Why can't Labour be positive about black people?


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The Independent Online

Ten years ago today, a small electoral earthquake shook the House of Commons as four black MPs squeezed into Parliament. Since then another five have joined the original group, but the new Labour government is unlikely to make much of the anniversary.

Things are no better in other parties. Although the Conservatives had the first black minister, Nerj Deva, he lost his London seat in May. Worse were the racist jibes that John Taylor, an articulate and thoughtful black barrister, had to face over his selection to fight the true blue seat of Cheltenham for the Tories in 1992. Chastened by the actions of local activists, John Major elevated Mr Taylor to the House of Lords.

While the Government has been keen to trumpet the success of all-women shortlists, which saw the number of female Labour MPs leap from 39 before the election to 101 after, Labour officials would rather not explain why the party cannot afford ethnic minorities the same privilege.

In the early Eighties there had been similar calls for positive representation of black candidates. After all, more than five per cent of the population were black; more than 13 per cent of the total Labour vote in 1983 came from ethnic minorities; and yet there were no black MPs.

Black Sections, a group first mooted in 1981 to further minority representation within the Labour Party, led the charge. Among its founding members were Diane Abbott, now MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Paul Boateng, then a fiery left-wing lawyer, and Sharon Atkin, a party activist.

"It was just a few people talking over a pizza in 1981. We were all talking about getting elected and how to do it," said Mrs Atkin. Initially the party hierarchy welcomed the idea. And in 1983, a resolution setting out a framework for the National Executive Committee met with warm words.

"We had a founding conference in 1984, which was shambolic. You have to remember then there were a lot of competing groups on the left. Militant was a big force with their own black group," says Mrs Atkin. The internal warring spilt out into the open. According to Darcus Howe, who has charted Black Sections' rise and fall, more than 200 people turned up to a heated fringe meeting in 1984. "Fifty of them (were) black. Of the blacks the majority were Militant supporters hostile to the platform."

When the shrapnel starting flying, the new leadership team of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley decided to stamp out Black Sections. According to Kalbir Shukra, an academic, in his paper on the group: "They were seen by the Labour leadership as an obstacle to electoral success. Consequently, Kinnock decided to whip the left into line. Black Sections did not escape the onslaught."

The Labour Party leadership refused to deal with groups "based on race". Mr Hattersley, then deputy leader, who relied on a big black vote to keep his Birmingham seat, was accused by Mrs Atkin of having a "patronising and condescending attitude" towards black people. "Black people will not sit idly by and deliver up their vote time and again to a party which is not prepared to give them anything," she threatened.

The leadership took its revenge. The NEC that year refused to endorse Russell Profitt, a black Labour Party worker, as prospective candidate for Lewisham East because the constituency party had voted for an all- black shortlist.

"There was genuine concern that by positively discriminating in favour of black people we would lose the support of whites - especially the working classes," said one senior Labour official.

However Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz, a 30-year-old lawyer, were selected to fight winnable seats - and partly because their constituency parties in Brent and Leicester voted for all-black shortlists. But Mrs Atkin was, predictably, de-selected in 1987 from a safe seat in Nottingham after being goaded - by the left - into saying: "I do not give a damn about Neil Kinnock and a racist Labour Party."

That was the beginning of the end for Black Sections. None of the other prospective MPs - Boateng, Abbott, Vaz and Bernie Grant - stood up to the leadership over the Atkin affair.

The four candidates concentrated on winning seats and Mr Kinnock even claimed credit for the new black members. "(We can) begin to have a multiracial parliament to reflect a multiracial society," he told the party's 1987 conference.

Once in office, all four took very different paths to power. Paul Boateng, who on being elected had made a passionate speech which included the memorable line "Brent South today, Soweto tomorrow", is the most successful. He is now the most junior member of the five-strong health ministerial team, after years spent shadowing the Solicitor-General's office.

Diane Abbott, who has not so much courted controversy as married it, is on the NEC - ironically, because of its pro-women bias. Keith Vaz, who was on the shadow front-bench environment team, was passed over in favour of a white woman, and Bernie Grant, the MP for Tottenham, has never been asked to do anything.

"What worries me is how can we influence policy that affects race - like health, education and prisons. These are all concerns to the ethnic communities and there must be some way of considering black viewpoints," says Mr Grant.

Mr Vaz believes that the answer to that question lies with Black Sections. "We now need to work out a cogent and coherent agenda that can form a basis for a dialogue with those in power." Others disagree. Marsha Singh, who was elected in Bradford West this year, does not consider himself a "black politician". "About 70 per cent of my electorate is white, so to represent myself in that way is wrong," he says.

The plodding rise of non-white MPs in the Labour Party is an uncomfortable reminder that despite its anti-racist rhetoric the party has done little to advance the cause of black power. "We should have about 30 black MPs," says Navendra Makanji, a Labour councillor in Haringey. "I think it will happen. The party already has 400 black councillors and I think the push will come from the grass roots."

Many say this is optimistic. Where black groups have flourished, they have been squashed. Hundreds of Asian Labour Party members are still suspended in Birmingham's Sparkbrook and Small Heath, Ladywood and Manchester's Gorton constituencies.

The last remnants of Black Sections can be found in the Black Socialist Society. If its roll exceeds 2,500, a black person is guaranteed a place on the NEC. Its membership after five years stands in the hundreds. Paradoxically, Labour is keen to promote itself as a broad church. There is a youth wing, women's groups, and even Paole Zion for Jewish members - but still no pew for black people.