There were a few stereotypical people with beards and sandals at the Liberal Democrats’ annual conference in Brighton this week. But most delegates were indistinguishable from Labour ones in their badge on lanyard wearing casual appearance.
There were lots of white faces but a sprinkling of African, Caribbean and Asian (Black) people too. They included multi-millionaire Dinesh Dahmija, founder of the online Ebookers travel company. He told me he was retired, but still did some business, and enjoyed golfing close to his Woking, Surrey, home.
There have always been rich Asians in this party, like the Indian-born Dadabhai Naoroji who was elected Liberal MP for Finsbury Central, London, in 1892. But has the party got more out of them than they have got out of the party?
A business advisor to Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, patrician Dahmija was uninterested in getting involved in the seething row over the small number of Black elected Lib Dems and the difficulty faced by such members trying to get selected as candidates.
Smart, besuited Nigerian descended ex-councillor Michael Bukola enthused that Tim Farron was the party’s first working class leader and someone open to change. "With Tim, we have a once in a generation opportunity to get greater Black and minority ethnic representation so we should grasp it,” he said.
At the well-attended “I’m not racist, but…” fringe meeting held by the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD), I was a speaker along with wealthy Ramesh Dewan, a founder of the group, Janet Hills, president of the National Black Police Association and a detective sergeant and its first female leader, Don Jones, a Black US advisor to African American Democrats who have achieved high office, and ex-Black Sections activist Dave Weaver, of Operation Black Vote.
It was chaired by millionaire Black businessman Roger Lynch, who stood as a Lib Dem Southwark, south London, council candidate some years ago and ploughed thousands of pounds into supporting the former Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes. He spoke of the need to “smash down the [institutionally racist] structures of the party” that he claimed prevented Black members progressing.
Feisty EMLD vice-chair Marisha Ray used similar militant language to denouce the status quo.
The following afternoon, on the sea front, I bumped into tanned Lib Dem party leader Tim Farron, on his way to a Facebook interview – bushy-tailed young aide by his side. He said he remembered the Labour Party Black Sections campaign I led and the Black MPs it helped get elected in 1987. It was a year after he had joined the Liberal Party as a 17-year-old. Yes, agreed Farron, the Lib Dems had to improve their racial diversity.
Like other Lib Dem leaders, including Nick Clegg, before him, Farron bemoaned his “pale, male and stale” party.
So, did he support all-Black shortlists as a positive action measure to accelerate change? “Well, they are illegal, that’s the problem,” he said, indicating he had given it some thought. But, all-women short-lists, inspired by the Black Sections, were legal, I said, and had done so much to improve the representation of Labour women in elected positions.
I asked Farron about the scandal of good Black Lib Dem members being turned down as council candidates. He responded: “We’re doing better.” What about the extremely able Black Lib Dem member not being selected as parliamentary candidate for winnable Bath? Farron disappeared into the conference area before answering that hot potato.
But, as we’d walked briskly on the road moments earlier, I couldn’t resist asking his thoughts on the prospect of a progressive alliance of the Labour Party, Greens and SNP with the Lib Dems that had been mooted to boot out the Conservatives from government. He said the SNP were the problem. “They don’t seem to want to work with anyone. We agree with them on 90 per cent of their policies but the elephant in the room is they want to break up the UK,” he said, ruefully.
Ex-senior government minister Vince Cable agreed there was a problem of the under-representation of African, Caribbean and Asian Lib Dem members in elected office. Without prompting, he surprised me by saying: “Aggressive action by the party has improved the representation of women so the same should happen for Black and minority ethnic members.”
He was right. In five of seven parliamentary seats where Lib Dem MPs stood down last year women were selected to replace them. Admittedly, after their notorious sell out on student loans, the amount of Lib Dems MPs had been axed from 63 to eight, so the opportunities had shrunk dramatically.
Did Cable support all-Black shortlists? “Yes”, he said, without hesitation.
