Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The triumph of Uncle Toms (and worse)

To have the son of an African and a Ugandan Asian reiterate this obscene prejudice made me suicidal
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The Independent Online

Once, not that long ago, equality activists like myself would have condemned what happened in east London last week as nothing but white bigotry crushing black hopes. Oona King - female, mixed race (black and Jewish), young, clever, destined to rise, lost her seat to a seedy and manipulative middle-aged, middle- class man, George Galloway.

Once, not that long ago, equality activists like myself would have condemned what happened in east London last week as nothing but white bigotry crushing black hopes. Oona King - female, mixed race (black and Jewish), young, clever, destined to rise, lost her seat to a seedy and manipulative middle-aged, middle- class man, George Galloway.

Yet, as the results rolled in, this unforgettable moment shook my presumptions. I find it hard to say how I feel about King's defeat. She is someone I admire; we kiss with solid affection when we meet, and, most importantly she is exactly the kind of MP we need in a modern British parliament. And perhaps, in some cases, it was sexism, racism and anti-Semitism wot did it, as her ardent and bitterly disappointed supporters claim. Some Bangladeshi traditionalists who exert too much influence in Bethnal Green and Bow are immovably prejudiced against women, Jews and black people.

Jeremy Paxman (white and middle class) was exercised about this retrograde result which made the House of Commons lose a woman and "ethnic minority" representative when that institution is already so dominated by white men. Galloway was unmoved by these arguments. The majority of those who voted for him, he claims, are Muslim men and women opposed to the war in Iraq. Most of them are not bigots but respectable democrats exercising their right to eject an unapologetic pro-war MP, wilfully distanced from the views of such constituents .

As an anti-war Muslim myself, I believe Galloway is right. And yet it is such a pity that King's constituents have lost a bright and excellent woman, a black-Jewish MP, an excellent local politician too.

There was a similar battle of ideals in London's Brent East which made easy allegiances based on race and gender almost impossible. Yasmin Qureshi stood against the sitting Liberal Democrat MP, Sarah Teather, who had snatched the seat from Labour in a by-election. Qureshi is a Muslim woman, a barrister with considerable talents and a record of fighting against social injustice. She also courageously stood out against the war throughout the election and so, unlike Oona King, was not seen as a Blairite groupie. Qureshi failed to unseat Teather. Had she been elected she would have been the first Muslim woman MP, a result to die for at a time when anti-Muslim attitudes are growing, and the power of tyrannical Muslim men too.

But yet, I confess that I was not washed with a sense of overwhelming disappointment. A part of me knew that as soon as Qureshi took her seat she would be neutered or ignored or absorbed into the New Labour machinery. The newly elected Muslim men - Shahid Malik and Sadiq Khan - will lose their tongues soon enough, just as Khalid Mahmood did after he got in. Dawn Butler, a black woman, and Mark Hendrick will not, I suspect, want to follow the fiercely independent, late Bernie Grant, but rather the sharp Blairite David Lammy, who fills Grant's seat but not his shoes. With a small majority, new Labour MPs will not be permitted to dissent from what the PM wants - and mark my words, Tony Blair is not going anywhere soon. Brownite romantics dream on.

The bigger politics is what concerns us activists much more than the race and/or gender profile of an MP. And so to the Tories. The election ushers in the first "black" Tory MP, Adam Afriye (half Ghanaian and half English) and Shailash Vara, the Ugandan Asian who has done time as deputy chairman for a party which has always repudiated equality and diversity policies and produced a string of racist politicians, including Winston Churchill.

So is this the nasty party shedding its repulsive past? Not a bit of it. These results, for me, are a damning manifestation of the splintering of the anti-racist struggle, a triumph of uncle Tomism and worse. To witness the son of illegal Jewish immigrants strategically mobilising mob instincts against immigrants was bad enough. To then have the sons of an African and a Ugandan Asian reiterate these obscene prejudices made me suicidal.

They say it isn't racist to control immigration. But they know how a racist stench rises when they flash such statements across the land. The victors deserve to be despised by egalitarians and people who believe in human rights, just as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are by millions of Americans of colour.

With women, too, it cannot be right that we judge things simply and only on the criteria of gender power. All the parties have done slightly better than before, but the figures are still abysmal, nowhere near approaching the 50 per cent that would reflect the population. And it is shocking that 19,000 people shifted their votes over from Labour to the newly independent candidate Peter Law, a vehement objector to an all-women shortlist.

Yet when you think beyond the simple numbers, questions arise. Is it better or worse to have larger numbers of women MPs who cheerfully betray ideals in order to belong? Do we want more black and Asian MPs who assimilate into the political establishment without a backward glance at their origins? There are two answers to this question, and they sit uneasily with each other.

It is unacceptable that we have a parliament which does not reflect the class, gender and racial profile of this nation. That is self-evident. Progress towards this is too slow. But quantity is not the same as quality. MPs and peers from excluded groups cannot expect us to back them, whatever they do, in the name of collective solidarity.

Recently, in the House of Lords bar, I heard some black and Asian Labour peers moaning about a column that Darcus Howe had written criticising them and their counterparts in the Commons for not holding their party to account. I made my excuses and withdrew. I didn't want to start a row in that hallowed place, but it seemed to me outrageous that they should demand immunity from censure for their many failings. They cannot represent us women or black people, but as elected or selected people, they should understand the issues and debates which matter to the previously powerless.

One example. This weekend, finally, came an honourable intervention from a key Labour MP, Margaret Hodge - a white woman - who criticised her party for pandering to the racist discourse on immigration which is engulfing the country. Lammy, King and others should also have been forcefully saying this through the election, but they kept shut as instructed.

So race and gender matter but cannot override democracy and human rights. That is the lesson of this election.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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