Excerpt of a Speech Delivered at Herbert Smith Freehills, London
Tuesday, November 26,
As ever, it’s great to be back here
at Herbert Smith.
You know – I often talk about my
time here. My experience here – working with businesses of all sizes – has
proved invaluable in my current role as Shadow Business Secretary.
It’s also good to speak here during
Black History Month.
It is worth reflecting that when I
started my legal career here in 2002, I was one of just three black fee
So I’m pleased to return today to
find Herbert Smith has made good progress in increasing the number of black fee
earners but there is obviously more room for improvement.
And I’m delighted to be speaking to
a room full of black City professionals. There was a time when the
numbers of black City professionals would barely have filled this room – when
we all knew each other so well because there were so few of us. That is
no longer the case and that says to me that despite all the obstacles black
people have faced, we are making progress.
And when I say “we”, I actually mean
Britain – all of us – whatever our race, in every walk of life.
Because I think there’s a powerful
desire in this country to live in a society where people have the opportunity
to achieve their dreams and aspirations regardless of their background. A
social contract: shared responsibilities should mean shared opportunities and shared
Because if we hold back any part of
society – in this context black Britons - then we hold ourselves back as a
country. And that’s something we can’t afford to do at a time when, as Ed
Miliband has said, we need the talents of everyone to help shape our future in
this modern, complex and competitive world.
So progress is vital for individuals
– and it is vital for us as a country.
The progress we have made is now
deeply embedded in the British psyche.
Emile Sande and Tinie Tempah have
provided the soundtrack to our lives over the last few of years. Zadie
Smith is a regular fixture on our Kindles. The entire country celebrates
whenever Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis-Hill cross the finish line.
That is one view of progress – and
an important one.
But there are other perspectives on
progress too, which can no longer be ignored. Pick up a copy of the Powerlist –
the annual list of Britain’s most influential black people – and you will also
see those achieving excellence in other fields: like here in the City, in our
Boardrooms, in medicine, in science and other areas – where black people are
not so prominent.
So you’ll see Thiam Tidjane, CEO of
Prudential, in the Powerlist Hall of Fame. He became CEO in 2009, and under his
leadership the value of the company has more than doubled.
You’ll see Mo Ibrahim, who came to
this country from Sudan in 1974, started working as a BT engineer and ended up
founding Celtel International, one of Africa’s leading mobile phone
companies. With over 24 million subscribers in 14 countries, Celtel was
sold in 2004 for $3.4bn. That’s not a bad return!
Inspiring the next generation
You see, it’s so important that we
use Black History Month not only to celebrate those on whose shoulders we stand
who broke down the barriers in times past – but also those who are
pioneering a new future today.
Both are vital to giving our young
people the confidence and inspiration to back themselves and go after their
ambitions and dreams.
If young black people can’t see
people who look like them editing our newspapers, sitting on the Supreme Court
or running our great British companies, how can we give them the hope that if
they work hard, they can make it too?
You see, shining a light on our role
models is crucial because too many of them are ignored.
One of the reasons is because our
broadcast and film media have a tendency to stereotype black people: to present
an image of black British people that suggests we can succeed in sport,
entertainment and music, but not necessarily in other fields.
If I am wrong about this, then why
do so many black British actors have to leave the UK for the US to get decent
film and television roles that fall outside the stereotypes? Too many in the
British film and television industries simply don’t cast black British actors
in certain roles that fall outside those stereotypes.
It’s often only after they’ve made
it big in the States that black British actors get more – and more varied –
roles here. That is unacceptable and has got to change. As a society, we cannot
allow people to default to lazy stereotypes.
Outstanding race inequalities
So, I think we all recognise that
though we have made great strides towards a more equal society, we still have a
long way to go.
As a non-white person in Britain
today, you’re twice as likely to be unemployed as a white person.
If you are a young black graduate,
you’ll earn on average only three quarters of what a white graduate earns.
If you have an African-sounding
surname, you need to send about twice as many job applications as those with
traditional English names – not even to get a job – but just to get an
And I’m being generous here. I
haven’t gone into the over-representation of black people in the criminal
justice and mental health systems - or the disproportionate numbers of young
black Caribbean boys, say, being excluded in our schools.
So the message is clear:
If you believe that we are all
created equal and ours should be an equal society – then we cannot let up. Our
commitment cannot waver. We cannot be complacent.
Carrying on Labour’s tradition
tackling race inequality
That’s why I’m a proud to be
Labour. Over the years it was my party that enshrined non-discrimination
as a guiding principle not only of our beliefs, but also of our laws – from the
Race Relations Act of 1965 to the 2006 anti-age discrimination regulations.
And during our most recent period in
office, we did what the previous Conservative government failed to do – to set
up the full judicial inquiry into the disgraceful mishandling by the police of
the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, an inquiry that
acknowledged formally for the first time what we all knew to be true – that
there is institutional racism in our country – and we sought to deal with it.
Of course, the real credit for that
inquiry belongs to the Lawrence family for their refusal to give up in their
demand for justice – and I am proud to say Baroness Doreen Lawrence formally
became a Labour peer this month following her nomination by Ed Miliband. That
tradition of working to stamp out discrimination in all its forms – deliberate
or subconscious – wherever it exists, continues. Just last week our new
Shadow Equalities Minister, Gloria De Piero, launched our race equality
strategy. We are consulting on it so please visit our website at yourbritain.org.uk and have your say.
So I’ve talked about progress made,
the need to challenge stereotypes, and the ongoing quest for race equality in
Britain. But we must go beyond this.
