What did the first black MPs achieve?

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Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Neil Kinnock, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott in 1987

In June 1987 four black Labour MPs were elected. Gary McFarlane recalls this cause for celebration in an otherwise grim night, and looks at the political trajectories of these pioneering politicians.

There are plenty of theories about how Labour managed to lose four general elections in a row to the Tories from 1979 onwards, despite mass unemployment stalking the land and the relentless attacks on working class living standards. Vast swathes of the country became factory-free zones. The working class is disappearing, we were told by the misnamed journal of the Communist Party, Marxism Today. “De-industrialisation”, we were told, meant the only hope for progressives was to band together around the lowest common denominator.

But none of this tallied with the political reality on the ground: the anti-Tory vote at the 1987 election amounted to a massive 17.3 million (up from a little over 16 million in the 1983 election), compared to 13.7 million votes for the Tories (up only 700,000 on 1983).

The main problem Labour faced was not the Tories but the Labour right. Sound familiar? Admittedly their most talented leaders — Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rogers known as the Gang of Four — had left the party back in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), thereby handing the 1983 election to Margaret Thatcher’s Tories. The SDP was eventually swallowed up by the Liberals, rebranding themselves as the SDP-Liberal Alliance and winning 7 million votes in 1987, once again splitting the anti-Tory vote.

Although revolutionaries appreciate that socialism will not come through parliament, we still think reforms are possible and that they can make a real impact on people’s lives. That’s why revolutionaries argued for a vote for Labour throughout the 1980s. Who wins elections also matters in terms of workers’ confidence to fight outside of parliament.

Our side was losing badly on the industrial front, as epitomised by the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984/5. When people are not confident in their own ability to change the world they are more likely to accept the ideas pumped out by the media, which tend to back the status quo.

The Tories go with this grain — they are a capitalist party in a capitalist society. It is always harder for parties which challenge the status quo to win elections.

Confidence

The Tories won the 1987 election, securing a 120-seat majority over the opposition parties. But Labour did increase its number of seats by 20, and of the new crop of Labour MPs there were four black and minority ethnic MPs: Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz.

It had been almost 60 years since a British Asian had been elected to parliament, and there had never been black MPs before.

This was indeed cause for celebration on an otherwise grim night, although Boateng’s victory speech, in which he likened his “struggle” to win the seat to the then ongoing battles against apartheid South Africa (“Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto!”), took hyperbole to a whole new level.

The four newly elected MPs were the fruits of a particular strategy in the Labour left. The base for the left in the Labour Party was in the councils. It was here that Labour hoped to construct a “dented shield” to protect working people from the worst ravages of the Tory government. It turned out to be an ineffective strategy, with councillors in London boroughs such as Haringey and Lambeth backing down from their threats to go to jail rather than implement the cuts. Liverpool council held out longer but also capitulated in the end.

The dented shield became nothing more than Labour councils implementing Tory cuts with a human face. But alongside the cuts was a left wing agenda attempting to deal with inequality in the workplace and institutional racism. Some councils, notably the Greater London Council (GLC, abolished by Thatcher in 1986), introduced programmes such as Racism Awareness Training to challenge racist ideas.

Central to this were members of the Labour Party Black Sections (LPBS), founded in 1983 with the aim of campaigning against racism and establishing a group in the party on an equal footing with the women’s section. In practice LPBS focused almost entirely on internal selection battles to get more black and Asian MPs into parliament. They didn’t get out and campaign on the streets — and in truth this would have been hard to do when your councillors were the ones pushing through the cuts.

This internal focus depoliticised the aims of the LPBS. The very mixed trajectories of the four MPs elected in 1987 give an indication of this political weakness.

Before Bernie Grant became the Labour MP for Tottenham, he was leader of Haringey council in north London. In October 1985 an uprising broke out on the Broadwater Farm estate in Haringey in response to the death of local black woman Cynthia Jarrett during a police raid of her flat, and the police shooting of another black woman, Cherry Groce, in Brixton the previous week. The call went out: enough is enough. The police were driven out of Broadwater Farm, and a policeman was killed.

It would have been easy for Grant to condemn the rioters as mere criminal elements. Instead he rallied to the defence of the community and condemned the police: “The youths around here believe the police were to blame for what happened on Sunday and what they got was a bloody good hiding.”

He was castigated in the media for supposedly condoning the killing of a policeman, though he claimed he was simply quoting what the youth were saying. What is clear is that Grant understood that self-defence is no offence. Unlike his fellow newly elected black and minority ethnic Labour MPs, he did not mellow with age and remained in his seat and staunchly on the left until his death in 2000.

Diane Abbott became the first ever African Caribbean woman MP when she was elected in the Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency. She remains a member of the left wing grouping of MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group. Although she enraged many on the left by sending her child to a private school, she has been a steadfast and principled defender of multiculturalism and of women’s rights and is the current chair of the Stand Up To Racism campaign group.

Perhaps one of her most important achievements was the bringing together of thousands of black parents and students in the London Schools and the Black Child initiative in the early 2000s. This work continued in the tradition of the anti-racist campaigning in schools begun by black and socialist teachers and parents in the 1970s, and its impact was notable, with London said to have the most improved schools in the UK.

Keith Vaz, on the other hand, essentially used the left to climb the ladder of career opportunity and found his niche as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee from 2007 to September 2016. A Catholic and a lawyer by profession, he was always more interested in seeking publicity than he ever was in fighting to change the world. He became a Blairite through and through, with no redeeming features.

Faded

And what can we say about Paul Boateng? He made his name as chair of the GLC police committee, leading calls for the police to be made democratically accountable to the people they police. As soon as he got to parliament his radicalism faded. By 1998 he had become a Home Office minister in the first Blair government. He was also for a time the High Commissioner to South Africa.

Today he passes his time as a non-executive director of security consultancy Aegis Defence Services. You may not have heard of this outfit, but they are the ones responsible for organising attempted coups in Sierra Leone (the Sandline affair when company founder Tim Spicer was caught trying to smuggle 30 tonnes of arms into the country), Papua New Guinea and Equatorial Guinea. Boateng went from radical anti-cop firebrand to willing accomplice of the forces of Western imperialism. He has well and truly joined the other side.

The fact that Abbott and Grant withstood the pressures to accommodate to parliamentary cretinism is to their credit, but they are exceptions to the rule.

Today there are 41 black and minority ethnic MPs in parliament, of whom 23 are Labour Party members. That was a process begun back in 1987 and one that socialists welcome. But it hasn’t in itself delivered a less racist society. The kind of abuse Abbott has received on Twitter and in the right wing press recently for daring to be a prominent voice in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is an indicator of that.

Theresa May has used racism at will during the general election campaign this year in order to try to win back Ukip voters and divert people’s anger towards migrants. The best counter to this will be a mass movement against racism, built on the streets, in the workplaces and in the colleges and communities — as well as among Labour MPs.

Ultimately racism will not be overthrown by parliaments or Black Sections, but by a struggle of a united working class that delivers a knockout blow to capitalism — the system that keeps regenerating racism.

Gary McFarlane will be speaking at Marxism 2017. See marxismfestival.org.uk for more information