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1) Labour’s first black MPs
2) Nelson Mandela addresses Labour Party conference
3) Labour’s first black ministers
4) Black Labour women pioneers
5) Bill Morris becomes Britain’s first black union leader
6) The Battle of Barking
7) Doreen Lawrence becomes a Labour peer
8) Labour’s race relations laws
9) David Lammy on gay rights
10) “Leftie multicultural crap”
For the second in this new series of Labour top 10s I’m focussing on the relationship between black history and the Labour movement, in honour of Black History Month, the nation’s chance to reflect on the contribution of African and Afro-Caribbean people to the UK. As usual, if you think I’ve missed something out which should be in, or put something in which should be out, let me know in the comments below or on twitter.
Labour can’t claim the distinction of having the first Asian MPs but on the 11th of June 1987 we did make history by returning the first three black MPs in Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng. The latter’s famous victory speech, “Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto!” may sound overblown in retrospect, but it reveals the deep ties of solidarity binding Labour members and our brothers and sisters in the ANC. The relationship between the party and the anti-apartheid struggle is exhaustively detailed in the excellent Anti-Apartheid: A History of the Movement in Britain and was repaid with Mandela’s visit to Britain, ‘the second headquarters of our movement’, to thank the Labour Party for being one of the organisations “that contributed significantly to our freedom”. You can watch the whole mesmerising (and funny) thing here. It is worth noting too that it was Glasgow’s Labour council that was the first in the world to offer Mandela freedom of the city.
Those pioneers of 1987 didn’t, of course, stop making history with their election. Paul Boateng scored another first when he became the first black cabinet minister and Diane Abbott became Labour’s first black leadership contender in 2010. Valerie Amos, currently serving as UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, became the first black woman in the cabinet and after Dawn Butler was made Minister for Youth in 2009 she became the first ever black woman to speak at the Commons despatch box.
In 1997 Labour got only its second black woman MP in Oona King. Since then we’ve had Dawn and Chi Onwurah, bringing our total number of women MPs of African or Afro-Caribbean heritage to four.
In an organisation that is over 100 years old.
As I’ve argued before, a more diverse politics isn’t impossible – but it isn’t inevitable either. If we want a parliament that looks more like Britain, we need to help organisations like Operation Black Vote and Labour Women’s Network in the work they do to support a diverse range of people entering public life.
While the parliamentary party took until the noughties to get black leadership around the top table, over in the industrial wing of the movement Bill Morris became the first black trade union leader when he won the General Secretary election of the TGWU in 1991.
The trade union movement’s contribution to racial equality has perhaps been greatest in recent years in its vigorous support for HOPE not Hate. The anti-fascist campaigning organisation has so much to be proud of, but its greatest victory was in the Battle of Barking. When the BNP thought it could take control of the London council and secure its first member of parliament, it hadn’t counted on the massed ranks of activists who would come to the defence of democratic politics and the borough’s black population. If you only ever watch one politician’s victory speech from a count, make it Margaret Hodge’s blistering message to the BNP: “pack your bags and go”.
The fight against racism may be one that black and white members of the Labour party have waged together, but there can be no doubt that its most enduring and inspirational face is that of Doreen Lawrence. While Doreen now sits as a Labour peer, her campaigning transcends any party political divide and is a devastating reminder of perhaps the greatest mistake ever made by a Labour government in the field of face relations. We can be proud of the anti-discrimination legislation brought in by successive Labour governments but Jim Callaghan’s decision to exclude policing from the Race Relations Act is as ignominious as the Police Federation’s request for exemption.
That difficult relationship between the police and the black community made the headlines again during the London riots of 2011, but so too did the effective advocacy for their patches done by Diane Abbott and David Lammy. The latter is included here, however, not for his response to the fires of Tottenham but for his highly personal and poignant demolition of the notion ‘separate but equal’ as applied to gay marriage.
The final entry here is, I’ll confess, a little bit of a cheat. The Olympics opening ceremony wasn’t in any way a Labour event, despite the homage paid to our beloved NHS. It did, however, become politicised when a Conservative MP responded to a phenomenal line-up of music of black origin by proclaiming it to be “leftie multicultural crap”. Jonathan Freedland got it spot on in response “we’ve glimpsed another kind of Britain, so let’s fight for it”.