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Gary Younge
Images that mock reality

So it was a couple of years ago when I broke bread with some rightwing ideologues. They were complaining about the "unnatural" tendencies of homosexuals and the slide in public morals that "tolerated" them. Ranting about being deluged by the gay lobby, the guest of honour was describing her crusade against permissiveness. "What I'm trying to say," she said, "is that it's like I'm sticking my finger in the hole of a large dyke."

When Alan Duncan says that the 300 emails and 100 telephone calls of support he received after he became the first out gay Tory MP last week felt "like the dam of prejudice has burst", I had a sense of where he was coming from. While it was a big step for him, it appeared to be an even greater triumph for his party. If Duncan was gay, then Iain Duncan Smith was positively delighted. By offering his support to Duncan he could ram home the message that the Tories were on their way to full maturity. A coming out party - modern, cosmopolitan and tolerant.

Just a few days earlier he had appointed Theresa May as the party's first chairwoman. Standing for the cameras, in front of a coterie of young Tory workers, many of them women, and with an Asian face at his shoulder, Duncan Smith pointed to May's appointment as proof that the party was more inclusive. An official spokesman said it indicated the Tories "are living in the 21st century, not the 19th". May agreed. "It's always been an open, decent and tolerant party, but this is a very upfront example of that," she said.

But while we should encourage the Tories' attempts to be more diverse, we must be wary of their attempts to look so. For the use of sexual orientation, gender, race and youth in their rebranding is symptomatic of a trend in politics, commerce and public services, both here and in America, that is as fashionable as it is flawed. Whether it is a Republican party convention or the Metropolitan police, it exploits diversity not as a principle but as a strategy - a pivotal device in the shift from traditional to modern, not in practice but popular perception. They embrace it not because it is fair and progressive but because it faddish and pragmatic. Eviscerating discrimination of its historical, political and economic contexts, they present us with virtual evolution rather than actual change. Where we once talked about equal opportunities we are now dealing with photo opportunities.

The most recent blatant example, the Tory party aside, was a picture story in the Daily Mail two weeks ago of Met officers from various ethnic minority backgrounds. Only a month after Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan police commissioner, conceded he might look abroad for black and Asian recruits because he could not recruit them here, the Mail wrote: "It is a picture that reflects changing times and attitudes within the police service... this exclusive picture of Yard employees shows forces are beginning to reflect the racial mix of the community they serve." Ethnic minorities make up 25% of the capital but only 4.5% of the Met.

A more sophisticated illustration came two years ago at the Republican convention that selected George W Bush as its presidential candidate. The party knew it had an image problem - Americans regarded it as backward-looking and reactionary. To counter that charge they stopped at nothing to portray themselves as diverse. The three co-chairs comprised one African-American, one Hispanic and one white single mother. The headline speaker on the first day was Colin Powell. The primetime news slot the next day went to Condoleezza Rice.

While the emphasis was on race and ethnicity, the message was not directed at minority voters. "What the Republicans are doing is aimed more at white Americans," said David Bositis, a political analyst at the joint centre for political and economic studies in Washington. "Moderates do not want someone who's negative on race. It says something very significant about America as a whole."

The issue here is not that presenting a diverse image is wrong, but that with increasing disingenuity, image is being wilfully mistaken and missold for reality. As such, diversity becomes not a means of combating discrimination, imbalance, injustice, under-representation or exclusion, but a matter of marketing and promotion. It seeks not to assist in the drive towards equality but to replace it altogether.

The first big problem with this is that, like most marketing ploys, it leaves many cynical and paves the way for a backlash. It exposes the few beneficiaries to charges of tokenism and its lack of integrity lends succour to those who wish to undermine any move towards equality. "The nation is not possessed by an overwhelming urge to fill the shadow cabinet with 25-year-old black lesbians and homosexual, asylum-seeking Muslims," wrote Lord Tebbit last week.

More importantly, it is of absolutely no use to gay people, women, black or working-class people, or whoever else needs to get rid of the discriminatory barriers in order to get on with their lives. Instead of tackling the underlying reasons why some groups are not recruited, promoted or retained, it offers only identifiable faces in prominent places. It suggests that an institution need not fundamentally change the way it functions so long as it changes the way it looks.

Take the Tories. Last year May proposed women should make up half the candidates on Conservative shortlists in winnable seats. Now that she has the power to do something about it she appears to have gone off the idea. When asked last week about getting more women into parliament, she said the party had already been "making good progress as we are". That will be news to some. According to the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, one prospective female Tory parliamentary candidate was asked what her husband "would do for sex" while she was at Westminster.

Similarly, the central message from the Conservatives following Duncan's revelations was that it would make no difference to the party. This presumably means no change in its positions on civil partnerships and the repeal of section 28. Duncan said he hoped his coming out would be a "small blow for freedom". Let us hope it is not too small.

If diversity is any use, it must be about combating discrimination. If that is to be effective it must make a difference by offering more people more opportunities to fulfil their potential and in so doing radically altering the institutions that previously excluded them. If diversity, as it is increasingly understood, cannot contribute to that, then we are better off without it.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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