Race Matters

Theresa May failed to douse 'burning injustice' of race inequality

In 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May approached the lectern outside No. 10 and committed to a more compassionate conservatism. In an appeal to the ‘Just about Managing’, working class communities and ethnic minorities, she promised to tackle the ‘burning injustices’ facing the nation. She vowed to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system, make universities more accessible to working class people and launced the Race Disparity Audit, publishing data on racial inequalities on an accessible platform.

The rhetoric was strong – but was the substance? With May set to step down as Prime Minister on Friday June 7th, her departure is an opportune moment to reflect on her legacy.  

Inclusive Leadership and Vision

May started off on the right foot. She set up the Race Disparity Unit at the Cabinet Office, which did extensive consultation before launching the Race Disparity Audit website in October 2017. The Ethnicity Facts and Figures website is a useful website that I have used so many times it auto fills in my search bar. It is much more convenient than Google and spreadsheet trawls for government data on racial disparities. But we haven’t seen the extensive domestic policy programme needed to reduce these longstanding inequalities. Brexit took up a lot of bandwidth in government departments, hindering progress on a range of domestic policy problems – this being one of them.

Worse still, our work with the Women’s Budget Group found government spending on public services, increasing the tax allowance and freezing working age benefits hit ethnic minorities, women and people on low incomes harder than the better off. 

May's lack of leadership around Brexit, including the relentless placation of the hard-Brexiteers came at the expense of ethnic minority communities’ safety. The rhetoric of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose cosying up to Steve Bannon and the far-right AfD in Germany went unchallenged. No inclusive vision for a post-Brexit Britain that welcomes difference was presented as an alternative. 

Immigration and the Windrush Scandal

May has a history of being ‘tough’ on immigration. As Home Secretary, she presided over the now infamous ‘Go Home’ vans that patrolled ethnic minority communities. Being committed to fairness for ethnic minorities went hand in hand with the tightening of immigration rules. The setting of immigration removal targets, a toxic culture at the Home Office that aimed to catch people out and the passing of the Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016 lay the ground for 2017’s Windrush Scandal.

The Home Affairs Select Committee reported that the Windrush Generation may have been targeted because they were vulnerable, often older and therefore easier to deport to hit unrealistic removal targets. People lost their homes, jobs; even their lives. The Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 turned landlords and public servants into border guards, forced to check documentation before renting out their room, administer medical support of allow staff to start a new job.

People who look different – ethnic minorities – were more likely to be asked for identification. The High Court has ruled that this is a discriminatory policy. The government has responded by challenging the verdict. Instead of ending ‘burning injustices’ for ethnic minorities, she drew the blueprint for an even bigger injustice.

Rather than make sure this never happens again, no reform of the Home Office has been offered. It is unlikely any of the new Conservative leadership candidates will instigate it either, despite the Home Office's recurrent failures.

Criminal Justice

Contrary to extensive evidence and May’s past commitment to reducing the use of stop and search, it is now been increased. In response to increasing knife crime, a tool that has been proven to damage community relations and has a negligible impact on violent crime has been ramped up.

As reported by the BBC, Black people were given longer sentences, on average, than white people for the same category of offence in most cases, excluding fraud and criminal damage.

For young offenders, disproportionality for black people is still a problem.

In June 2016, 42% of under-18s in custody were from a black or minority ethnic background, with 22.8% describing themselves as black. By March 2019, the proportion of young people in custody from a minority ethnic, or specifically from a black background, had risen to 49% and 27.8% respectively.


May’s premiership started strong but quickly lacked the substance necessary for transformative change. The Race Disparity Audit illustrated the injustices facing ethnic minority communities. The policy programme that followed did little to reduce them. Her legacy on migration is toxic and the response to the Windrush Scandal a disgrace; a masterclass in avoidance and reactive responses. The criminal justice system remains the same with the added bonus of increased stop and search. Most worrying of all, is that her legacy could well be better than that of the Conservative leader that follows her.


Featured image credit: Donkey Hotey

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