I am away for a week, so I thought I would unearth some more old material from the vaults, this time debates in which I have been involved. This first is an exchange of letters with the human rights activist Tanuka Loha, currently the Human Right to Housing Program Director at America’s National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, on questions of race, identity and political representation. It is a debate that touches on many of the themes in the contemporary discussion of multiculturalism, as well as obliquely addressing some of the issues raised in the current debate about immigration. It was first published in Catalyst magazine in November-December 2006.


Dear Kenan,

Liberation movements throughout the world have long argued that without the meaningful participation of those who are facing systematic discrimination, society cannot become more equal. Whether we look at suffrage movements or anti-colonial struggles, the right to have one’s own voice, and that of one’s community, heard and represented is an emotive and complex issue but also a necessary precursor to the eradication of inequality.

The imminent arrival of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) has again brought to the fore issues of representation. Will the CEHR be able to deliver fully to all of the different ‘strands’ (gender, disability, race, age, faith and belief, sexual orientation and human rights) without certain safeguards in place? To make sure the CEHR successfully advances the cause of racial equality, two safeguards involving representation were suggested: guaranteed representation of members of non-white groups on the organisation itself and a designated committee within the CEHR to examine racial discrimination and inequality.

Diane Abbott, in supporting a parliamentary amendment calling for a statutory race committee, reflected on the arguments that accompanied her own arrival as one of the four Black and Asian MPs elected in 1987: ‘The argument… was that for young Black and Asian people to feel part of and engaged with this society, they had to see representation at the highest level… Representation mattered because of what it said about an institution. People can read about issues of discrimination and even do dissertations on them but, unless they have lived them and felt them, they will not be able to give them the emphasis that only living them gives.’ It is only this emphasis, I contend, that carries the possibility of lasting and effective change.

What the presence of the ‘gang of four’ MPs said about parliament was that, despite persisting and debilitating racism and discrimination, it was possible for black and Asian men and women to be parliamentarians – to be seen in public life, to make laws rather than merely be incarcerated under them – all this at a time when overt racist language and attitudes were the norm in public life, not the exception. But visibility alone, I would contend, is not enough. What we need from our representatives is the enaction of agendas that will take us further along the road to equality.

The crux of the representation issue for me is this: where we recognise that wide disparities exist in the life experiences of different communities within our society, is there not a clear need to have vocal, accountable representatives who are able to passionately and effectively advocate on behalf of those communities? I would strongly suggest that this form of representation is a necessary, although not sufficient, pre-condition for equality in society.

Best wishes,

democracy shout

Dear Tanuka,

I agree with you about the importance of representation. But representation, for me, is a political issue. I want my representatives to give voice not to my experiences but to my political aspirations.

There are a number of problems in linking, as you do, representation to experience. First, there is no single experience of racism. The experience of a Somalian refugee in a Glasgow housing scheme is different from that of a PhD student of Jamaican descent working in London. The experience of an unemployed youth of Pakistani origin living in Bradford is different from that of an Indian-born entrepreneur from Wembley. Minority groups are as divided by nationality, class, gender, faith, age and so on as is the rest of the population.

If every experience deserves its own representation, then we would end up with a babble of voices and no common way forward. On the other hand, if we divide society up into a small number of ‘communities’ (black, Asian etc), and demand representation for each of those communities, then we ignore the differences within those groups.

This is why community, or group, representation is inevitably anti-democratic. So-called community leaders are generally unelected, self-appointed and unaccountable. They have achieved their positions largely because the state needs such people to do business with.

Take, for instance, the Muslim community. There is no such thing. Muslims comprise many communities with many views. Nevertheless, in the push for community representation, certain individuals and organisations have come to be regarded as providing the authentic voice of British Muslims. Most prominent of these in recent years has been the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which now plays a major role in advising government and shaping policy. Yet a recent poll conducted for Channel 4’s Dispatches programme poll showed that less than 4 per cent of Muslims think that the MCB represents British Muslims. Whatever organisations such as the MCB represent, it is not their ‘community’.

A final point. Equality requires a distinction between the public and private spheres. The private sphere is inherently unequal. Equality only becomes possible with the creation of a ring-fenced public sphere which everyone can enter as political equals, irrespective of their economic, cultural or ethnic backgrounds. The demand to link representation to experience is a demand to erase the distinction between the public and the private spheres and hence can only undermine the possibility of real equality.

If, as you say, ‘what we need from our representatives is the enaction of agendas that will take us further along the road to equality’, then what matters is their politics, not their skin colour. I would far rather be represented by someone who has never experienced racism but who shares my political vision of how to combat it, than by someone with whom I may share a common experience of racism but with whom I politically disagree.

