybe not. But I’m not convinced that the universe aligned for Obama specifically rather than ‘the other guy.’

    Not sure why a slightly earlier version of this got posted above – please ignore!

  12. leon — on 10th November, 2008 at 12:03 am  

    The universe conspired to help Obama win, basically.

    LOL! I think you’ll find it was a very human made win, no ‘god’ or universe involved. ;)

  13. Ravi Naik — on 10th November, 2008 at 12:14 am  

    The reason why you will not see a minority prime-minister any time soon is that identity politics IS the modus operandi of this country. Multiculturism, after all, for all its virtues, does mean that politicians (and bloggers) suffer from a severe case of short-sightedness: you are supposed to focus on your community, not see Britain and its people as a whole.

    For instance, a prominent progressive blogger of Asian persuasion once said he was so pissed off that Cameron had agreed with Obama that black men should be more responsible – you see: Obama can say it because he is black, but Cameron is supposed to keep his mouth shut.

    My guess is that this country is ready to elect a black or Asian prime-minister – but she needs to transcend identity politics, and be all inclusive. My guess is that this politician will most likely be a Tory, will rally around the concept of Britishness, and will govern right-centre.

  14. billericaydicky — on 10th November, 2008 at 10:03 am  

    I am not sure which article of Phillips people are refering to. I am looking at one mentioned in the current leading article in Searchlight by the Editor Nick Lowles. Entitled “Is a recession good for the BNP?”, it will be upon the website shortly, http://www.searchlightmagazine.com, and is thought provoking stuff.

    He quotes Phillips in a speach to the CBI as saying ” After forty years in which it was impolite to speak frankly about immigration policy, we must now be able to address this fundamental aspect of economic policy without embarressment or without fear of being labelled closet racists or open border fantasists. ” In what is to come, the best defence against prejudice against immigrants will be to make those who resent them competitive, to give them a place in society. ” Wemay need to do this with the sort of special measures we’ve previously targeted at ethnic minorities. But the name of the game today is to tackle inequality, not special pleading”.

    What this is a recognition that the whole “positive discrimination” scam did nothing except pour money into dubious ethnic minority groups and fuel the hostility of whites.

    That speech was in the economic sphere and what is being joined now is that battle against all blacklists and the idea that each ethnic group can only be represented by one of its own or, that there is a constituency called BME BAME or whatever, that has a common interest against white people.

    We live in interesting times! I felt for years like a voice in the wilderness even within the anti fascist movement for voicing opinions that now seem to be mainstream.

    I think it would be worthwhile posting up Nick’s article, I know he wouldn’t mind, and getting a discussion going on a very important subject.

    If people in the North West want to get involved in the anti BNP campaign the contact details are on http://www.hopenothate.org.uk. Griffin will be standing in the Euro elections next year and it is going to tough to keep him out.

  15. Yusuf Smith — on 10th November, 2008 at 11:35 am  

    Don’t generalise about the Deep South; the New York Times published maps of vote swings county by county, and the only parts of the country where there were major swings towards the Republicans were the Appalachians (from south-west Pennsylvania down along the Kentucky/Virginia and North Carolina/Tennessee borders), plus most of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, north Alabama, north and east Texas and most of Louisiana, particularly the south, probably caused by evacuations from Katrina. Other parts of the Deep South, such as the Carolinas and Mississippi (perhaps NC isn’t really deep South anymore, although parts of it certainly are), swung towards the Democrats even though only NC actually voted for Obama. So, clearly attitudes are different inland compared to how they are on the coasts, because the maps show that even the rural parts of the Carolinas swung towards Obama.

  16. shariq — on 10th November, 2008 at 12:09 pm  

    Yusuf, I was actually referring to that map when I mentioned the Deep South! I was generalising though and your analysis is spot on.

  17. Ravi Naik — on 10th November, 2008 at 2:14 pm  

    That map is pretty impressive and really bad news for Republicans – they have become a regional party. Unlike every other region in America, more Appalachians voted for McCain than for Bush in 2004 – which suggests they might have voted against Obama.

  18. Ravi Naik — on 10th November, 2008 at 2:20 pm  

    By the way, I read today that Obama is planning to close Guatanamo. He is already fullfilling my wishlist. :)

  19. billericaydicky — on 11th November, 2008 at 8:33 am  

    The articles that I mentioned are now up on http://www.searchlightmagazine.com and the one on the BNP targeting young whites is of particular interest given that Islamic fundamentalists are doing exactly the same thing.

  20. El Cid — on 11th November, 2008 at 10:06 pm  

    Ravi,
    #14 is spot on.
    Not only that, I see the underlying conclusion as fair game. You have a feel for the post racial agenda. I’m not sure Sunny has. But he is trying.
    When you gonna write a post?

  21. Ravi Naik — on 12th November, 2008 at 4:57 pm  

    #14 is spot on.
    Not only that, I see the underlying conclusion as fair game. You have a feel for the post racial agenda. I’m not sure Sunny has. But he is trying.

    Indeed. However, I believe that post-identity politics will probably come sooner than later, and those who don’t adhere to it (or still do not get it) will risk becoming obsolete and put on the sidelines: because the majority of people – who by the way are moderates and do not necessarily adhere to strict Left/Right politics, are sick and tired of identity politics.

    When you gonna write a post?

    It is actually more difficult than it looks, so I will just focus on comments. :) Though it is fun to predict things, like this Brazilian author.

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