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Election of four black tribunes made history

CELEBRATION: Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Neil Kinnock, Labour leader, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott

“BRENT SOUTH today, Soweto tomorrow,” Paul Boateng had declared after being elected to parliament in 1987. He was one of the four black tribunes who made history by entering the previously all-white House of Commons. Boateng, whose father was a Ghanaian politician, went on to become British ambassador to South Africa, where Soweto was the most renowned black township during the time of the racist apartheid regime that ruled the country.

The election of Boateng along with Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz 25 years ago quite literally changed the face of politics in Britain. They blazed a path for other African Caribbean and Asian politicians to follow in the Houses of Parliament, which now boasts 27 MPs of colour. If peers are included, the number is 76.

So, how was it possible for the four hopefuls to become the first black and minority ethnic MPs since Indian-born communist Shapurji Saklatvala, who lost his Battersea North seat in London in 1929? The answer is partly to be found in the inner city “uprisings” against police harassment of black youth; something all four black MPs acknowledged.

Abbott said: “Let’s not forget that it was Black youth who hit the streets in Brixton, Toxteth and Bristol and forced British society to confront racism and social exclusion.”

She added: “So, first and foremost, it was the urban insurrection of the early
1980s that created the politics which enabled me to be an MP.”

The answer to how the four law makers broke through ground can be traced to their membership of the Labour Party, to which more than two thirds of black and minority ethnic people gave their vote. It was where black, particularly middle class professionals, got organised as activists.

All of the four MPs attended university, while Boateng and Vaz were lawyers Abbott, a journalist
and Grant a trade union official. They were prominent among black activists who decided that self-organising, rather than continuing to rely on the patronage of the white Labour leadership was the best way to become an MP.

MILESTONE: How The Voice reported the event in 1997

That is how the famed Labour Party Black Sections was founded in 1983. Yet, too often the foot soldiers are forgotten when, as American academic Manning Marable once commented: “Movements create leaders, leaders don’t create movements.” The black sections’ first chair was a deputy head teacher Russell Profitt, a Lewisham, south east London, councillor.

Despite attempts at getting selected as a candidate in Lewisham and Battersea, Profitt was unsuccessful in his bid to get into parliament. Radical black critics of the Black Sections, like Darcus Howe and A. Sivanandan, considered that the campaign was irrelevant to the struggle of the working class. They claimed it was run by self interested careerists. Profitt, countered with the argument, “In retrospect, of course we could have achieved more – as armchair revolutionaries
will always say! But, given where we were when we began (no Black Parliamentarians) and where we are now (several across the party spectrum) I believe we had a powerful, positive and hopefully lasting impact in transforming both the policy context and the face of British politics”, he wrote in the Labour Party Black Sections publication commemorating the 25th anniversary of the movement.

It must be noted that, in the early 1980s, for many activists “black” was a political term that embraced African Caribbeans and Asians and anyone else who faced racism as a result of the colour of their skin. Grenadian David Pitt, who went on to become the first black chair of the
Greater London Council, lost the safe Labour seat of Clapham, south London,
which he fought in 1970. This allegedly frightened off white party leaders from choosing a black parliamentary candidate after that.

CONFERENCE: Lee Jasper speaks at the 1988 Black Sections annual meeting in Liverpool.

Paul Boateng lost the winnable for Labour seat of Hertfordhsire West, which included Hemel Hempstead, in 1983 and Keith Vaz failed to get elected the same year in Richmond.
Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott kept their powder dry to giant kill by deselecting sitting Labour MPs in Tottenham, north London, and Hackney North and Stoke Newington, in east London, four years later.

I remember Grant, then a Haringey council leader, complaining to me that his locality of Tottenham had been put on the Black Sections’ head-line grabbing “black list” of seats around the country where we believed there should be black MPs. He was concerned that the move upset
Norman Atkinson, an influential trade unionist and former treasurer of the
Labour Party, who was its ageing MP.

But fortunately Grant changed his mind and defeated Atkinson in a reselection contest.

Who can forget the memorable sight of Grant turning up to the state opening of parliament in the robes of an African chief, a garlanded Boateng giving his victory speech or the four seated together at Labour Party conference? But, was their impact: symbolic “black faces in high places” or deeper than that? We asked the public the question for this publication and they give their views later.

THEN AND NOW: A unnique image of current black and minority ethnic members of the Houses of Parliament

Meanwhile, it is worth mentioning Voice editorial comment of June 1987: “We call it (the election of the four black MPs) a partial and symbolic liberation because we do not really expect Messrs Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott to change single-handedly some of the deep-seated features of a system that discriminates against us.” It added, ticking off the

MPs with the firm words: “The same calculations which caused them to retreat over their support
of fellow colleague, Sharon Atkin (stripped by Labour leaders of her candidature for speaking out) have not disappeared overnight.” Prophetically, The Voice said: “We hope they don’t disappoint us.”

Marc Wadsworth was chair of the Labour Party Black Sections 1986-88.

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