Baron Simon Woolley on belonging, the new government and EDI
As founder and Director of Operation Black Vote, Simon Woolley waged a long struggle for greater representation. Now Baron Woolley and Principal of Homerton College, he talks to Kitty Finstad about belonging, the new government, business’s role in furthering EDI and finding an ally in King Charles III
It’s 1996. The run-up to the final UK general election of the 20th century. A time of uncertainty, social shifts and a simmering sense of optimism after the upheavals of the previous decades. For a young Simon Woolley it was the ideal moment to swing into action. Then a volunteer for Charter 88, the political reform pressure group, Woolley launched Operation Black Vote (OBV) to seize the moment and press for change, equality and representation.
Twenty-six years on, Baron Woolley of Woodford divides his time between the House of Lords (he was made a crossbench peer in 2019) and his office at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, where he has been Principal since 2021. A week after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, he spoke to CA magazine about what has changed – or otherwise – since then.
“It was a great moment,” Woolley recalls of the early days of Operation Black Vote. “We’d had many years of the Thatcher government, which were pretty brutal for working-class people, and particularly for black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.” These were communities that were still processing the 1993 racist murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence – and the subsequent failed prosecution of his suspected killers. A case that would come to define systemic inequality and the notion of institutional racism.
“With Operation Black Vote, we were just beginning to establish what would become a genuine changemaker – the effects of which even we couldn’t have envisaged, when you fast-forward to today,” says Woolley.
OBV’s guiding principle was simple: the black vote matters. “And when the black vote matters,” he says, “you can begin to demand – not to ask – for policies that confront systemic inequality. The black vote could decide who wins or loses in some of the most marginal seats in the country. It made people believe that they could have a voice.”
Two other things drove the movement. The first was greater representation and “more talented black and brown faces in high places”. The second was policies that work for, not against, the communities OBV represented. The Labour party pushed ahead with campaigns promising an inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case. “We knew this was a watershed moment in terms of acknowledging institutional racism, but it was also empowering – it could lead to legislation that would deal with persistent race inequality,” says Woolley.
Here in 2022, Prime Minister Truss’s cabinet composition couldn’t be further from that of Mrs Thatcher. Three of the four great offices of state – Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary – are occupied by people of colour. Woolley, who left OBV in 2021, has mixed feelings. “I could not have envisaged that in 1996,” he says. “Then again, I also couldn’t have envisaged that some black and brown people would be effectively weaponised, rolling back the years of tackling race inequality as though it doesn’t still exist.
So yes, the optics are good, but let’s make sure the policies are still working for, not against, us.” He notes that democracies are “won and lost on small margins” and that voters have the power to demand the policies that benefit them. “When you realise that, you realise your potential.”
So what are the issues that black people care about most? Woolley believes one should be “to end the faux culture wars that pit poor white people against poor black people. The statements that say if you’re tackling racial inequality, you can’t also be tackling white poverty. But black people are disproportionately affected – that’s a fact. Both can be tackled, but through two different lenses and with their distinct challenges.”
Playing the business card
When it comes to addressing the nuances of true inclusivity, equality and diversity, Woolley believes that the business world has the tools and the ambition to effect cultural change more fluidly, more rapidly and more effectively than government.
“I think that progressive businesses are ahead of the curve on issues such as legislating for ethnic minority pay gaps – something that government has refused to mandate reporting on,” he says. “And yet, progressive companies do this because it’s just good, enlightened business and it will give them a competitive advantage. And those businesses that don’t will come up against real challenges.”
Not least of which is attracting and retaining talent – people know progress will be harder in companies that lack a leadership lens on the subtle problems that can hold some people back. Woolley is clear: “I want business to be at the forefront [of EDI strategy and cultural change], and then government will have to catch up.”
He is also critical of the Johnson government, which he describes as “not progressive, and in some ways regressive, wanting to hark back to an era in which many black people thought they had to be quiet, to take the knocks and inequalities without complaint. I think we’ve moved on from that notion.”
In the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, businesses rushed to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media feeds, newsletters, ads and internal comms were quick to voice solidarity. More than two years on, with a cost-of-living crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the slow economic recovery from the pandemic, has that initial wave of support begun to wane?
“Whether businesses have the fortitude to say ‘this is not a campaign, this is part of our DNA’ remains to be seen. Many, especially in an economic downturn, could easily regress to their old ways if, two years on, they still have a majority white, male board,” Woolley says. He concedes the improvement in board-level and upper-management gender balance, adding: “But if you take your foot off the gas, things roll backwards.”
