11 June 2018

Making power look more like the people

By Sunder Katwala

How long will it be before power in Britain resembles the society that it serves? Achieving that should be an important fairness test for our increasingly diverse society. That was the prime minister’s thinking in commissioning the race disparity audit last Autumn, with a commitment to tackling “burning injustices” on race and opportunity, offering a snapshot of the scale of the challenge. National government will need to strengthen its leadership role to sustain momentum on addressing race inequalities, as a new select committee report from the Women’s and Equalities Committee notes today.

But not all of the changes that we need can be driven by Westminster and Whitehall.  It is just over a year since Andy Street was elected as Mayor of the West Midlands, one of six new metro-mayors elected last year. Today, he publishes the report of the West Midlands Leadership Commission, showing how new regional devolved institutions can try to drive this agenda forward too. The commission looked at all groups under-represented in leadership roles in the region — including the role of gender, social class, race and sexuality.

The initiative reflects the particular urgency in the West Midlands to unlock the leadership of the future.

The West Midlands is a young region. Birmingham has a good claim to be, demographically, the youngest city in Europe, with a median age of 36, four years below the national average. It is perhaps the place in Britain where it will matter most to show we can make our diversity work in a way that is fair to all.

The evidence gathered for the Commission shows a mixed picture of where we are now. The NHS in the West Midlands has an especially good record on women in leadership roles, for example. But there are stark gaps. In the thousand largest West Midlands companies, over half (56 per cent) have all-male boards, while two of the thousand have all female boards.

I was a member of the Commission, chaired by Anita Bhalla, alongside leaders from the West Midlands in business, education and the public sector. Their challenge was to identify what would need to change for them to shift from being an exception to reflecting a growing norm. One member, chief superintendent Bas Javid, saw his rise up the police ranks take on a much higher profile when his experiences became central to the speech his brother, the new Home Secretary, made to the Police Federation conference.

The Commission’s priority is to see the evidence used to create a sustained programme of practical interventions in the public, private and third sector in the West Midlands. Yet there are important lessons from the exercise that should be relevant for action in national policy and in other regions.

First, having an evidence base really matters but there are still some important gaps which make it harder to explore whether and why barriers exist. There is much patchier data, for example, on sexuality than on gender and ethnicity. On social class too, effort is needed to quantify class and to collate relevant data on a consistent basis. There is a strong argument that the best way out of a “competing grievances” frame is to look coherently across class, gender, race and other issues.

National government could also do more to ensure that national data reports the granular information — especially on geography, age and gender — that would enable localised strategies and competition across regions.

Second, the evidence is only useful if there are sustained plans to act on it.

At a national level, today’s select committee report rightly warns that the government is too hands-off, leaving the requirement to “explain or challenge” racial disparities almost entirely to individual government departments. Without a drive from the centre, the likely result is that action will come mainly from departments that would have acted anyway, such as education, missing the opportunity to get departments such as Transport to think seriously about disparities for the first time.

In the West Midlands, the Commissioners are clear that what will really matter is organisational and cultural change and ownership of that from the top. A key finding is that there are many initiatives from large firms, but very little evaluation of which interventions succeed or fail and why, to inform sustained strategies across key sectors.

The West Midlands will want to seize the opportunity to lead this debate. It is often felt that the West Midlands does not quite get its fair share of voice in our national conversations – caught between the self-centredness of the capital and the swagger of Manchester.  Yet the region has plenty of opportunities – with Coventry as the next city of culture and Birmingham hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2022 – to project its new story to the world.

A key challenge becomes how to ensure that this outward-facing story is owned by the people of the West Midlands themselves. An aspirational vision for what the region would like to be, at its best, will be much more powerful if it is linked to a sustained effort to catalyse the changes that could enable the next generation to realise its potential. If Britain’s youngest region can lead the way, that could also help to shape a national story that links the vision for a fair and inclusive society with action to make it happen.

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.