Arguably, the most powerful person of African descent in Britain over the past five years has never held a position in government - so that rules out the two black cabinet ministers Baroness Valerie Amos and Baroness Patricia Scotland.
The most powerful black figure is Trevor Phillips, who heads Britain’s equalities quango called the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Phillips has long been viewed with suspicion by campaigners and those at the grassroots.
But when he took the helm at the Commission for Racial Equality, five years ago, he began to provoke feelings slightly stronger than antipathy. It is quite clear that Phillips’ strategy was to wind down the only major body that was dedicated to tackling race inequality.
The CRE virtually stopped pursuing legal actions on behalf of victims of racism, and began a cull of local borough-based Race Equality Councils. But worse, Phillips appeared regularly in the more right-leaning sections of the mainstream making a series of pronouncements in which he appeared to be the government’s mouthpiece on all matters to do with race.
Multiculturalism was dead, Phillips declared, as he sought to promote Labour’s view that what Britain really needed was to stop focussing on ‘silo’ politics of individual equalities areas, but instead we needed to merge all the ‘strands’ like gender, sexuality, disabilities and religion together.
Institutional racism was no more, Phillips added, as he attempted to file away the public inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence as a job done. In the year, 2007, when we were commemorating the bi-centenary of Westminster outlawing the trade in stolen Africans, Phillips was calling for St George’s Day to be a public holiday, celebrating Englishness.
There are many other statements that further isolated Phillips from the community; such as his demand that immigrants learn the English language or proclaiming that there is nothing wrong with the term ‘coloured.’
30 years after Labour passed the 1976 Race Relations Act, which established the CRE, Phillips led the process of closing it, in favour of the new EHRC which lumped race together with six other equalities subjects, without even a race committee or any commissioners with responsibility for race.
Needless to say, I have long been a critic of Phillips. Last autumn, as editor of the African and Caribbean newspaper New Nation – I ran a double-page feature attacking him under the bold headline: “What Have You Done for Us Lately, Trev?”
In many ways, the problem is not Phillips himself, but the government. Phillips has come to represent a lightening conductor for the searing disappointment of those who, like me, feel that the past 13 years amount to nothing more than a huge missed opportunity to deal with race inequality.
The fact is the colourblind approach, followed by an all-equalities-are-the-same stance, has left our communities with largely unchanged statistics showing a great chasm of disproportionality in terms of poor housing and homelessness, unemployment and the wage gap, and mental health.
The passing of the 2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Act with its ‘positive duty’ on the public sector to promote race equality and produce race monitoring reports, has sadly not been enforced. If it had, school exclusions would not still be directed mainly against black pupils. And, police would not be stopping and searching ever greater numbers of black youth.
I believe the game-plan all along was for Phillips to take the heat from black activists while at the same time helping pave the way for whatever the government wanted to achieve. Both Phillips and Labour played their parts to perfection.
But now the game has changed. The Equalities Bill is sliding through parliament without provoking howls of outrage from the right-wing tabloids. With the CRE abolished and the new EHRC established, in many ways Phillips’ job is done. What ministers no doubt expect now is some peace and quiet on the equalities front.
Suddenly, Phillips appears not to be playing ball. He has already broken ranks with the government over all-black shortlists for candidates, and recently warned that racism is likely to increase as a consequence of the recession.
There was an even more overt challenge to the government’s agenda in the last fortnight, as Phillips completed a report opposing Gordon Brown’s statement that local homes should go to local people; an attempt by the Prime Minister to revive the old ‘sons and daughters’ housing allocation policies that discriminated against immigrants of colour right up until the late 1980s. The policies condemned many Caribbeans to the ghetto estates of the inner cities, where the third and forth generations still live in generational poverty and crime.
So are we seeing a new Trevor Phillips? It wouldn’t surprise me… over the years he has displayed chameleon-like gifts at adapting to the changing environment. The more important question is how the new Equalities Bill will be enforced once it becomes law. Affirmative action it ain’t, but there are still some important positive action contract compliance powers to ensure that businesses prove they are not discriminating when companies are dealing with the public sector.
At the same time, the CBI and business leaders are in uproar over the changes. The willingness, or otherwise, to make the new law work is crucial.
With Phillips appearing more independent-minded these days, I am starting to wonder if there is any connection between this and the spate of negative headlines about him in the national press lately, ending years of favourable coverage.
Maybe it is also time to reassess our attitudes towards him. He is unlikely to completely win back the trust of some campaigners but he does have the ability to win back their respect. If Phillips metamorphoses into a more principled public champion of equality, I, for one, am prepared to forgive because it is Labour, not Phillips, that I ultimately blame for the failure to make any significant gains towards race equality in the last 13 years.
Armed with the Equalities Bill and the 2000 Race Relations Act, Phillips has the tools to make a difference. And why get a new chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission when we can have a new Trev? I’m already starting to rethink my attitudes towards Phillips. But I don’t think it’s me that’s changing – it’s him!
Lester Holloway is a journalist and race equality consultant. He was editor of New Nation, an African and Caribbean weekly newspaper in the UK; and has also worked for the other weekly The Voice as news editor. Lester has freelanced for the BBC and many other mainstream and BA&ME print, broadcast and online outlets. He is a former Labour councillor and was one of the founding members of the National Association of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority Councillors. He is currently editor of a new blog to be launched shortly by Operation Black Vote, and is delivering media training for the Liberal Democrats. He is a council candidate for the Lib Dems and a member of the Ethnic Minority Lib Dems (EMLD) and part of the New Generation project which is a partnership between EMLD and the leadership to increase fair representation in the party.