One Nation Quotas: uniting by division?

It is a question often asked in Labour circles: what does 'One Nation Labour' actually mean?

If you thought it was an attempt to bring people together and re-establish forms of common life and citizenship, it may be time to think again, for Labour’s interest group politics has muscled in – right on cue.

Over the last weekend, plans emerged for what is termed a ‘One Nation Civil Service’, to be outlined in the next Labour election manifesto. These plans will see quotas for the elite Fast Stream programme, of 18 per cent black and ethnic minority, and 24 per cent ‘working-class’, plus further positive action for women.

Justifying these moves in a speech to the IPPR think tank (a speech that pulled back from the quota numbers mentioned in the Independent over the weekend), Ed Miliband’s right-hand man Michael Dugher outlined how ethnic minority numbers in the civil service have declined 10 per cent during the current government (though neglecting to mention that the overall number of civil servants has declined too). He added that women in senior positions have declined from 43 per cent in 2010 when Labour left office to 39 per cent last year.

He concluded: “This shows that the civil service is a ‘closed shop’ to many who already feel that government is distant and remote from their lives.”

Now, maybe I have gone stark raving bonkers, but this seems to me a flagrant, obvious and extreme misrepresentation of the stats – especially on women. Whether 39 or 43 per cent, the proportion of women in senior civil service positions doesn’t suggest that is some sort of male closed shop – far from it.

Nevertheless, this is the furrow that Labour and its dominant tribes relentlessly plough with their somewhat Orwellian ‘equalities agenda’; always picking statistics selectively (in this case absurdly), while ignoring how the numbers come about. And how the numbers come about includes the choices that people make in their lives – something those pressing this agenda either ignore or put down to false consciousness derived from structural oppression.

It is right to focus on discrimination by race or gender or other things, but it is evidence of negative discriminatory practice that we should be focusing on– not picking on a few statistics and claiming they prove the whole world is wrong. That is the sort of thing that one hopes wouldn’t make it through a GCSE exam intact, let alone form the basis for a programme of government reform.

The quota as an end in itself

So how is it that this agenda has managed to squeeze through as one of the few existing policy proposals for a next Labour government?

The answer surely lies in internal Labour politics, and the sectional interests that dominate it. A joint article by Dugher and Labour's shadow minister for women and equalities, Gloria de Piero, perhaps points the way.

Gloria de Piero
Dugher and de Piero say: When Labour left office 43% of Cabinet Office senior civil service staff were women - not enough, but we were making progress.” They add: The under-representation of senior women must be addressed and will be an issue we will work jointly on as we design our agenda for government.”

A figure of 43% women would not be a cause for concern for virtually any outsider, let alone a problem. But to Labour it is a priority, reflecting the utmost importance attached to these numbers by the women’s lobby within Labour.

This is the quota as an end in itself. It is a replication of Labour’s internal practices, in which women now have to fill 50 per cent of all internal positions down to a micro-local level. Under a Labour government, the organs of state will be used to micro-manage people in the same sorts of ways in order to create and maintain the desired image.

But the highlighting of ethnic minority and working class preferences in the news stories goes somewhat against this more common focus on women. It seems to come straight out of the dynamics and power struggles of Labour Party interest groups, in which the domination of the women’s lobby has pushed the Keith Vaz-led Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME Labour) group into the shade, and also raised concerns and resentment about the lack of ‘working class’ MPs coming through.

But, as the BAME grouping should perhaps have realised – not least from Labour’s current round of parliamentary selections – there is never enough patronage to go around, unless you want to eliminate ideas of democracy and merit altogether. The women’s lobby is much stronger and has many more internal rules working in its favour. When you introduce discrimination, people lose out – some of whom might consider themselves, or might previously have considered themselves, part of your gang. That is a trade-off you make.


This leads us on to the divisiveness of this agenda. Pitching different groups against each other and turning things like skin colour, gender and social class into meal tickets seems to represent the opposite of One Nation politics. Favouritism divides people against each other, far from uniting them.

It shows a determination not to unite the country but to divide it into different interest groups – indeed to institutionalise different groupings, to establish them as separate classes within the state apparatus. If you have some colour in your skin or fit whatever criteria of working class Labour comes up with, you will be encouraged to use this as a weapon to get ahead – and the same if you are a woman.

These sorts of policies are an example of how liberal/left-wing politics has become hollowed out through the politics of identity, largely forsaking any sense of values and moral mission. The language used for example by Dugher and de Piero suggests a sense of purpose and a vision of social transformation, but the ambitions amount to little more than the artificial fixing of statistical outcomes accompanied by self-congratulation for achieving those outcomes.

This is perhaps the final staging point of what in The Wire terminology is known as “juking the stats”: when politicians start setting statistical targets for institutions, the purpose of activity within those institutions becomes the achievement of the targets, after which all involved can congratulate themselves on their success. Meanwhile the reason for being of an institution – educating children, keeping the public safe or healthy for example – often gets lost. As the former policeman turned inner city schoolteacher Roland Pryzbylewski (below) says to a fellow teacher in The Wire: “Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.”  [click on the YouTube icon to view the clip]

Here we see Labour reverting to its bad old love of centrally-controlled and –administered targets that pay little attention to what is really going on. It is a world away from the admirable and interesting proposals from Labour to devolve power and money away from central control down to regions and local areas.

In my view (though I would like to see some evidence either way), British society has become more tolerant, accepting and integrated in racial terms largely because of the passage of time; because of people getting on with life and getting to know each other through that shared life, on their own terms; not because of positive discrimination which creates resentments and fosters low achievement. That is one reason why the recent wave of mass immigration has been problematic –it has disrupted and undermined the settling in and integration of previous migrant communities. But while our society shows concrete signs of moving on from the politics of race – not least in the million or so of us who are mixed race – Labour insists on maintaining it and maintaining separateness.

This idea of treating individual people primarily as members of abstract groupings comes out of narratives of ‘structural oppression’ and ‘privilege’ that are prominent in feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonialist political traditions. The practical policies that emerge from these narratives often border on the nonsensical, lumping the successful British Indian businessman into the same oppressed category with the poor Somali migrant, third generation black Britons, confident well-educated young women, everyone of mixed race – and from now on, those deemed to be of ‘working class’ (a problematic category to define to say the least).

As a template for modern, multiracial Britain, this makes no sense to me.

But the policy also indicates of a lack of seriousness and dearth of vision from some of the most powerful forces in the party. Too easily they revert back to fixing and controlling. This largely comes from the sectional interests which are understandably pressing for the maximum advantage for their own groups.

In this respect, Labour has a cultural problem which is only going to get worse as long as Britain integrates further, for these sectional interests are institutionalised into the party’s structural fabric and rulebook at all levels. However much modern Britons may want to break free from the determinations imposed on them by skin colour, gender and other increasingly irrelevant external identifiers, it seems that Labour will remain resolute in its determination to impose them.


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