Wise words that could be applied to the current UK government, whose attentions may be on addressing more day-to-day concerns, such as the energy crisis? “You’re right – a lazy government might say they’ve nothing to answer for when it comes to tackling persistent race inequality – just look at the cabinet… But that would be a huge error. When I look at the team representing diversity within the cabinet, there aren’t many who have spoken out about race inequality, and some have been at the forefront of the anti-woke brigade. While I’m very much for black and brown faces in high places, I’m even more for policies that tackle systemic inequalities,” he says.
Between his work in the House of Lords and his role at Homerton College, Woolley remains an activist at heart, if one with a slightly different approach.
“I’ve definitely taken my activism with me, some in the House of Lords, a lot here at Homerton,” he says. “It’s not necessarily about wagging a finger and going to rallies these days. I’m purposefully lobbying and organising at a level that I hope will make a difference to college life, to university life, to educational life. And in Parliament, I’m making interventions that take the House with me in a direction that helps to move the dial.”
Reluctant to label himself an “influencer”, he nonetheless recognises the importance of getting people onside, not just flying solo.
“I’ve learned that there’s no point being righteous on your own because no one listens and no one moves. I’m not saying that you have to bend or utterly compromise, but you do need to take people along when they’re in the right place and it’s the right time,” he says.
November 2021 was the right time for Barbados – where Woolley’s mother was born – to move its own cultural dial away from the UK, becoming a republic and removing Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. Woolley was there for the occasion, as was Prince Charles – now King Charles III – who used the moment to acknowledge the “appalling atrocity of slavery” that “forever stains our history”.
While Woolley was there in part as a post-Brexit business envoy, he was moved by the ambition of the small island nation and its population of less than half a million. “I think it’s a progressive choice to say that although they have a history with Britain, they no longer want the monarch as their head of state. Charles agreed that it’s the nation’s choice to determine their own sovereignty and to decide whether to remain in the Commonwealth.”
Which raises the question of whether, post-Brexit, Britain could open up to the Commonwealth in a way that it hasn’t previously. “We’ll be following up on that in the months ahead,” says Woolley.
It may surprise some to see parallels between Operation Black Vote and the new monarch’s Prince’s Trust charity, but Woolley says there is a like-mindedness in their aims. “When you think about the Prince’s Trust, it’s helped to nurture over two million young people, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom will be black and brown,” he says. “So we have that in common. And King Charles is as impatient as I am for dramatic change. I didn’t realise he was so passionate until I started working with him [the two have met several times to discuss EDI issues]. It’s about making our country a better place, about a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging. About giving blueprints to communities nationwide, showing how to get people from a not-great place to a very good place. That’s something not many people get to see about our present King.”
Now demonstrably part of the establishment he seeks to reform, does Woolley feel that sense of belonging himself? “I get a sense of belonging from the unbelonging,” he says. “I grew up in Leicester and arrived in London as a young man. In London there are a significant number of people who aren’t from London – they don’t belong. But that unbelonging gradually evolves into belonging. London is where people who don’t quite fit in, fit in – and flourish. If you take that analogy and replace London with Parliament, I guess in theory I shouldn’t belong. But I’ve learned that my unbelonging is my USP, which is powerful.
“Likewise, I’m not ‘supposed’ to be head of a prestigious Cambridge college. But you can use what some might see as a disadvantage to your advantage. It’s about owning the space, not with arrogance but with humility and quiet confidence. To be a true leader in your space, you have to open it up to others. You don’t have to push people out to get other people in – the pie can get bigger.”
For those in positions of influence in the business world, Woolley has one question: what are you going to do with it? “By that I mean: is your role about self-gratification? Or can you do great things in this space? I would strongly argue that by doing great things within your company, doing business the right way, not the greedy way, you can make the biggest impact. I call that ethical ambition,” he says.
Woolley’s own ambition, which led him to set up and lead Operation Black Vote for more than 25 years, has been underpinned by an instinct for doing the right thing. “My friend Lee Jasper [activist and former Senior Policy Adviser to the Mayor of London] once said to me, ‘Simon, your role is a thankless role. So don’t do it for plaudits or trinkets because you won’t get them.’ I had to understand that tackling inequality would be a thankless endeavour. But in the end it’s been very rewarding. I was knighted, it brought me this job [at Homerton College] and that backstory builds you up. The goal isn’t to be a knight or a lord. The goal is to do. And up until three years ago, on one level what I had to show for all that doing was not a great deal. Except I knew I’d done the right thing,” he says.
“I see myself as an accidental leader,” he concludes. “I feel blessed that I can wake up in the morning thinking, ‘What am I going to do to make our world, through the work that I know, gravitate towards a better place?”
Baron Woolley will be speaking at an ICAS event on 19 January 2023. Find out more and register at icas.com/events.