The Tories trashed racism and sexism as ‘woke’ concerns. Now our public services are paying the price | Nesrine Malik

Bullying and bigotry are rife in the fire service, NHS and police, estranging these institutions from the people they should serve

A crunch, building for years, is upon us. Everywhere you look, the story is the same: backlogs, unfilled jobs, overfilled beds. Nothing is working. Brexit, the pandemic, a decade of austerity and a broken governing party have crippled Britain’s institutions. One now approaches a variety of basic services, from healthcare to policing, braced for a sort of experience lottery. If you’re lucky, this might be the day that things go smoothly. If not, you’re in for a long wait to be seen – or, on the worst days, a frustrated return home with no help or answers.

But the crisis is not just one of resources, it is also one of culture. Our struggling institutions have also succumbed to a steep fall in internal standards that is directly linked to their failure to deliver. Reports, anecdotal and, more recently, official, tell of bullying, corruption and a lack of accountability. Take the NHS, for instance. The institution symbolises the symbiosis between bad resourcing and bad culture. Vacant jobs at NHS England stand at a staggering 10% of the workforce. Some of that is down to familiar funding issues; unattractive pay, slashed subsidies for expensive nursing training, a limited number of university places to study medicine. Less well known is the fact that those vacancies have not been simply generated to meet increased demand, as the government claims, but also to fill the positions of those who have left because of racism, bullying and lack of support from human resources. This is not to mention the record number of nurses departing the NHS due to stress after the pandemic.

Earlier this year, the British Medical Association released a damning report stating that racism is forcing ethnic minority doctors to leave jobs. Some 42% of black and 41% of Asian doctors have “considered leaving or have left work in the past two years”. Behind these shortages are not just poor pay or poor training, but poor treatment of staff, whose experiences suggest an institutional apathy and, in the worst cases, active discrimination.

For a more disastrous manifestation of what this internal malaise can produce, one needs only to look at the Metropolitan police. The force was placed into special measures earlier this year for “systemic” failings that resulted in tens of thousands of crimes going unrecorded. In the basic business of logging data and other routine areas, the Met seems to have simply ceased to function. Officers appear to decide what they care about based on their personal whims and prejudices. The result is a stomach-turning litany of failures: the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met officer, the strip-searching of innocent children, such as Child Q, and the messages exchanged between officers at Charing Cross police station who joked about rape, murdering women, child molestation, Muslims and disabled people. A review earlier in the year found that the Met seems unable to enforce the law even within its own ranks, as police officers suspected of criminal offences including sexual assault and domestic abuse have not only been allowed to escape justice, but have remained within the force.

Metropolitan police officers detain a woman during a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in March 2021.
Metropolitan police officers detain a woman during a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in March 2021. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

The story is no less bleak at the London fire brigade. Inspectors in 2019 found that it was among the worst in the country, despite being adequately resourced, with staff who were slow and discouraged from using their discretion in a “worrying culture” that suggested absentee management and oversight. A couple of months before the inspection, the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire found the brigade’s state of readiness was “gravely inadequate”, something that cost lives on the night of the tragedy. The full picture was revealed last week in a report by former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal. It makes for alarming reading. Anonymous accounts of more than 2,000 staff members told of abuse by co-workers in an environment that can only be described as anarchic. Accounts include those of a black firefighter who had a noose placed above his locker, a Muslim colleague who found bacon and sausages stuffed in his pockets, and female firefighters being beaten, sexually harassed and having their helmets filled with urine.

Again, everywhere you look the story is the same. Ethnic minorities forced to quit and women bullied into silent trauma, while unsupervised staff treat these crucial organisations as a sort of personal fiefdom. The response is alarm, followed by a report and then some worried head-scratching. The same broad but vague descriptions keep cropping up, telling of toxic colleagues, systemic issues and “anything goes” cultures.

The policing inspectorate even referred to some of the Met’s failings – specifically the mistakes made in the investigation into the Stephen Port murders, but just as applicable to wider Met problems – as “seemingly incomprehensible”. The puzzlement appears to be almost wilful, because these failings are not only comprehensible, but predictable. When institutions are allowed to drift into racism, sexism and bullying, breakdown follows. That breakdown is not only manifested in the victimisation of those who work in these institutions, but also in the erosion of everyone’s ability to do their job and to develop trust and engagement with the communities they work in. As a result, organisations retreat into a state of introversion, where workplace dramas and hijinks trump the provision of public services. Resourcing is partly to blame, Afzal tells me. When funding is cut, the “two things that go first are training and community engagement”. The outcome is organisations disconnected from those they serve and those who staff them.

But there is a bigger problem: a government that has successfully trashed the very notion that any of these entrenched issues exist. The Tories, in pursuit of a divisive culture war that establishes their party as defender of an embattled populace besieged by political correctness, have impoverished our ability to think constructively about preventing bullying, misogyny and racism. The Conservative party has in recent years aggressively pursued the debunking of institutional racism, with the Sewell report, commissioned for political reasons, concluding that the existence of institutional racism in Britain “is not borne out by the evidence”.

Principles such as social and professional good conduct, respect for others, engagement with communities and enforcing appropriate standards of behaviour, are slammed as “wokeness” by the party and the rightwing press. Recently the home secretary, Suella Braverman, has actively undermined efforts to regain trust among alienated communities by accusing the police in England and Wales of wasting time on “symbolic gestures”, as if serious policing and community outreach were mutually exclusive rather than mutually reinforcing.

These sneering attitudes towards racial and gender equality have become so embedded in the public mind and concerns so associated with leftwing radicalism that there has been a secondary failure of leadership among the opposition. For Labour, anything that resembles advocacy or outreach to minorities is seen as potentially damaging to their political brand. So the crisis will grind on, the whistleblowers will continue to appeal, the reviews will continue to be commissioned, and we will be told that it’s all seemingly incomprehensible.

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.


Nesrine Malik

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