Friday, 28 January 2011

Considering RCRE Cuts

I want to talk about a particularly local example of the budgetary challenges in politics.

On the face of it the £90,000 cut in council funding to the Reading Council for Racial Equality sends out exactly the sort of signal the borough's new opposition Labour councillors have stoked fears about - a cut to RCRE could lead to heightened tensions on the streets and communities of the town.

RCRE has been a leading force in promoting community cohesion in the past four decades, and provided the platform to make a nationally-supported declaration on race equality in the aftermath of the tragic murder of Steven Lawrence (the tenth anniversary of this event was marked recently).

Their work mainly consists of running an advice shop to deal with and ease concerns of immigrants and providing a one-stop clearing house for Reading's different communities to connect and engage with one another, providing support on various issues from supplying language specialists to coordinating relief efforts for victims of disaster (such as the Pakistan floods). In effect it functions as a sort of non-native and second-generation cultural union.

RCRE has also given weight to the campaign against prospective BNP activists, who've sporadically turned up on some of the more deprived estates in the town - notably while Reading has a similar number of BME residents as Oldham (14%) the isolation rate of BME residents is 1.5 compared to 8, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The comparatively high integration rate in Reading goes a long way to explain the electoral failure of racial politics in Reading, which in turn begs the question why fear of racial politics is used as an electoral tool by Labour in the town.

So it is this political role which is clearly angering Reading's new Conservative/LibDem coalition.

In many ways the RCRE is a body which supports many civic-minded aims, but successive generations have seen it's executive organs more closely followed a Trade Union model as posts became dominated by Labour party activists - in many quarters RCRE has become increasingly seen as an academy for identifying and training potential Labour candidates, also providing a highly visible public platform in a emotive area of identity politics for those groups to rally around at community meetings.

Notwithstanding their obvious mandate the partisanship within RCRE has become increasingly noticable in recent years - for instance taking a less active role in promoting Gurkha claims for residency than it might otherwise have done, despite many living in the area (the Gurkhas are stubbornly above party-politicking, a factor which makes them all the more formidible).

So Labour is obviously aggrieved at the cut, but possibly not so much from altruistic motives as from self-interest - they don't have a counter argument that these sums can be better channelled through other more apolitical organisations such as Reading CAB Reading Voluntary Action and Thames Valley Police.

No, Labour are angry that carefully constructed and nurtured institutional support structures for their party are being eroded. Separately it's worth pointing out how Labour also uses tax-payer's money as a piggybank from which to subsidise their election machinery (see here).

None of this is to say that more balanced representation hasn't been enabled by RCRE. On the contrary, as backed up by the JRF data, different national and religious communities are certainly more represented on Reading Borough Council - however this was designed to entrench the political balance, which it managed for almost three decades.

It is, therefore, worth questioning whether true equality can be found by promoting one form to the exclusion of other forms of equality, such as gender or age.

If it were me, I'd argue instead of cutting the funding for dropping 'Race' from their title and instead using it as an acronym - 'Reading Council for Equality'.

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