Our black and Asian MPs and aspiring candidates continue to maintain a Trappist silence about the stark race inequalities in Britain today so expertly highlighted in an Independent on Sunday special report earlier this month. We now have 28 BAME MPs but it is now painfully clear they are adding colour to the Commons without bringing the politics of change.
Sadly during our two decade-long quest for greater Black political representation we’ve lost sight of the need to politically represent Black people.
Of course all politicians must represent all constituents equally regardless of colour or any other identity. As a twice-elected local councillor I cherish that principle. But that has never prevented ‘extra-curricular’ action whereby MPs coalesce around issues they feel passionately about.
Women in Labour and the Liberal Democrats are never shy about pushing the case for gender equality, not just at the foothills of those party’s, but in the corridors of power, right at the heart of government. Just ask Harriet Harman or Lynne Featherstone.
There are informal lobbies on disabilities, age discrimination and a host of other issues, yet MPs of colour have experienced difficulties even talking to each other since the late 1980s when the late Bernie Grant tried to establish a parliamentary black caucus only to be rebuffed by a former grassroots equality lawyer-turned-ambitious greaser Paul (now Lord) Boateng.
Today, the recent election of Seema Malhotra in the Feltham and Heston byelection has taken the BAME counter up to 28, still only four percent of the Commons but over double the figure a decade ago. Yet this numerical progress is tainted by the reluctance or fear of those MPs to stand up and be counted on tackling race inequality.
As the Independent on Sunday piece pointed out, black men are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched, twice as likely not to be in employment, education or training, more likely to be remanded in custody and receive heavier sentences for the same crimes compared to their white counterparts.
Add to this higher child mortality rates, higher school exclusions, and higher diagnosis rates for mental illness with stronger medication and less therapy, and the task before MPs is clear. We desperately need policies to challenge arguably Britain’s greatest long-running scandal, the entrenched exercise of witting and unwitting racism by public authorities and employers.
Yet when the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg made an inspiring speech about race inequality in November not a dickybird was heard from any black or Asian MP. Here was a rare chance to build on Clegg’s sentiments and push the case for a more radical approach with new policies, yet the opportunity was squandered by the silence of our political representatives. Twenty-eight, nothing said.
I more disappointed than surprised. The class of 2010 includes Tory Kwasi Kwarteng, an Old Etonian who paved his selection as a candidate in Spelthorne by writing a full-page article in the Daily Mail defending Rod Liddle for claiming that all Caribbean people had contributed to Britain was “curry-goat and rap”.
It includes Labour’s fast-rising star Chuka Umunna who used to grace Black Socialist Society events but now tours TV studios denouncing Diane Abbott, a woman who was first elected when Umunna was in short trousers playing with his Scalectrix.
The prospects are not much better for the future class of 2015 either. Yesterday Clegg unveiled the candidates for the Lib Dem’s Candidate Leadership Programme aimed at increasing diversity for all under-represented groups. The scheme involves training and mentoring, plus two reserved places for participants on the shortlists of target seats.
I support the principle behind this scheme, and will continue to do so despite being rejected for it. However, I was disappointed to discover that many of the successful black and Asians who got through have a sad record of opposing positive action, even though they now find themselves benefiting from a positive action programme.
One of the chosen, Layla Moran, wrote about the scheme on Lib Dem Voice this week. Yet only a few months ago she was proposing a motion to the London Regional conference calling for positive action to be scrapped in the selection of London Assembly list candidates.
Another, Chris Lucas, helped narrowly defeat positive action proposals in an Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat (EMLD) motion speaking against it from the floor of the annual conference. And yet another participant, Munira Wilson, also opposed the plan to boost BAME representation. They now all seek to benefit from positive action.
While I can just about understand Lib Dems from a European background who take ‘purist’ and colourblind approach to race equality, BAME members know better. Or at least they should. Fairness and equal outcomes has never come naturally, or arrived by ignoring the problem.