I think we’re unlikely to see future
generations of black British people go on and do better than the last if we
focus on race inequality alone – we must address issues of class and
social mobility which are holding people back as well.
Social mobility is an annoyingly dry
phrase for something so fundamental to all of us: making possible the basic
desire of people to create a better future for themselves and their families.
I’ve worked very hard to get to
where I have. However, I do believe that I would have had to work even
harder had I not come from a middle class background. When I was growing
up the black middle class was still in its infancy. But now it is
However, unless we make social
mobility for everyone our driving purpose, people won’t be able to meet their
aspirations, we will not be a more equal society and we won’t make the most of
our potential as a country.
Just two weeks ago, the Government’s
Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission couldn’t have been clearer:
Britain remains a deeply divided
society and economic disadvantage still strongly shapes life’s opportunities.
They say there’s a real danger that social mobility could go into reverse in
the first part of this century if we don’t act.
So our goal is not only to eradicate
prejudice in all its forms and reduce racial and other inequalities, but to
create a society where if you want to get on, move out of your flat into a
house, progress from the shop floor to the board room, we empower you to do it.
We want to create a society in which
the son of a bus driver can go on not only to run but own the bus company. A
society where the teenager working the check out at Sainsbury’s in Streatham
Common can become its CEO. A society where the budding Richard Bransons and Mo
Ibrahims growing up on the Tulse Hill Estate, in one of the most deprived wards
in my constituency, can turn their ideas into thriving businesses and make
their first million.
Because it is in all our interests -
it not only creates wealth for the individual, jobs and growth, and of course
tax receipts for the Exchequer!
But that is not our country today.
Social mobility has stalled. As Alan Milburn, chair of the Commission said –
over the last few decades we’ve become a wealthier society but we haven’t
really become a fairer one.
So let me be clear: increasing
social mobility and empowering people to meet their aspirations goes to the
heart of my politics, it goes to heart of Labour’s values, it goes to the heart
of the One Nation Britain Ed Miliband seeks to lead. Neither your race
nor your class should stand in the way of opportunity.
What Labour will do to kick start social mobility
We sought to increase social
mobility in Government, investing heavily in education, Sure Start and
thousands of new Children’s Centres just a couple of the measures to help give
our children a better start in life, important drivers of life chances.
But it wasn’t enough. While we
managed to stop income inequality growing, we weren’t able to reverse the
massive growth in inequality that happened in the two decades before ‘97.
And our achievements during our
years in office have since been rolled back. Alan’s report was clear that
the government is making the situation worse. Austerity is hitting the
poorest hardest. Long-term challenges remain unresolved. Child care quality is
too variable; child care costs too high. The most deprived areas still
have 30% fewer good schools and not enough state school children are going to
the best universities. The number of young people unemployed for more than two
years is at a twenty year high. Senior professionals are still more likely to
be privately educated and privileged men.
Credit where credit is due: the
Government deserves praise for setting up the Social Mobility Commission.
But the Commission’s report and its sobering conclusions challenge us to have a
serious conversation about how we secure a future of opportunity for all.
So today, I’m calling on the
Government to hold a debate in the House of Commons – on Government time – on
that important 2013 report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty
So what are the kind of things a
future Labour Government would do to boost social mobility?
On growth, the Commission says
Government should aim to achieve a balanced recovery that reduces living costs
and improves earnings.
We would ensure that those with the
broadest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden. So instead of
prioritising giving 12,000 people earning millions a tax cut in the order of
£100,000 each, we’d give 24 million working people on middle and lower incomes
a 10p starting rate of tax.
On jobs, the Commission urges the
Government to set a goal of eliminating long-term youth unemployment. That’s
why we’ll introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee for young people and the
long-term unemployed to get people back to work.
On training, the Commission urges
business leaders and the Government to come together to ensure half of all
firms offer apprenticeships. So we’d insist that companies taking up
large government contracts deliver apprenticeships and we’d give employers more
control over skills funding in return for more apprenticeships.
On childcare, the Commission says
more should be done to support lower and middle income families with child care
costs. So we’d expand free childcare for 3 & 4 year olds from 15 to
25 hours per week for working parents, paid for by an £800m rise in the bank
On pay, the Commission urges the
Government to focus on reducing in-work poverty by looking again at the remit
of the Low Pay Commission to enable raising of the minimum wage and to look at
how we incentivise employers to pay more. That is precisely why we have
appointed the former Deputy Chair of KPMG, Alan Buckle, to chair a review for
us into those very issues.
And of course, for our wealth
creators and entrepreneurs, I am determined we provide you with proper support
to start up, grow and lead a business, one of the most powerful drivers for
I could go on. These are just
a selection of the policy commitments we’ve made that will not only help people
with the cost of living but give them the ability to create a better life for
themselves and their families – to meet their aspirations.
So we must celebrate
the progress of black people in every field, and we must tackle the race
inequalities that still hold people back. But we must also seek to achieve
greater social mobility, to make ours a more equal society and more prosperous
For it is vital that
everyone should have hope - hope for a better tomorrow, hope to make the most
of their potential. It's about having purpose, it's about aspiring and being
inspired. Looking to our heroes and looking to our future.
And that calls on us to act.
It brings to mind those powerful
words of Martin Luther King:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are
confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life
and history, there "is" such a thing as being too late. This is no
time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive
Amen to that.
Chuka Umunna is Labour Party MP for Streatham, London.
He is also the Shadow Business Secretary.