Deputy Leader Shahrar Ali speech to Conference (FULL TEXT)

7 September 2014


The Politics of Imagination

I've been a little overwhelmed with congratulations this past week. The good will and expectation is palpable. But I think it's important first to commiserate, or maybe even to congratulate -- depending on your view of the potentially thankless task which is GPEX meetings! -- the other contenders. Thank you Rob. Thank you Mark. Thank you Will, for making it such a good competition, always positive. That's how we like to do business. I learned a lot from you all and will continue to do so.


I want to talk about racial representation, anti-discrimination and Green politics. There are plenty of euphemisms under which the topic of race rears its head: diversity, multiculturalism, immigration. Sometimes it pays to be subtle, sometimes not. We as a party are getting better at recognising the disparity that exists between the look and feel of our members, activists, officers and elected, even our known voters, and the look and feel of society at large. For sure, aren’t we a long way from looking like a cross-section of the society we purport to serve? Look around.. . Does it matter?


Yes. Instead of just being collectively embarrassed -- or worse, in denial -- about it we need to do something about it. Let's not suppose, for obvious reasons, that I am uniquely well placed for moving this agenda forward. On certain days of the week, I don't especially identify with my ethnic markers – but probably I’m one of the lucky ones, it’s like I can choose. Many are forced to have to reflect on their ethnicity, and how they are being maltreated because of it, when they’d rather not have to – that can be massively disempowering, debilitating for the human spirit even. I despair when I witness the schoolboy resign himself to being stopped by police -- forced to miss his bus, simply, in his words, "for being black" -- as if he can't deserve better.


I regularly get accused of sounding like a lawyer when arbitrarily stopped by authorities. The more arbitrary, the more I make a nuisance of myself. Once, post 9/11, I was confronted by eight immigration officers and two police officers when disembarking a Eurostar. Would I comply with the completion of a form or did I want to see the 1984 immigration act? Yes, actually. Please bring me the act and show me what’s wrong with my passport at the same time. A rhetorical question turned into a lengthy exercise. Make no mistake we are the first line of defence. We tolerate abuse of liberty at our peril. I rail against these abuses not just for my own sake but for the hundreds of others next in line, perhaps less able to argue their case or more easily intimidated. Funny, these encounters seem to be getting less frequent in my own case – perhaps there’s a domestic extremist file out on me: “Green Party! Not a pushover! Handle with caution!”.


I hope you don’t mind me indulging in personal references – it’s very much more than a Wallace and Gromit moment. I like to treat people as individuals, minded-people, to be judged if at all on the basis of what they say and think and how they behave, not according to their appearance or whether they happen to be wearing a fancy suit and tie. An activist once complained (it was at a regional AGM) about too many "white, middle-class academic types". I got up in protest - my I, Spartacus moment - "I'm not white!"

The point is that irrespective of my purported racial classification I want to move this agenda forward and we have every reason to want to do so. To fail to recognise the problem and to fail to do something about it will continue to damage our credibility with swathes of the electorate. Let's renew our ambition for the party. We should be the first point of political identification for immigrant communities. Our policies were written for them. Often the most marginalised in society - whether Colombians on zero-hours cleaning contracts, without licence to spend time with their families on bank holidays or even to visit relatives abroad - whether Bangladeshis on the sharp end of sea-level rises due to man-made ice-melt tens of thousands of miles away – whether Muslim men facing disproportionately harsh sentences for causing a fracas outside the Israeli embassy.


Greens are going to fight your corner. Greens don’t need to be you, or even to know you before we defend your basic rights to liberty and security.


Green politics is the politics of imagination. Other politics is the politics of failure of imagination. (Please retweet.)


A twitter user enquired in response to another’s labelling me First BME deputy, Is he any good? I was cheered to see somebody [in reply] sing my praises but bemused at the notion that my election might need some additional ratification. Did they mean, “Is he any good in spite of the fact that he is BME?” Would they have asked this question had I not been BME? Should one have to be better than one would have had to be otherwise.


Let’s look at the UK today:

  • Why is the candidate with the ethnic name ten times less likely to get called to interview? Do they have to be ten times better than they would have had to be otherwise?
  • Why is the female candidate with the ethnic name twenty times less likely to be called to interview? Does she have to be twenty times better than she would have had to be otherwise?
  • Why is the British citizen with the black face ten times more likely to be stopped and searched? Does he have to defend his right to walk the streets freely ten times more frequently? Ah, I get it, the government has been sponsoring racist van slogans as part of an unintelligent-led approach to persecute immigrants and anybody who looks like an immigrant.


While I'm going to take a special interest in trying to get us to improve our ethnic diversity let me explain why I need your help. In short, anti-discrimination is everybody's business:


  • You don't have to be black to want to rail against racial prejudice or persecution. You only need to be Green.
  • You don't have to be gay to want to march alongside PRIDE. You only need to be Green.

-  You don't need to be a wheelchair user to understand the needs of accessibility as a standard of social equality. You only need to be Green.

  • You don't have to be a woman to fight patriarchy, to want to reassure a voter on the doorstep, no she doesn’t have to wait for her husband before talking politics with you. You only need to be Green.
  • You don't have to be younger or older to want to combat ageism. You only need to be Green.
  • You don't need to be Muslim or Jew to want to eliminate all forms of Islamophobia, anti-semitism and xenophobia. You only need to be Green.
  • You don't need to be atheist to want to defend the right to be able to challenge religious zealotry as not worthy of the name - whether the presumed right to displace Palestinians for being on your God-given land or the sickness in the head which led to the unconscionable murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. You only need to be Green.
  • You don't need to be Iraqi to see that Blair's WMD intervention is the cause of yet greater violence and misery in that part of the world.
  • You don’t need to have a degree in international relations to recognise that bad foreign policy decisions, such as killing Iraqis in order to save them, will generally have unintended negative consequences for years to come, call it blowback. You only need to be Green. Why – incidentally – is this government so acutely cogent when it comes to explaining their policy on no negotiation with hostage takers in terms of cause and effect, but not when it comes to their past foreign policy?
  • You don't need to be a scientist to see that climate change is happening. You only need to be Green.


The politics of imagination -- in closing. Our membership is far greater than our database is telling us. It includes the future generations that aren’t around yet and nonhuman animals that aren't able to exercise their rights in a polling booth - this mass of collective interests is all at stake, well beyond the next electoral cycle. They are all Green.


We also have posthumous members from long before the Party was created. Rosa Parks. Mahatma Ghandi. Hannah Arendt. Honorary members whom we take inspiration from.


Meantime, Greens -- in this electoral cycle -- please do help the campaign in Bristol West, Brighton Pavilion, Norwich South and elsewhere. Do look out for points of commonality and solidarity with communities who may not feel traditionally represented by us. Let's move beyond our Potential Green Voter comfort zone. We need them to help us to be the party for the human race. If there’s a BME initiative in the party, that doesn’t mean a box we can park and simply look in to from time to time. It means an all-inclusive initiative, at the centre of the party not the margins.


You don't have to be the Leader of the Green Party to recognise all this.

We need you to help us to direct the Party.

There is a Leader in all of us.

If not that, then there’s a Deputy Leader in all of us!


To watch the speech please click here:


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