Not all the Candidate Leadership hopefuls are guilty of this, however. Birmingham City councillor Karen Hamilton has always been positive about equality. But speaking generally, black and Asian activists who opposed positive action in the past were picked while many able members of EMLD were rejected, with the exception of Anuja Prashar who has only recently become active.
Considering that the Candidate Leadership Programme started life as part of EMLD’s motion – moved at the party’s 2010 annual conference in Liverpool – it is somewhat ironic to witness the motion’s opponents jump onboard the good ship lollypop.
To add insult in a thread discussion under Moran’s piece, Lucas accused me of “anger and hostility” and claimed that members of EMLD had treated him with “offensive words and behaviour” after the conference debate. Worse, he linked this with racist language used by footballers. I responded that I simply did not believe his allegation, which he has failed to substantiate, and called his claims “disgraceful.”
Lucas sunk pretty low. I am not alone having grave doubts over his allegation to have suffered offensive behaviour from any EMLD member. No-one with integrity should seek to please the master like this.
The list of successful candidates is dominated by white women, which can be explained by the fact that women are under-represented too. It is interesting to note, however, that many are proud of their affiliations with the Campaign for Gender Balance, the women’s equivalent of EMLD. Given that EMLD members were rejected, the smack of different standards hangs in the air. But then historically Black self-organisation, more than any other equality political grouping, has always provoked fear and suspicion.
Closer analysis of the successful candidates reveals several people who have such a wealth of experience they appear not to need the help of any leadership development scheme. Dorothy Thornhill has been a directly-elected executive mayor of Watford for the past three terms. Terry Stacy is a former leader of Islington Council who personally delivers leadership training to top achievers. Emily Davey is wife of the foreign office minister and Kingston MP. Do they really need a leg-up?
This was a point picked up by Lib Dem member Jennie Rigg, who writes on her blog:
“I thought the leadership programme was supposed to be to help people who were disadvantaged in means to get political experience to get ahead in the party. I didn’t realise it was just a not-pale-and/or-male preferred candidates list. Disadvantaged, to me, does not JUST mean being a woman or being LGBT+ or BAME. If you’ve been an elected mayor, or you are the Deputy Chair of the Parliamentary Candidate Association, or you are the wife of a currently serving junior minister, that does not scream disadvantage to me.The list also includes a Cambridge-educated white man. The programme covers socio-economic background, sexual orientation and disabilities, so the four white men undoubtedly fit into one category or another. Yet there is only one African, a teenage student. Yahaya Kiyingi may well be one for the future but is he really ready to become an MP in 2015, which is what the programme was supposed to be about?
“Please note that I am not saying that any of the people on the list would not be great MPs: I’m sure quite a lot of them would – I was particularly pleased to see one of my favourite people, Belinda Brooks-Gordon, on there – but I am very worried that my definition of disadvantage is radically out of step with the rest of the world. I love Belinda to bits, but she’s a very canny political operator and (I hope she won’t be offended by me saying this) is someone who most local parties would happily select as a candidate, not someone who needs an extra leg up to get ahead of the competition.”
And even if one, or more, of the BAME hopefuls are returned to Westminster at the next election, will they be any better than the 28 already there? With the exception of Diane Abbott and Keith Vaz – both elected in 1987 with the help of Black Sections – none of the present incumbents have had much, if anything, to say about race inequality.
I was initially sceptical when race activists backed the white Sharon Grant over David Lammy to replace the departed Bernie Grant in 2000. But I’ve changed my mind. It’s not just about appearances, it’s also about representation in the true meaning of the word. If a politician is black, they’ve got to give back. Represent everyone, of course, but spend at least some time campaigning to improve unfair outcomes for disadvantaged BAME communities.
It seems the greatest stumbling block is from within the ‘community’ itself. Too many aspiring politicians of colour are controlled entirely by their party machines to whom they owe their patronage, and lack a ‘constituency’ in the communities from which they come. Our joy at their election is but momentary until we realise how cut off they are from their roots. Then apathy and disillusionment sets in, leading to self-disenfranchisement.