Best wishes,


Dear Kenan,

Of course, representation is a political issue, but it is dangerous to construct a notion of politics that is solely intellectual and disconnected from everyday experience. My political aspirations are born (at least in part) out of my experiences and those experiences of others, which I feel strongly about.

This is why, at a time when Muslims are being subjected to a particular kind of oppression, it does make sense to speak of a Muslim community, even though it is made up of many strands. If there wasn’t such a community before 9/11, the constant references to the Muslim community and its supposed predilection for terrorist sympathies has ensured that there is one now, no matter how divided it may be. One indication of this is the way that many secular people now feel they are part of the community that is under attack. Shabana Azmi, the Indian actress and activist, a secular communist since childhood, has said that, after 9/11, she felt an emotional attachment to the collective of Muslims, with whom she had no particular affinity before, and decided she had to politically ally herself with ‘her’ community in order to defend it. I think it is often the case that one only becomes conscious of one’s belonging to a group when it is under attack, either from the outside or within.

I agree with you wholeheartedly if what you say implies that the community belongs to no individual organisation and, as a multifaceted entity, cannot be represented by any one organisation or view. Further, there is always the possibility of ineffective, or insufficiently representative, leadership – community and otherwise. While we can and should call for representation to be reformed and broadened, surely the current situation of the MCB and others engaging with government is far better than the days when the government felt they did not need to engage with any Muslims at all. It is our job to say that the MCB is not the whole picture. But people are saying it: young people, women’s organisations, secular Muslims, more ‘radical’ Muslims and so on – they are all vocalising their differing perspectives. I think we need more and more people to vocalise dissent where it exists. This in turn ought to lead to the broadest set of views from each community being heard, rather than merely that of the usual suspects (who are often just those who happen to wield the most power in their communities).

I am afraid I disagree with what you say about the public/private distinction. Experiences of racism cannot simply be consigned to the private sphere while insisting on an imaginary equality in the public sphere. Usually, the ‘creation’ of a neutral sphere requires the leaving of a particular set of identities at the door, while others are assumed to be the norm, and therefore already present. (The women refusing to set aside their gender politics in the Scottish Socialist Party are facing this exact problem at the moment. But actually, it is only by bringing this into the public arena that sex equality will eventually become intertwined with and embedded into the very definition of modern socialism.) The universalism you invoke, unfortunately, seems more myth than reality.

Ultimately, for real success in the fight against any form of oppression, those people experiencing it must be involved in finding solutions; not for symbolic gratification (although symbols are sometimes important) but because true, effective and lasting equality can only be brought about by the engagement and ideas of ALL sections of our society – including those who have been on the receiving end of inequality. Without this, we will be leaving the vision of an equal society solely to those who are watching (albeit with concern or horror) others being oppressed, and that will surely mean we are doomed to repeat the paternalistic failed attempts of the past.

Best wishes,

handsworth riot

Dear Tanuka,

Experiences are, of course, important and political aspirations clearly derive, in part at least, from one’s experiences. It is one thing, however, to say that one’s experiences shape one’s political beliefs; it is quite another to demand that one should therefore choose one’s political representatives according to their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation or cultural affiliation.

You have sidestepped the question I raised in my first letter: is it better to be represented by someone with whom you may share a common experience of racism but with whom you also politically disagree, or by someone who has never experienced racism but who shares your political vision of how to combat it? If you think, as I do, that the latter view is right, then there is no room for any form of identity politics. The logic of such identity politics, on the other hand, inevitably drives you towards the first position, one that I find unacceptable as it undermines the possibilities of social change by subordinating political goals to the demands of ethnic identity.

I stress the importance of political affiliations over ties of ethnicity not for abstract intellectual reasons, as you seem to suggest, but because real experience has taught me the dangers of identity politics. Take, for instance, Birmingham.

In 1985, the Handsworth riots brought blacks, whites and Asians on to the streets in a common struggle against oppressive policing. In 2005, a riot in Lozells, next door to Handsworth, pitted African Caribbeans against Asians. Why did communities who had fought side by side in 1985 end up fighting against each other 20 years later? Largely because of the policy of ethnic representation introduced by the local council in response to the 1985 riots. Birmingham council created nine so-called ‘Umbrella Groups’ based on ethnicity and faith, the function of which were to represent the needs of specific communities. The aim was to make policy development and resource allocation more democratic. In practice, the policy undermined democracy and created new conflicts.

A report by the Birmingham Race Action Partnership observes that ‘class, intra-religious and gender differences within communities mean that many feel under-represented or even misrepresented’, while an academic study from Southampton University concludes that Birmingham’s policies helped create ‘competition between BME [black and minority ethnic] communities for resources’. Rather than ‘prioritising needs and cross-community working, the different Umbrella Groups generally attempted to maximise their own interests’.

