Ruwan, who is of mixed-heritage descent (Sri Lanka/British Jewish), is a former national and international advisor and a campaigner in the fields of community cohesion and equality and diversity issues within the British police service. He is also a founding member and the first elected General Secretary of the National Black Police Association (UK). Ruwan is a former Deputy Leader of a Council and Liberal Democrat English Party Diversity Champion, and is currently a Vice Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats.
1. What first motivated you to get into politics? What issues are you passionate about?
Like many people with Asian ancestry politics has always been part of my life, and although I ultimately joined the police service and could not be directly involved in party politics, I retained a ‘Left’ leaning.
During my police career I did not avoid politics as I became involved in the development of the National Black Police Association and challenging race inequality within the criminal justice system.
Upon retiring from the service I joined the Labour Party, but soon realized that it had actually moved from its traditional position on equality issues towards a more populist position where migrants became the scapegoat for economic decline and diminishing community cohesion within society.
- What attracted you to the Liberal Democrat party?
Being a person who still wished to bring change, I was drawn towards the Liberal Democrat Party in 2008 which espoused, and still espouses, immensely inclusive principles that seek to lift people out of deprivation and aid them in achieving their potential.
I have stuck with the Liberal Democrats throughout the Coalition, for in knowing and meeting with many members I realize that although they do not describe themselves as such, there is a genuine socialist agenda amongst the membership and, given the right environment, it is this agenda that will be promoted.
Throughout the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats have been fighting a rear guard action to thwart Toryism, which seeks to grab from the vulnerable in order to support the well-off.
- Given the public’s disengagement with politics, how do you think political parties can reconnect with voters?
The reputation of politicians has never been a positive one but we appear to be at an all time low and there is a need to clean up politics at local, regional and national levels.
Accountability seems to be the biggest issue, in that once elected it appears to the electorate that politicians are ‘untouchable’ or self-serving.
Although scurrilous politicians are in the minority, we sadly do not hear enough from the ‘good’ ones who should be seen to be challenging and exposing any inappropriateness.
- Why should voters support your party?
As a Vice Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, I am sure that some would believe that I should be overtly promoting my party, but as a Buddhist by faith, I cannot evangelize. What I do say though is that is vitally important for all BAME individuals, and especially people of colour, to engage in politics at all levels.
BAME people have for far too long not been heard within politics and hence the policies, procedures and practices do not explicitly exist at the appropriate level to eradicate racism from society.
I am a liberal believer,and as such I have chosen to be a member of a party that I honestly believe has at its core the principles that if enacted will make Britain a more fair and equal society. However, I do not deride anyone else for joining another political party if they see a kernel of hope there that they can build upon.
- Name one policy from your party that you think is a “game changer” that you think will make a real difference to the lives of ordinary people, and explain why.
I cannot name only one policy, for there are a host of policies that the Party has passed and are enshrined within the Race Equality Task Force Report: <http://www.scribd.com/doc/145293306/Lib-Dem-Race-Equality-Task-Force-Report#scribd>.
The report, which is now reflected within Labour Party policy as well, highlights the urgent need to move beyond rhetoric and into action, specifically within the areas of education and employment.
- If your party ceased to exist, which is the closest party to your ideology? And would you join that party?
I am an issue-led politician and as such if the Liberal Democrat Party ceased to exist then I would join another on the Left where I could influence its direction with regard to equality and diversity matters.
The most important things for me are the principles that I stand for and the desire to eradicate inequality, so which rosette I wear is secondary – for a partisan approach alone will never eradicate injustice from society. Combating racism and other inequalities within society requires a cross-party political approach; anything else is doomed to fail.
- If you had to pick one issue that you feel isn’t being addressed by the government or an issue on which we need to have a wider and more honest discussion about as a nation, what would it be?
Inequality and its causes!
We have witnessed yet again in the recent Channel 4 programme by Trevor Phillips ‘Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True’ the desire to simplify a complex matter, which will in my opinion result in even greater discrimination towards BAME people.
I question whether there actually is any benefit in discussing racism when the zeitgeist is so noticeably venomous towards hearing the reality that people of colour suffer the indignity of racism on a daily basis.
Having said this, I believe that the mainstream media is currently fuelling ignorance and fear within society regarding the issue of race, and that it is the responsibility of politicians to counter the rhetoric of hatred and division.
- Are you in favour of leader’s debates or do you think they are a bit of a distraction?
The public have a right to hear and directly challenge what politicians claim that they intend to do with the trust that we give them, so I am immensely supportive of the leader’s debates. I would further duplicate this model throughout the country for all publicly elected positions.
- What should the health service of the future look like — if the NHS has finite resources, how should they be spent? Is it more cost effective to outsource services?
The National Health Service should not only be free at the point of use, but also free throughout; and if this means that I personally have to pay more taxes so that we genuinely have the finest health service in the world, then so be it.
Having said this, do I support reform of the service? Certainly! No business or public service if left in isolation will be truly as effective, efficient and economic as it should be.
- What do you consider to be one of the biggest challenges facing young people today, and does your party have any policies or proposals that could help?
Education, employment and housing!
Although far more young people are now going to university, as a lecturer within higher education I question whether the current system is truly breaking down the barriers of privilege, for there is a very apparent absence of home students from BAME backgrounds in what are deemed ‘prestigious’ universities.
