Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Theresa May is returning to domestic politics. One of the key issues this autumn will be her handling of the ‘public sector race audit’ that she commissioned last year. A drive toward reducing discrimination is a positive. But the Conservatives will never win on identity politics – and further, identity politics is always and fundamentally opposed to genuine liberal and conservative principles.
Identity politics is inherently socialist
The gap between groups in areas such as mental health, income or employment is rarely as simple as racism, sexism or homophobia. This is not to deny that individual acts of prejudice still take place, or that we should tolerate discrimination or prejudice against individuals. But the difference between groups is usually at least partly the result of the choices and actions of individuals within these groups as well.
Our media class often reports on differences as if they were automatically unfair. But consider a group I am a member of. While LGBT people do suffer from mental and sexual health problems and, sadly, do face stigma, they also (on average) have a more sexually active lifestyle and fewer long-term relationships – both of which then impact on these outcomes. Their health issues are a mix of social stigma and individual choices (and further, different groups such as lesbians, gay men, bisexual men and bisexual women face different issues).
The idea that all groups should have the same outcomes is just an update of the old socialist idea of equality of outcome – ignoring the choices that individuals make. It is saying that the Government needs to impose a new order in place of the outcomes of individual choices.
Ignoring more complex realities often hurts minority groups and ignores the most disadvantaged
Ignoring more complex realities not only divides society but can harm minority communities. Stop and search being scaled back has been a disaster for the black community in London. As violent crimes have risen it has hit all of us, but particularly young black men. Those who have died have been disproportionately BME.
Much of the ‘gap’ in stop and search was because young black men disproportionately commit crime – for a host of reasons – racism yes, but also family breakdown, poor education, gangs, poor housing, drug use, even pressure from immigration on the public services that established BME communities use. Tackling the symptoms may make people feel good, but it doesn’t address these underlying issues.
To take another example: many within the Muslim community have single-earner households: unsurprisingly this tends to increase poverty and lower income. This often reflects a conscious choice for individuals within that community more than Islamophobia.
If migrants arrive and they are poorer than the average, unsurprisingly, their children, on average, may also be poorer than the average. Even in a perfect society no one expects that in a single generation you would see all differences to be overcome.
By reducing people to a single box, we are ignoring realities. Someone with Bangladeshi parents who are English-speaking doctors might tick the same box as someone with Bangladeshi parents who has a stay at home mother that cannot speak English and a waiter father, but their levels of difficulty as they progress in life are worlds apart. A quota or push that supports the first might improve outcomes for ‘the Bangladeshi community’, but in practice does nothing to help those who are most disadvantaged.
By saying that our society is riddled with hatred and discrimination, and that this is the reason for the differences in outcomes that we see, rather than admitting that reality is complex, we simply open the door to those who call for quotas, affirmative action, and so on. We are saying that Government action is necessary until all groups have equal outcomes. But if you believe that why not vote Labour?
Further, this only leads to a backlash because such action is necessarily crude and ignores complex realities (witness the white working class in the USA who are patronizingly told that they are privileged because they are white – when often their lives are harder than middle-class black or Hispanics).
We should support measures to reduce discrimination against individuals
However, this is not to say we should do nothing. Networks do matter in everyday life. When someone is hired they often benefit from the fact people like hiring people like them. I think we should support BME or women’s groups or Muslim only or LGBT groups within organisations. I think we should help mentoring schemes for disadvantaged groups in jobs and education – including the white working class. These help people feel comfortable within organisations that they might feel alienated from. Similarly, Jo Johnson’s proposal for the removal of names on UCAS forms seems perfectly compatible with removing discrimination and a meritocratic society.
But that is quite different from saying that unless all groups have all the same outcomes, we have failed as a society, and difference is simply evidence of prejudice.
Tear down barriers and show how we can help people – from all groups – achieve their goals
In reality, most people, from whatever group, want a safe community, a home they own, a job that pays, and an adequate retirement. We should be focused on tearing down barriers to these for everyone, not playing identity politics. People are angry because they think it is harder to have a good comfortable middle class life and the barriers to this are growing. That is the real injustice in Britain today.
Take a profession like architecture. The real problem for both poor white and BME individuals is that it takes five years before you can even start to train on the job. Yet until 1958, most training was office-based and only during the 1980s did five years become the standard. Cutting those five years down would do more to open this profession than any quotas or hand-wringing about diversity. Forget Rhodes must fall – or focusing on making tuition fees fall instead: bring in two year degrees, and improve non-academic routes to the professions (Dominic Raab’s Meritocrat’s Manifesto has ideas about how to do this.)
When we focus on reducing crime committed by young black men, we need to be tackling root causes, not just going for symptoms of underlying difficulties like Stop and Search. And these tackling those causes will also help improve lives for other poor BME and white communities: better housing, better schools, disrupting gang activity.
We don’t need flagellation and identity politics. Neither should we be the party that ignores individual choices and responsibility. We need to show we will tear down the barriers to people having a decent job and home. That is a mission for the Conservative Party that most Britons, whether black, white, Muslim, LGBT or any other identity can sign up to.