Label’s Political Editor Connor Wade gives a brief history of Black British politicians in Parliament with a focus on the 1987 election and Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng.
You may have had an awkward conversation or two with your parents or grandparents about the recent events in the US and the UK around the BLM movement. You might just be curious to learn the history you weren’t taught at school. The truth is that many of the aspects of politics that we take for granted today are only very recent developments – the first black people in the House of Commons were only elected in 1987, well within living memory of the parents of most people reading this. So much has changed in 33 years but we’re not at the end point yet.
Although there were a few black local leaders elected in the early 20th century, decades passed, and the status quo was mostly maintained. However it wasn’t until the election that gave Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party its third large majority that 3 Black British MPs were elected to Parliament in the form of Paul Boateng, Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant. The odds were stacked against them, at a time when South Africa was under apartheid and many on the right described Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, yet these 3 figures struggled through and won. Diane Abbott is undoubtedly the most well known in 2020 (for a few differing reasons), but all 3 have a remarkable story.
Born in what is now Ghana, Paul Boateng was elected to the Brent South seat, which has since been abolished but now forms part of the Brent Central seat – held by Dawn Butler, a candidate in the 2020 Labour deputy leadership election and also a black woman. Prior to election he had trained as a solicitor and then a barrister, focusing on social cases and representing the usually unrepresented. Although part of the Black Sections caucus alongside Grant and Abbott, he became more moderate under Neil Kinnock’s leadership and by the time of the 1997 landslide under Tony Blair he was appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health, the UK’s first black government minister. He rose through the ranks until stepping down as an MP in 2005 (to be replaced by the aforementioned Dawn Butler), later being made the British High Commissioner to South Africa until his elevation to the House of Lords in 2010.
A much more radical politician and activist than Boateng, Bernie Grant spent his whole career speaking out against injustice. First a trade unionist, then councillor and later leader in the same borough that former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn served as a councillor in (although not concurrently), Grant attracted controversy after the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot (in which a policeman was murdered) when quoted as saying that “What the police got was a bloody good hiding.”. Nevertheless, once in Parliament he went on to establish the Parliamentary Black Caucus and the African Reparations Movement, demanding recognition of the “unprecedented moral debt owed to African people”. A committed socialist, Bernie Grant perhaps holds more similarities to Diane Abbott than to Paul Boateng, and although he unfortunately died of a heart attack in 2000 I like to think he would have still been fighting against injustice well into retirement.
Diane Abbott suffered setbacks even before she was elected to Parliament. A journalist by trade, her move into Labour politics was marred by racial issues. Although this article from The Guardian discusses it in greater detail, some points stand out. While the Labour party has always prided itself on equality, few in the party wanted to be associated with her and she had difficulty even finding local members to help campaign for her, instead resorting to local black organisations. Once in Parliament she faced just as many difficulties, along with Grant and Boateng, not being taken seriously both because of her ethnicity and her gender – in the 1987 Parliament, only 6.3% of MPs were female. Of course, today Abbott is better known as the chief stooge of Corbyn’s Labour, apparently incapable of basic mathematics and representing everything wrong with the left (according to those on the right). How much of this is steeped in racism and how much is a result of the media’s ability to latch onto one single incident and amplify it as the entirety of reality I do not know, but she undoubtedly paved the way for both women and black people at a time when it was difficult to be either.
Much has changed and yet much remains the same. The number of BAME MPs is at an all-time high, with 65 out of a possible 650 elected in the 2019 general election (10%), and while there are currently no black cabinet ministers (a point awkwardly defended by Matt Hancock here) there are a few black ministers who may occasionally attend cabinet in their role (Kwasi Karteng as Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, for example).
It could be argued that because of our electoral system, Parliament can never be truly representative of the diversity of our population. Votes in ‘safe seats’ for any candidate other than the MP already in power are effectively rendered pointless, yet this is no reason to give up. There are still plenty of backgrounds and viewpoints not represented in both major parties, despite efforts on both sides to diversity recruitment (David Cameron’s ‘A-List’ in 2006 and Labour’s use of shortlists).
Obviously my biases are clear but this isn’t a left-right issue, it’s just logical. The better a political system represents those it serves, the stronger and more legitimate it is, although the British political system lends itself more to fighting for victory rather than working together, so we shall see how the coming years unfold.
Header by Christos Alamaniotis – Assistant Head of Design