Runnymede's Director last week wrote on how we need to listen the Windrush Generation to learn more about our past. Today he suggests all of us, but especially policy- and decision-makers, need to listen more to them to make better policy decisions today.
Policy screw-ups often happen when decision-makers become too far removed from the people affected by their decisions. Such has been the case with the Windrush generation, whose unjust and inhumane treatment is finally in the news. Finally because these cases are hardly new: campaigning groups and lawyers have been warning about the discriminatory and wide-ranging consequences of ‘hostile environment’ policies since they were first proposed over five years ago.
Amber Rudd has now acknowledged that the Home Office has failed to treat people as individuals (or, as moral philosophers like to put it, as persons). This is exactly what people who’ve actually experienced Home Office decision making have been saying for years, but their warnings have been dismissed.
We shouldn’t only listen to the voices affected by a policy, but the idea that critics of a policy are mere ‘lobbyists’ or solely ‘self-interested’ and can thus be discounted is a direct cause of the government’s current mess on the #Windrushgeneration specifically, and on immigration and race generally. In responding to migration and race equality, the government likes to lecture about integration, and warn of the dangers of ‘segregation’ and ‘isolation’.
But if anyone is isolated or segregated from the real experiences of ethnic minorities and migrants it’s white middle class policymakers and decision makers. They have had little interaction with race equality or migrant groups. Rather than proposing integration pilots in Waltham Forest and Bradford, we need them more in Surrey and Chester. Even as the Prime Minister and Home Secretary look to respond to the unjust treatment of the Windrush generation, the decision to provide cancer treatment to Albert Thompson appears to have been announced in Parliament, without anyone contacting him directly to let him know.
And of course it’s not just the Windrush generation that have been left behind by out of touch decision-makers. The Grenfell Tower disaster is further proof that people’s voices are least likely to be heard when they’re migrants and minorities. In fact, the too-tight association between ‘left behind’, ‘northern working class’ and ‘Brexit voting’, has led to shoddy analysis that diverse, Remain-voting parts of Britain’s cities, especially London, are all elite. Instead their ‘left behind’ areas often have the highest levels of deprivation, child-poverty and old-age poverty, while their voices have been rarely heard either.
The danger of being out of touch with minority, migrant, and particularly black communities is always sharper for a Conservative government. Having failed to support race relations legislation, and with a legacy of toxic statements from some of their politicians, the Conservatives have never done well with ethnic minorities. But they’ve particularly struggled with black voters. In fact, the number of black voters in a constituency is perhaps the strongest predictor for how likely a seat is to vote Labour.
The last robust analysis of BME voting patterns, in 2010, found that over 8 in 10 black people (78% of Black Caribbean and 87% of Black African voters) supported Labour, with less than one in ten voting for the Conservative party. Since then, the Conservative vote share among BME voters has if anything declined further, losing their only three seats where black people were more than 12% of the population (Croydon Central, Enfield North and Battersea). Labour now hold all of the top 35 seats in terms of black population, and 56 of the 61 seats with over 8% black populations (Hendon at 11.5% is the Conservative-held seat with the most black voters). In recent London mayoral contests, Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith did worst in the wards with the largest number of black people, often getting less than 15% of the vote. None of this is really surprising (though it’s rarely commented on), but one consequence is that Conservative MPs typically have very few black constituents.
There is a real danger that the Windrush cases will add to Britain’s negative historic legacy on race and immigration, rather than the positive tradition of celebrating and valuing their contribution that we saw at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. That sort of celebration is in fact too superficial in two ways: both for being too ‘positive’ about the Windrush generation’s experience, many of who have long experienced inequalities in the workplace, in schools and in housing, but also in terms of downplaying the full effect of their contribution. As Runnymede argued last week, it was the Windrush generation’s resistance to racism that helped provide for what we now call the ‘British value’ of equal rights in the form of race relations and equality legislation, and they were pioneering too in fighting for and establishing a more outward looking multi-ethnic British identity that later groups could then build on.
For Britain to extend equal rights to everyone living here, and to make our history an asset rather than a burden, our decision-makers and opinion-formers need to break free of their isolation and connect and listen better to the actual needs and voices of those living in Britain and beyond. This must include black and minority ethnic and migrant groups so that we don’t see a repeat of the injustice experienced by the Windrush generation.