These problems are not specific to Birmingham. They crop up everywhere that public policy helps create, or maintain, ethnic differences. Once political power and financial resources become allocated according to ethnicity, then people begin to identify themselves solely in terms of those ethnicities and to see other ethnic groups not as allies in the struggle for equality but competitors in the scramble for resources. And so deep can be the animosities such competition creates that they can, as in Lozells, culminate in communal violence.

The experience of Birmingham (and indeed of Bradford, Tower Hamlets and numerous other places) reveals the importance to the anti-racist struggle of maintaining the distinction between the public and private spheres. Maintaining such a distinction is not, as you caricature it, about ignoring racism, but rather about recognising that the struggle against racism is fatally undermined by the kinds of sectional conflicts that identity politics always generates.

Best wishes,

megaphone democracy

Dear Kenan,

Until now the basis for your argument has been slightly obscure to me but your last letter has clarified your position. Your underlying assumption is that there is a basic choice between recognising experience (in what you regard as the private sphere) and creating political unity (in what you regard as a neutral public sphere). One consequence of this is that, in common with the currently fashionable critics of multiculturalism, you imply there is an inevitable trade-off between solidarity and diversity. But solidarity and diversity are not mutually exclusive. True unity comes from integrating our different experiences into a common vision, not collapsing them. Within that integration, we must allow the plurality of identities and experiences to not merely be represented, but to also flourish.

To allow this is not to create a cacophony or ‘babble’ of voices. Nor is it likely (on its own) to lead to the conflicts you describe in Birmingham. Of course it is true, as the Birmingham case illustrates, that a particular brand of official sponsorship of ethnically defined community representatives can exacerbate divisions. However the divisions are also down to us, as is the need to challenge and hold to account both our government and our community ‘representatives’. If we don’t like them, we should, and do, campaign for change. If we allow ourselves to believe the worst of one another, without anything sensible to back up those beliefs or prejudices, of course divisions will fester. So-called leaders who suggest there are no prejudices or misconceptions within our communities will, of course, never be able to examine those divisions and dispel the myths they are based on, or respect the genuine differences between us in order to unify us, in struggle, though our common experiences of prejudice and discrimination and towards our collective desires for justice and equality.

If you look at other riots, violence has resulted precisely because of a lack of what you call ‘ethnic’, and what I call adequate, representation. In Oldham, Asians had absolutely no representation at all. There was not even a local racial equality council to give voice to the problems they were facing (discriminatory policing, racist violence, deprivation). The local authority, the local newspaper and the local police all operated on the pretence that they were ‘colour blind’. This was part of the cause of the riot in Oldham in 2001 – not a formula for avoiding it. All that the Birmingham case indicates is that we should not allow either the state or the strongest/most powerful within our communities to monopolise or define who represents us. It does not mean that we throw out the baby of representation with the bathwater of an outmoded (and colonial) model of community leadership.

Too often, people who are the subject of laws, policies or debates are not involved at all in processes that deeply affect them. This is not a matter of what you call ‘identity politics’ with its implication of self-gratification. It is rather about giving a voice to those who are either marginalised, or more simply, the ‘subject’ of the discussion. Ultimately, it is about creating a genuinely participative democracy. History has taught us the perils of allowing marginal voices to be stifled. It is not always that some grand calamity will ensue. It’s just that we will arrest our own development as a society. Recent events tell of the dangers and mistakes that arise when we employ political discourse that talks about, rather than from, a people. For example, it is unlikely that Live 8 would have resulted in the deplorable situation of all African artists playing in a different part of the country if its organisers had included Africans. Similarly, the character of the current debate on the niqab would be entirely different if a range of Muslim women were taking part on a level playing field with others.

Surely, when it comes to the banning of any form of religious dress in schools and universities, our (white) sisters in struggle ought to be shouting from the rooftops, pointing out the flawed logic of suggesting that women who wear the niqab are oppressed and self-segregating from society while at the same time banning them from taking part in education! But no, (largely) silence. This is at least in part because the feminist movement, or women’s liberation movement in this country, has failed to even adequately consider the circumstances, experiences and different problems of (among others) women of colour and immigrants. The same could be said of the libertarians who usually leap about at the thought of individual citizens having to abdicate their rights merely due to the ‘discomfort’ of others.

Further, there are huge attempts afoot in India to secure the representation of women in village panchayats. Are we to conclude that this is some kind of ‘identity politics’ misadventure that will lead to further gender segregation in society? That is where your argument leads us. Well, I disagree. What is happening is that some women are beginning to vocalise certain concerns that affect women particularly badly. They won’t cover everything, and there may well be questions, and divisions, among the women on who represents them: I hope there are. For it is through this process that we will hone and develop our ideas and demands and thus move towards equality.

