22 March 2022

Kemi Badenoch is forging a winning, conservative approach to tackling racial disparities

By Frank Young

Oliver Dowden has told the Conservative faithful to prepare for a ‘two year’ election campaign, scuppering hopes of a snap poll some time in 2023. Despite efforts to dampen election speculation, the dividing lines for a future campaign are becoming increasingly clear. 

Last week Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch set out the Government’s strategy for tackling racial disparities, building on Tony Sewell’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report. The ‘Inclusive Britain’ proposals might not have hit the headlines or caused the political row some might have expected, but it’s impact on our politics might well set the tone for a future election battle.

Badenoch’s prescription can best be described as traditional conservative themes given a new lease of life. She talks particularly about the role of education and family in helping young people from different backgrounds get on in life. The Government’s strategy to tackle racial disparities even talks positively about ‘agency’, which is Whitehall speak for personal responsibility. It seems that ‘equality of opportunity’ has also made a welcome return to the conservative lexicon.

Labour, on the other hand, has already stated its intention to pass a Race Equality Act. This legislation will be ‘shaped’ by ‘lived experience’ and tackle ‘structural inequalities’. It’s hard to know what this means in practice, but will likely end up imposing legally binding quotas across our public services and probably much of the private sector too.

Alertness to ‘structural inequality’ has become the leitmotif of the modern social justice movement. Indeed, when Civitas, the think tank where I work, recently published a book defending British openness to new groups and cultures, our analysis was described as part of an ‘ongoing divisive attempt to diminish the realities of structural racism in our society’.

Our heresy was to set out new data showing a new ethnic minority middle class was emerging in the UK, with 1 in 6 ethnic minority Brits of working age occupying ‘middle class’ jobs, compared to 1 in 8 working age white Brits. Surely, we thought, this was a cause for celebration – as is data showing a remarkable collapse in racist incidents over several generations. It is not ignoring the fact that racism still exists to observe that British attitudes have changed, and changed decisively for the better.

The latest linguistic attack from the social justice warriors is to call anyone who questions the orthodoxy of structural racism a ‘denialist’ and hope they simply go away. Another pervasive habit is to elevate ‘lived experience’ over any sort of data.

Those with ambitions to become Tory MPs at the next election would do well to take on board some of Badenoch’s arguments. Rather than embracing junk sociology, which divides groups up and pits them against one another, she has laid out an approach that focuses on extending equality of opportunity. Rather than enforced outcomes and Twitter hashtags, there is a serious attempt to look beyond simple difference by improving school standards, encouraging aspiration and looking at the role of families.

This is also a government which acknowledges that family ‘is the single most important determinant of life outcomes’ – and with good reason. In 2020, lone parent families made up 14% of all families with children, but for Black Caribbean families that figure stood at 63%. Only 6% of children growing up in South Asian and Chinese families experienced their parents splitting up. Look at exam results and they follow the same pattern.

None of this is to pretend that problems don’t exist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In measuring disparities we can uncover a more complex picture about who is doing well and who is struggling. Even within ethnic groups there are some striking trends: Bangladeshi girls are the highest performing student group, but young Bangladeshis overall have the second highest pre-pandemic unemployment rate (behind young Black Africans).

Badenoch is keen to talk about inclusion – but not the spurious version used by personnel departments to show how trendy they are but a proper sense of belonging. True inclusion is about showing that our history and our institutions belong to everyone, and it was notable that Badenoch upbraided those on the right who too often sound ‘shrill’ when it comes to discussing such issues. A new (or old, depending on your view) approach is needed that responds constructively to the dominance of identity politics on the left. The Union Jack represents us all and it is about time we said so.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Frank Young is editorial director at Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.