Election 2010 – Your Choice Your Vote
In a statement, Rabi Martins the Vice Chair for Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats said that the Liberal Democrats were the only Party without an MP from an ethnic minority background. Can you see why people may view your party as being too white and too detached?
I find it a cause of deep regret that we don’t yet have an MP from an ethnic minority background, and I hope we will change that on May 6th this year. Since I became leader two years ago I have been making changes to ensure we are represented at every level by people from a diverse range of backgrounds and communities, like a dedicated Diversity Unit to give our candidates from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities targeted support. And our Next Generation Initiative to help councillors, activists, and parliamentary candidates from these communities achieve their political ambitions. But I know we need to go much further. The whole purpose of the Liberal Democrats has always been to break down prejudice and to build a more tolerant Britain. That’s one of the reasons that minority ethnic communities are increasingly looking to us – because, as liberals, the belief that Britain is stronger as a diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society is encoded into our DNA. I want our party’s make-up to fully reflect that belief.
An opinion poll by 10 Yetis showed two-thirds of voters did not know who Nick Clegg is. Is the fact that you don’t seem to be capitalising on Labours unpopularity at all concerning?
I’m an MP in Sheffield – just one of the cities, taken for granted for so long by Labour, that has now turned to the Liberal Democrats. There are people up and down the country who feel completely let down after thirteen years of this failed Labour government, who don’t know what the Conservatives stand for, and who are drawn to our plans to make Britain fairer. From tax, to schools, to the economy, to politics, we are the only party willing to take on vested interests and make sure there are opportunities for everyone in society, not just the well-off and the powerful. That’s the change Britain needs. We’re using this election campaign to say to people: you don’t have to settle for more of the same from the two old parties – the Liberal Democrats are your chance to do things differently. From what I’ve seen that message is getting through, and people like it.
You’ve always expressed your opposition to tuition fees – is this just a gimmick to lure the younger electorate into voting for the Liberal Party?
No, it’s much more important than that. This is about values. Education is everything when it comes to making society fairer. And surely the one thing we have learnt from the recession is that you can’t build your future on debt. We cannot keep loading up our children with mortgage-style debts to pay off right from the start of their lives. That is why we are determined to scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degrees. It is tough enough to get a job, get on the housing ladder and make ends meet when you’re starting out. It comes down to a simple point: university admission should be based on your ability, not your ability to pay.
British Muslim students, especially of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, even though are performing better than a few years ago, are still underachieving more than any other ethnic communities, what would your party do to combat this if it comes to power?
Britain can be incredibly unfair if you are from a minority community. You are more likely to be poor, out of work, and live in a deprived part of the country – that’s a scandal. Our plans to make Britain fairer will make a huge difference to the lives of people from ethnic communities, who are often those who suffer most from the current unfairness. We’ll introduce a pupil premium, providing schools with extra money, paid for by making cuts elsewhere in government, so that teachers can cut class sizes and give every pupil the attention they need to do well. After school, we’ll make working life fairer too. By closing the tax loopholes exploited by the wealthy we can cut taxes for everyone else, making sure no-one pays a penny of income tax on the first £10,000 they earn. And we’ll renovate the empty homes that so often blight inner city communities.
The highest number of the unemployed in this country are from the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities; they’re two or three times more likely to be unemployed than their white British counterparts. How do you propose to make this fairer?
We have a plan to get Britain back to work: and economic stimulus and job creation plan, which will redirect over £3.1bn in our first year into building up Britain’s infrastructure and creating up to 100,000 new jobs. Jobs people in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities will benefit from. And we have made a pledge that any young person claiming Job Seekers’ Allowance will be given further training or a paid internship after 90 days.
I also want to make it impossible for unscrupulous employers to cut people from ethnic minorities out of the job application process right at the start because their background is clear from the name. Did you know that someone with an ethnic minority name will apply for twice as many jobs as someone without one before they are hired? Liberal Democrats will bring in anonymous job application forms.
Muslims have been disproportionately affected by anti terror legislations, especially in stop and search procedures. What is your policy on this?
Labour and the Conservatives have tried to outdo each other in the politics of fear, and that has meant more and more repressive laws limiting the freedom of innocent people, all in the name of combating terrorism. Especially young black and Asian men, who are far more likely to be stopped by the police, even when they have done nothing wrong. Stop and search should always be intelligence-led. Neighbourhood policing – something Liberal Democrats have always championed – has a big part to play in making that work. PCSOs and safer neighbourhood teams can improve trust between the police and the communities they serve, encouraging people to come forward when they have information that will help police target terrorists.
Liberal Democrats will also scrap control orders – we should be convicting terrorists, not putting entire communities under suspicion. And we’ll get innocent people off the DNA database – the largest DNA database in the world, which contains details of a million innocent people’s genetic profile. Black people are hugely over-represented because they are so much more likely to be stopped by the police. If you’re innocent, we’ll remove your DNA from the database, and only store DNA from people who have actually committed a crime.
You recently held your Spring Conference in Birmingham, a city with a worrying upsurge in gun crime. How does your party anticipate combating this widespread problem?
It’s time to get smart on this. We’ve had enough posturing on penalties from Labour and the Conservatives; we need a government with the ideas to catch criminals. Like making all hospital A&E departments collect anonymous information from all victims of violent crime and share it with police forces so we can map crime ‘hot-spots’ and target them for intensive policing and intelligence-led stop and search. That’s how to catch more gun and knife-carriers, deter others, disrupt inner city gang activity and make sure that local residents feel safe and secure in their neighbourhoods. Liberal Democrats will also put 3,000 more police officers on the streets, paid for by scrapping Labour’s pointless ID cards. And we can use metal-detecting arches to target knife and gun crime in high-risk areas, mostly around schools and transport hubs.
What is your stance on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Should our troops finally come home or we duty bound to finish what we started?
The Liberal Democrats were the only party that opposed the illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq. And it’s only because of pressure from us that Gordon Brown – the man who signed all the cheques for that war – gave evidence to the Iraq Inquiry last month. I am determined that we should put British values of fairness and the rule of law back at the heart of our foreign policy. We will always put the country’s security first. But the national interest demands that we work with allies, stand up for human rights, and help people in the poorest parts of the world.
In terms of the mission in Afghanistan, I believe that providing a defence for the people of Afghanistan against Taliban extremists is hugely important, as is helping secure stability in the region, and stemming the spread of global terrorism. But our support for that mission is, of course, not unconditional, and Liberal Democrats want a radical shift in our approach. The problem is that, for eight long years, the political strategy we need to succeed in Afghanistan has been missing. We have been defending remote desert outposts rather than winning hearts and minds. We desperately need a political surge to go alongside the current military surge in order to bring over moderate Taliban and end corruption in Karzai’s government. Without a properly funded reconciliation plan, and an intense political engagement, the mission will not succeed and more people will die, on all sides, without resolution. We cannot let that happen.
Why should we vote you as Prime Minister of our country?
I came into politics because I was so frustrated seeing two old parties fighting between themselves and doing nothing to really change things for the people they’re supposed to serve. I believe we have to do things differently this time – we have to break up the old two party system and try something new. That’s what the Liberal Democrats are all about, and it’s what I’m all about. I haven’t spent my life in Parliament and politics – I was only elected in 2005 and when I arrived, I was gobsmacked by how utterly out of touch the old Westminster politics is with what people want and need. I was brought up to believe that the way things are is not the way they have to be. You have to fight for what you stand for, and that’s what I will always do.
Interview by Zeenat Moosa