ITV’s Stephen Lawrence drama is a reminder that the fight against racial injustice is far from over

The conviction of two of the gang members who murdered Stephen in 1993 was a victory for campaigners. But sadly, successive British governments have not built on the findings of the original inquiry into the case

Diane Abbott
Monday 30 August 2021 12:35
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Trailer for ITV's new drama 'Stephen', starring Steve Coogan and Sharlene Whyte

The murder of Stephen Lawrence in a racially motivated attack in 1993 remains an iconic example of racial injustice. It should never be forgotten. And the underlying issues remain as relevant today as ever. So, I welcome ITV’s new three-part drama Stephen which tells the story of the ongoing struggle of Doreen and Neville Lawrence to achieve justice for their son.

Long before it became a national cause celebre, I took a close interest in the Stephen Lawrence case. I did so partly because it illustrated so many issues about race and policing. But it was also because a close friend of mine, who was a community activist living in Greenwich, the London borough where Stephen was murdered, got me involved in the case.

The Lawrence family were never just symbols for me. They were people that I tried to help in any way I could – practically and politically. Some of my involvement was quite mundane. In those early years, life was a struggle for the Lawrence family financially. I was pleased to help them by engaging Stephen’s father Neville Lawrence, a skilled painter and decorator, to tile my bathroom. For many weeks, I saw him every day. We would discuss the exact design of my bathroom tiling, but also the tragic death of his son.

It was clear early on that the Metropolitan Police were not taking Stephen’s murder seriously, so together with my friend and colleague Bernie Grant MP, I took Stephen’s mother Doreen Lawrence to meet the Labour shadow home secretary Jack Straw. We knew that the then Tory home secretary Michael Howard was not interested in the case. But Bernie and I wanted Jack Straw to hear for himself Doreen’s plea for justice for her son Stephen. Before Jack Straw met Doreen, I sensed that he had absorbed some of the Met’s scepticism about the case. At that point, the Met were the last people to want to face up to their own institutional racism and failures in investigating the Stephen Lawrence case. But sitting across the table from Doreen and Jack Straw, I saw her completely win him over.

Jack Straw went into that meeting with Doreen Lawrence a sceptic about the Stephen Lawrence case. He came out of the meeting having promised Doreen an official inquiry into her son’s death. Labour came into power in 1997 and Jack was as good as his word. He set up the Macpherson inquiry. To this day, it is one of the hardest-hitting investigations into racism and policing ever. The inquiry concluded that the Met Police investigation into Stephen’s killing had been “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership”. Specific officers were named and the entire force was criticised.

The latest television drama picks up the Stephen Lawrence campaign in 2006, 13 years after his death, and narrates the continued fight for justice that resulted in the conviction of two of the gang members who committed his murder. These convictions were a victory but sadly, successive British governments have not built on the findings of the original Macpherson report.

Last year, 20 years after that inquiry, the Home Affairs Committee concluded: “Our inquiry has found that despite many years of commitments being made to race equality by the police service and the Home Office, there are still persistent, deep-rooted and unjustified racial disparities in key areas in policing. The failure to make sufficient progress on BME (Black and minority ethnic) recruitment, retention and progression, troubling race disparities in the police misconduct system, unjustified inequalities in the use of key police powers, such as stop and search, and a worrying decline in confidence and trust in the police among some BME communities, point to structural problems which disadvantage BME groups.” Doreen Lawrence herself told MPs last year on race and policing: “It seems as if things have become really stagnant and nothing seems to have moved.”

It is praiseworthy that this new TV drama will make sure that people don’t forget the Stephen Lawrence case. But it is vital that the government builds on the findings of the original Macpherson report and moves towards lasting change.

Diane Abbott is a Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

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