Lord (Andrew) Stunnell, former MP for Hazel Grove, in Greater Manchester, and an ex- minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government was just as forthright. He spoke passionately to me about the need for greater racial diversity in the party.
Rushing along the promenade to a meeting, Lord (Brian) Paddick, the gay ex-senior London cop who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of the capital and now sits in the Lord and speaks for the party on home affairs, which includes race, said he would have a word with outspoken Pauline Pearce, the only African Caribbean person on the Lib Dem’s ruling executive.
Later I saw charismatic "Hackney Heroine" Pearce at the Hilton hotel and handed her a copy of the Black Sections 25th anniversary commemorative booklet, which she said she’d read with great interest. She is a live wire Lib Dem activist fast learning the ropes – and an excellent singer keen for me to come along to her performance in south London, with Digby Fairweather and his jazz band on October 1, which she promoted with a poster on the back of her wheelchair.
Only four Black candidates fought as Lib Dem parliamentary candidates in the party's top 100 target seats at the general election last year.
Henry Bonsu, co-founder of Colourful Radio, said: "In terms of the selection and promotion of minority candidates, for all their niceness, the Lib Dems are nowhere near good enough."
Dean McCastree was a Lib Dem councillor in the 1990s but became so disillusioned with the party he resigned from it and stood as an independent in the Brent Central, north west London, constituency - where the combined African, Caribbean and Asian population is more than 50 per cent.
McCastree told The Guardian: "We have to have representatives who reflect the society we have.”
He added: "When I was in the party, I tried to press them on equality but they didn't want to know. There's a lot of window dressing but most minority candidates are in unwinnable seats."
Sunder Katwala, Director of the British Future thinktank, said: “The Liberal Democrats have failed to match Labour and Conservative progress in selecting non-white candidates in winnable seats.”
And so it was that the general election was the fifth, since the Black Labour breakthrough in 1987, where the Lib Dems failed to elect any MPs of colour to parliament. Their last was my friend Parmjit Singh Gill, who won the 2004 Leicester South by-election partly because of the backlash against the disastrous decision of Tony Blair's ruling Labour to invade Iraq. That saw many Labour activists, including me, leave the party. Some Black ones joined the anti-war Lib Dems.
Another big factor was Gill's hard work as a community activist building up the Lib Dem vote, especially in the Asian community, to the point where he defeated a sitting Labour councillor to get a seat on Leicester City Council in 2003. It helped his party win joint control of the town hall. But Gill lost his parliamentary seat at the subsequent general election the following year, his supporters complaining bitterly the national party failed to give him the financial and canvassing help he needed to keep it.
The Lib Dem leadership say they have started a programme of mentoring “young minorities". But this won't make much difference without a far clearer understanding of the problem.
The party need to select Black candidates when they replace retiring MPs in Lib Dem seats like Winchester, York and St Ives. But, infamously, in Bath, which had been held by Lib Dem MP Don Foster, an excellent Black candidate, councillor Chris Lucas, was overlooked for a white man from Lambeth, south London, which caused anger among Black activists and their allies in the party.
One of them a Bermondsey, south London, gay Lib Dem activist said he had first joined up as a member of the Social Democratic Party that merged with the Liberals. Ironically, he said, when it came to such positive action measures it was the Liberals who opposed because of their tradition of bottom up local democracy and almost anarchist opposition to strictly imposed structures.
There was a motion tabled at the Lib Dem conference that called for gay men and lesbians, disabled people and Black and minority ethnic people to share a 10 per cent quota for representation in the party. Rights activists I spoke with said it should be more like 10 per cent for each group.
It seems the party is on a snails pace evolutionary rather than revolutionary road because of the lack of the insurrection and dissent I urged from its under-represented groups. I also said they should stop squabbling among themselves and take a leaf out of the Black Sections book of political tricks and build alliances to get much needed policy and representational change.