The critical point for me is that civil society should create the ability for all groups, in as far as anyone wants to belong to one, to identify and celebrate their cultural or political identity however they choose. But ‘our’ concerns should be seen to be the concerns of central and local government. For me, this is a simple issue of enfranchisement.

What seems to me to lie at the heart of our differences is that I think the problem of discrimination is larger, deeper and more entrenched than you do. Given the depth of exclusion in this society, it is inconceivable to me that a universal public sphere can exist in which identity plays no part. Racists and sexists do not leave behind their identities when they leave the private sphere; nor should people of colour or women. The creation of a neutral space, such as you describe, will be the outcome of our successful struggles against discrimination and exclusion, not the means, as you suggest, of achieving equality.

Best wishes,


Dear Tanuka,

I am not sure why you think that I believe in ‘an inevitable trade-off between diversity and solidarity’. I have, in fact, always argued the opposite. For instance, in a response to David Goodhart’s famous (or perhaps infamous) essay ‘Too Diverse?’, which kicked off much of the current debate, I agreed with Goodhart’s ‘concern about the erosion of common values – but not with the claim that underlying such erosion is the greater diversity created by mass immigration’. The answer to the question at the heart of Goodhart’s essay – whether or not, in a diverse society, universalism necessarily conflicts with solidarity – depends, I suggested, ‘on how one defines solidarity’: ‘If we define it in narrow particularist or ethnic terms… then by definition the two must conflict. If, however, we define it in political terms – solidarity as collective action in pursuit of a set of political ideals – then a universalist perspective becomes a means of establishing solidarity.’

These issues are pertinent to our debate too. It is undoubtedly the case that all ‘too often people who are subjects of laws, policies or debates are not involved at all in the processes that deeply affect them’. The debate we are having is not about whether communities need representation, but about what kind of representation they need. Representation, for you, appears to mean the right to be represented by your own kind, whether that kind happens to be the same race, ethnicity, faith, culture, gender or sexuality. But you still have not answered the question I have raised several times in our exchange: is it better to be represented by someone who shares a common experience or racism or sexism but with whom you politically disagree or by someone who has never experienced racism or sexism but who shares your political vision of how to combat it? I keep returning to this question because it lies at the heart of our disagreements.

I reject such representation by identity not only because the idea that one should be represented only by one’s own kind is, and always has been, at the heart of the racist agenda, but also because such representation acts as an obstacle to what you call ‘a genuinely participatory democracy’. Why? Because it encourages the pursuit of sectional interests, rather than of common goals.

Take Birmingham again. The problem here is not simply a few bad community leaders or a colonial model of leadership. It is rather the very system of ethnic representation that encourages people to see their problems in narrow, sectional terms. For many African Caribbeans, the problem, and indeed the enemy, are Asians. That is why so many were willing to believe an unsubstantiated rumour that a Jamaican teenager had been gang raped by Asians. On the other side, Asians view most African Caribbeans with barely concealed contempt, blaming their culture and attitudes for their lack of social advancement. If we are honest, we will acknowledge that such sectional conflicts have become all too common in Britain today, the products not of colonial, but of multicultural, policies enacted with the best of intentions but whose consequences have been highly divisive.

The distinction that is pertinent to our debate is not that between diversity and solidarity but rather that between diversity as lived experience and multiculturalism as a political process. As lived experience, diversity greatly enhances our lives. It has helped create a Britain that is less insular, less homogenous, more vibrant and cosmopolitan than it was half a century ago.

Multiculturalism as a political process has come to mean something else – the public recognition and affirmation of cultural differences and the belief that social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural beliefs are treated as equally valid, and indeed are institutionalised in the public sphere. As the American academic Iris Young puts it, in an echo of your argument, ‘groups cannot be socially equal unless their specific experience, culture and social contributions are publicly affirmed and recognised.’

The confusion between the idea of diversity as lived experience and multiculturalism as a political process has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just those on the right – to present the problems of social cohesion as the product of mass immigration and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many anti-racists to promote sectional interests in the name of defending diversity.

Like you I recognise the importance of a diverse society. But I also recognise the difference between diversity and sectionalism. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a more universal language of citizenship. But it is precisely the possibilities of such dialogue and debate that become constrained when sectional interests substitute for political aspirations. That is why I oppose any notion of solidarity or representation defined in narrow particularist terms and stress the importance of political affiliations over ethnic ties.

Best wishes,

One comment

  1. Ethnic representation can be more flexible and focussed if it is exercised through pressure groups which act only when specific issues affect them. Formal organisations such as the Muslim Council suffer from being unavoidably unrepresentative for the reasons you have given. It is possible for a politician to represent a diverse community by consulting with relevant groups on sensitive issues – as described at .

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