This under-representation at the top universities leads to the same within the top jobs, and the exclusion of BAME graduates from the top jobs in industry and the public sector is an embarrassment when these very students are out-performing their white peers within education.
For those not attending higher education, apprenticeships are vital; but these need to be real and focused on the development of genuine skills that will benefit the participant for life.
As for housing, the need for affordable and otherwise appropriate housing within our cities disproportionately and negatively impacts on BAME communities. As a society we may need to escape this desire for home ownership as if this is the mark of success, for frankly we are pricing future generations out of any hope of ever owning their own homes.
As for social housing, frankly, the policies of all the major parties for the building of new homes are scandalous, and again BAME families are disproportionately affected.
- What advice would you give first-time voters?
Vote, if you wish to make a difference!
The recent Operation Black Vote (OBV) report, ‘Black vote can decide 2015 general election’, should be a wake-up call for BAME communities as to the level of influence that they can directly have on the outcome of the next election.
In my political role, I am keen to get as many people as possible from BAME communities who have traditionally not voted or seen politics as supporting only one party to realize the influence that they have.
The OBV ‘eXpress bus tour’ is an incredible initiative, and I am very keen for this work to continue after the 2015 election, for in 2016 we have the elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and London Assemblies.
In my opinion it is vitally important that BAME candidates are fielded in winnable seats in all of these elections, especially within London, which is one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet.
The level of ethnic diversity that exists within society is currently not reflected within any of these chambers, as it is absent from Parliament as well.
- What are your thoughts on the state of the immigration debate in the run-up to the election? Is there one issue related to immigration issue that you would say is a priority and why?
As someone that was involved in writing party policy, I am only too aware of the minefield that this is and how the media and the Right in politics are constantly manipulating this debate for the sake of appearing populist.
Obviously an ‘open-door’ policy is not appropriate, but current discussions are being used to ramp up hatred and intolerance by some, when in reality a fair and equitable migration policy is beneficial to all within society.
- Do you think we should raise the minimum wage (or perhaps adopt the living wage)? Why or why not?
In order to create the fair and equal society that I would hope we all desire, there is a need for the minimum wage to equate to a living wage for all employees, as well as those who cannot work.
And please, let us get rid of the derisive term ‘The Hard-Working’ that has gained support over the past few years and demonises the vulnerable.
- Do you think the public sector can sustain more cuts and is there a social price to pay?
I am a firm believer in the public sector demonstrating that is operating to a ‘best value’ methodology, whereby it can offer evidence that it is providing a high quality of service delivery to the public whilst being effective, efficient and economic with our taxes.
Although there is a need to review the functions of the public service, it is vitally important that the vulnerable are not negatively affected which, sadly, they currently are.
- What is one policy or measure that you think would go some way towards making sure the benefits of economic growth are felt by all?
I support policies that release people to fulfill their aspirations and abilities, and encourage growth on a personal level as well as in the economy. A ‘one size fits all’ approach is bound to leave some ostracised.
- Should Britain remain in the EU? Why or why not?
I have always been a supporter of greater union with Europe as these countries should not only be our allies, but a market for our products.
I have neither seen nor heard an evidence-based argument that contradicts my belief in the benefits of being a fully paid up member of the European Union.
- Any final reflections you’d like to share ahead of what is touted to be one of the most unpredictable elections for a number of years?
What concerns me most is how the growth of the Right and the rhetoric of the Far Right (which has actually declined) has become the norm for mainstream political parties.
The current political climate, which promotes a ‘blame culture’, seems to preclude an outcome wherein a party that has social liberal principles at its core will lead the government. It is for this reason that I am hopeful of a further Coalition, for at least within such a setup extremes can be countered.
I do very much hope, though, that one outcome of the general election will be an awakening of the BAME communities and a realization that they have the right and responsibility to have a say as to how they are governed in the future.
As a liberal believer, I remain an optimist, and believe that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ need not be an oncoming train.
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Ruwan, who is of mixed-heritage descent (Sri Lanka/British Jewish), is a former national and international advisor and a campaigner in the fields of community cohesion and equality and diversity issues within the British police service. He is also a founding member and the first elected General Secretary of the National Black Police Association (UK).
Since retirement, Ruwan (now a university lecturer in Criminology) continues to be involved in all aspects of developing equality and diversity within both the voluntary and public sectors at national, regional and local levels.
Ruwan is a former Deputy Leader of a Council and Liberal Democrat English Party Diversity Champion, and is currently a Vice Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, which is an internal lobbying body championing equality of opportunity whilst seeking to reflect the views of external BAME communities.
The Other Political Series’ curated by journalist Kiri Kankhwende is your go to alternative to the colourless mainstream commentary ahead of the General Election in May 2015. #OtherPolitics highlights issues and perspectives that are being overlooked in the election debate and presents different angles on some well-trodden issues.
Articles published in the other politics series so far:
- Introduction: Small Politics Kiri Kankhwende
- The Suffocation of British Muslim Civil Society Space Omayma El Ella
- Climate change is easier to ignore because right now it’s people of colour who suffer the most Maya Goodfellow
- “It’s an exciting time to be a politician”: Interview with Reema Patel (Labour Councillor)
- The Conservative Party is a broad church” Interview with Walaa Idris