It was Marcus Garvey who said:
“As a people we find that we have more traitors than leaders. There is many a leader who tells us that everything is well, and that all things will work themselves out.”‘Traitor’ is a harsh word, but not totally inappropriate. Many BAME MPs – and the aspiring politicians who hope to arrive there – have nothing to offer us and nothing to say about our condition. At a time of disturbances and unrest most are speechless (although Lammy did write a book on Tottenham riots). The authentic voice of the mass of black people is rarely, if ever, heard in parliament.
Even the Stephen Lawrence verdict was not enough to tempt most of them to articulate an opinion as a person who has faced racism – as we know they all have, whether they admit it or not. They will flatter us with news of political progress but never put their heads above the parapet to advocate specific policies to combat unequal racial outcomes.
In some ways many of today’s BAME politicians are less help to us than WEB DuBois or Booker T Washington. They may have promoted an assimilationist agenda and counselled protesting against Jim Crow laws, but at least they had a plan and addressed the community with it. Modern politicians barely acknowledge racism exists. They appear unaware of history, unconscious, and singularly selfish.
Yet we are only 184 years since slavery was abolished in 1833 – a mere seven generations – and the legacy of exploitation is still very much alive today. We must reject this breed of do-nothing wannabe politician and hold to a spirit of no compromise. As previous world leaders in the fields of science, art, literature, medicine, maths and astronomy, we have come too far and suffered too much to be led by duds subservient to a colour-blind agenda when all around them is evidence that we are far from a colour-blind society.
In 2010, I wrote a paper for a court case defending the term ‘coconut’ in the case of a Bristol councillor Shirley Brown, who was being prosecuted for using the word against an Asian Conservative councillor who criticised spending money on a project to remember slavery during the bi-centenary of abolition of the slave trade in 2007. I argued that it was a legitimate term which described a person of colour using their position of power or influence to knowingly work against the interests of the BAME community in order to do that community harm and please their white bosses.
And while the term often provokes rancour – and isn’t particularly conducive to polite debate – when the offending parties refuse to listen sometimes you just have to call it how it is. Coconuts exist, I argued then and I still believe today.
Many of our politicians are coconuts, and their party colleagues are only to happy to keep it that way. That is why there will never be another Bernie Grant, as I argued on this blog in June last year, until Black communities better self-organise and choose the quality candidates who are going to best represent the community, and not sell them out.
As someone who has campaigned for greater BAME representation all my life, and has worked for Operation Black Vote, I desperately want to see more MPs of colour. Yet I am increasingly of the view that in some ways we would be no worse off if many of these these principle-less opportunists were not in parliament. Now we have 28, it is time to say “no more self-interested careerists, please!”
We need politicians of honour, vision, spiritualism, pride in the ancestors, and most of all politicians who are accountable to the community. If the party gate-keepers won’t allow them through, the example of the Labour Party Black Sections shows us the necessity to self-organise and force change instead.
Far from suggesting a ‘crabs in the barrel’ approach, I am asking why the crab wants to leave the rest of the barrel to perish? The barrel needs representation!
Many moons ago in the 1990s David Weaver ran the Bandung Parliamentary Institute which was dedicated to promoting unity, accountability and consciousness in quality political leadership, as opposed to merely increasing the numbers. I believe we need to return to this idea and deepen our understanding about what it means to represent, as a BAME politician.
Yes, we must represent all constituents without fear of favour, and yes we must contribute to mainstream political discourse. But we also represent a whole people. There are 940 million people of African descent in the world alone, plus tens of millions from the Indian sub-continent; and these numbers should give us courage.
Paul (now Lord) Boateng was wrong when he said he was a politician who just happened to be black. Barack Obama knew better than to say this because he understood the black world would rejoice at his election.
So whether we are a ward activist, local councillor or MP, everyone of colour we meet places hopes and expectations on us. It is no longer good enough simply to be there, feathering our own nests. We are now entering an information age when those who take advantage and serve only the party machine will be exposed and rejected. And the call will grow ever louder: no more coconuts!
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