When PC gives equality a bad name

In the aftermath of the Islington childcare scandal, it is easy to deride political correctness. Polly Toynbee warns against a backlash
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The Independent Online
The phrase "political correctness" is spat from the lips like a gob of expletive. They are not words with meaning at all, but mere invective. Mouthing the phrase with a contemptuous sneer makes the user feel good, especially for those with liberal leanings. It puts you above the idiot ideologues or Stalinist thought-controllers, those shadow enemies. Attacking political correctness is a fight with a chimera, a backlash against a phantasm.

But yesterday's report on the effect of equal opportunities policies in Islington sent a chill of horror down the spine, and it was no product of right-wing imagination. Policies designed to prevent discrimination ran out of control. Children in care were subjected to prostitution and gang rape by at least 32 childcare workers whose references were never checked. Complaints against them were not followed up. Most are thought to be working now for other local authorities, possibly abusing other children.

All this was done because no one dared to challenge the behaviour of those who were black or gay. Their managers knew they wouldn't be supported if they investigated abuses. Fear of transgressing the so-called equal opportunities policies led to catastrophe.

The scandal has given a fine shot in the arm to the anti-PC, anti-positive discrimination lobby. It appears to prove that PC ideas lead to ruin, intellectual dishonesty tumbling into outright depravity. And there have been other examples of where misguided PC extremism has led to tragedy: a sensible attempt to place children in adoptive families of the same race turned into a dogmatic rule that left black children languishing in care for years for lack of a black family. We can all think of lesser, but irritating examples, such as the pious tones of dreary PC children's books.

One man who knows most about all this is Herman Ouseley, chief executive of Lambeth Council from 1990 to 1993 until he left, in order, he says, to preserve his sanity. Lambeth's equal opportunities policies turned managers into "prisoners of fear", he says. A handful of zealots were in charge of EO policy, and they went at it like witchfinders general. "If managers thought of taking disciplinary action against anyone disabled, gay or black they were victimised, and became the target of abuse. Gripped by fear of retribution and vilification, they took no action. That led to a culture where anyone could get away with anything, persistent lateness, absenteeism, corruption."

This man is not one of those familiar turncoats whose horror at what he has witnessed has sent him scuttling into the arms of the Right. Not at all. He is black, and the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, a firm supporter of well-managed equal opportunity policies. He sets out to persuade companies that diversity of staff helps them to succeed in a diverse world.

He is on the front line. The CRE is a constant target for mockery and abuse. He ducks and weaves, refuses to be drawn when tabloids call to ask him what he thinks of a farmer calling his pig Oprah, but replies smartly to stories about blacks arriving in Britain knowing only two words of English - asylum and benefits.

By laughing at PCness, we absolve ourselves from examining the issues confronting Herman Ouseley: twice as many young black as white men are out of work, and it hasn't improved in 10 years. The British Crime Survey found 130,000 racially motivated incidents, including 32,000 assaults and 26,000 acts of vandalism against blacks. Complaints to the CRE about discrimination and harassment are rising: the Zairean lecturer called wog, nigger and sambo, then victimised for complaining. The black BMW car dealer with the best sales record sacked because his face didn't fit. The Asian planning officer at Ealing Council passed over for promotion in favour of a less-qualified white. A large part of the insurance industry for refusing to sell policies to blacks or employ black agents.

But where do you draw the line? Herman Ouseley, for instance, wants to introduce racism into the national curriculum. Children would be taught the historical roots of prejudice, colonialism, stereotyping and the human habit of subjugating some races. Pity the Education Secretary charged with framing that course without stepping into a morass of controversy.

Labour's National Executive yesterday reaffirmed its determination to press ahead with its policy of all-women shortlists. Exhortation and good resolution having failed, only brute force can guarantee that they hit their target of getting at least another 44 women into Parliament. However, the policy is facing not just rebellion in the North, but a legal challenge. Peter Jepson, a London ex-councillor, is taking the case to an industrial tribunal. He wanted to stand in two London constituencies, but they had all-women shortlists. He says he has been denied a fair chance of getting a job as an MP, contravening the Sex Discrimination Act and the EC Directive on Equal Treatment. The Equal Opportunities Commission took legal advice. Goods, facilities and services are exempt, and selection for candidacy falls into that category. It seems that applying to become an MP is not applying for a proper job.

Quite apart from the law, it is a policy that has made a lot of people anxious, including women, and some Labour women too. Is it fair? Will women selected by quota be blemished by it? They fear it might start a backlash against equal opportunities. But when has there not been a backlash? It started the moment the first feminist drew breath to speak.

It is so easy to mock. But do those who denounce every attempt to redress the injustice against women, blacks, gays or the disabled have a different agenda? Is there another route to fairness? What of the valiant attempts in Northern Ireland to integrate workforces through fair employment practice? Do critics of equal opportunities condone random and cruel discrimination? Inequality in all these cases often leads to violence against the oppressed. Is that OK too? If not, what should be done instead?

We would still be calling middle-aged women "girls", blacks would still be niggers and coons, and Jews "yids" if sensitivities had not been raised at a time when people said language didn't matter. But often PC language is euphemism replacing action. If someone in a wheelchair is called "physically inconvenienced" it doesn't build a single new ramp.Equal opportunities is too easily brought into disrepute, falling into the PC trap. But perhaps rather than running away from it, people of good intent should stand up and say: "Yes, I'm Politically Correct, if that's what you want to call it. And I'm proud of it!"

Myths and madness: six classic PC cases

Baa Baa Green Sheep

Schoolchildren singing "Baa baa green sheep" raised a storm in Haringey, north London. Council policy on nursery rhymes remains hazy, but local school libraries stock a book entitled How would you feel if your dad was gay? and discourage "Eurocentric" festivals such as Christmas.

Romeo and Julian

Tabloid guns blazed last June when Jane Brown, lesbian headteacher at a primary school in Hackney, north London, refused to take schoolchildren to see the "blatantly heterosexual" ballet Romeo and Juliet. She later apologised, and kept her job.

Lost for words

Heather Whitestone became the ever first deaf Miss America last year, but almost immediately enraged the country's deaf lobby by stating that she preferred to lip-read than use sign language. Deaf rights activists branded her a "traitor" and reduced her to tears in public.

Merry Kwanza

This year's batch of Christmas stamps in the US will not feature Jesus, the nativity or crucifixes, for fear of offending non-Christians. All Post Office Christmas trees will bear "non-religious ornaments", and festive posters can mention the African festival of Kwanza, but not Christmas.

Noddy and White Beard

Enid Blyton's popular children's book characters are a constant PC target. Rewrites for television have included golliwogs becoming goblins, Miss Rap the teacher renamed Miss Prim; PC Plod being "less aggressive" and Noddy's car running on unleaded petrol. This is not enough for American TV producers who want Big Ears to be known as White Beard.