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‘Power concedes nothing without demand’ – black MPs on the ongoing struggle for equality

33 years ago this week Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott became two of the three first black MPs elected to Parliament

24 min read

Racial equality has come a long way since the first black MPs were elected 33 years ago this week. But as Black Lives Matter forces us to confront difficult questions about our past and our future, Sebastian Whale hears from MPs about their experiences of racism in modern Britain and their hopes of achieving lasting change

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

The poignancy of these words from Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, orator and writer, has never been lost on Paul Boateng, a Labour peer and one of the first black MPs elected to Parliament. The demands that he and others had made more than three decades ago helped bring about historic change. 

The protests at racial inequality today remind Boateng of the riots of 1981, triggered across cities in the UK by racial tension and social deprivation. “The fact that young people took to the streets was the precursor of the political breakthrough that came about in 1987,” recalls Boateng. As backlash against racism spreads around the globe, he ponders: “The demand is now out there. So, let’s see what happens.”

On the evening of 11 June 1987, Boateng was at the count in Brent South. It was his second time standing for Parliament, having finished a distant third at the 1983 election in Hertfordshire West behind the Tories and the newly-formed SDP. 

Nearly sixty years had passed since the last minority ethnic MP had been elected to the Commons. In March 1969, Lord Learie Constantine became the first black life peer to take his seat in the House of Lords. As yet, no black MPs had ever made it to Westminster.

Boateng, Diane Abbott and Sharon Atkin were among the founding members of the Labour party black sections, set up to secure greater representation of black and minority ethnic members. “We weren’t prepared to accept our exclusion from the political system. We formed alliances within the Labour movement to change that,” says Boateng. “It was never a question of the political leadership one day waking up and saying, ‘Wouldn't it be nice to have black people in Parliament?’ That’s not how it works. We had to fight tooth and nail, and it was a struggle.” 

It was never a question of the political leadership one day waking up and saying ‘wouldn't it be nice to have black people in Parliament?’ We had to fight tooth and nail; it was a struggle

By 1987, Labour had twelve BAME candidates running for election (back then everyone was grouped together as ‘black’). Abbott and Boateng, along with Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant and Russell Proffitt, all had a decent chance of succeeding, despite some Labour supporters vowing not to vote for them.

In the early hours, the BBC’s live coverage was focussed on North Finchley, where Margaret Thatcher, on her way to a third successive victory, was delivering a speech. “At a quite different part of London, let’s go and see the declaration for Bernie Grant, the first black MP to be elected to the House of Commons,” said presenter David Dimbleby, as the footage moved to Tottenham. “Tonight we have made history,” Grant declared. 

Around the same time, Boateng was giving his victory speech. In the audience was Adelaide Tambo, an anti-apartheid activist who was married to Oliver Tambo, the leader of the African National Congress. Looking at his close family friend, Boateng said: “Brent South today, Saiwato tomorrow.” He explains: “I was acutely conscious that although we had made a breakthrough here in the UK, in South Africa, black people continued to be oppressed and disenfranchised.”

The same night Abbott arrived at Hackney Town Hall fearing the worst. She was calmed by the piles of ballot papers by her name, which stood far higher than her Conservative rival, Oliver Letwin. In the east Midlands, a young Claudia Webbe was watching on. “The years leading up to 1987 were horrible. You were completely stripped of your childhood, there was no fun being black in the UK,” she says. “Your daily experience was blatant racism. Physical abuse. Not just name calling – you were being beaten up in the streets.”

Abbott inspired new hope. “I knew then where I wanted to be, where I wanted to go, and it’s taken me nearly 33 years to get here,” says Webbe, who in December succeeded Vaz as MP for Leicester East. “Diane was the first black woman MP, which was important to me and my identity. Therefore, she was a personal hero.”

Their historic election thirty-three years ago laid the ground for other aspiring BAME politicians, but for the first black MPs ever elected to Parliament, it was just the next phase of an arduous journey to equality. Boateng says: “I was pleased, but I never kidded myself that the struggle wasn’t an ongoing one. And it still is.”

By the time they arrived in Westminster, the trailblazers had garnered quite the reputation. Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng both served on Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, while Grant, as leader of Haringey Council, had made controversial remarks about the police after the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985. “The institution was very frightened of us. They thought we were going to wreck the place,” Abbott told me last year.

During a TV interview, Anne Diamond told Abbott that her political opponents thought she was “an out and out leftie, that you’re a red, that you’re going to form a black caucus in Parliament, that we should all be very frightened of you indeed now that you are in Parliament”. “What do you say to that?” the host asked. “What I say is what you see is what you get,” replied Abbott.

My ethnicity is part of my identity and I embrace it fully. But I decline to be trapped in the castle of my skin

Boateng set about immersing himself in the Commons. “My ethnicity is part of my identity and I embrace it fully. But I decline to be trapped in the castle of my skin,” he explains, adding: “You were obviously acutely aware that you are one of four. We were in the minority, very much so. There is no point allowing that to get to you, you just have to get on with it.”

The lack of diversity in Parliament was not restricted to the Chamber. “There were no black and Asian researchers,” says Boateng. “There were no black people in the management of Parliament at all. It was a very different time.” The three MPs brought with them black members of staff, as diversity began to spread slowly through Parliament.

Speaker Bernard ‘Jack’ Weatherill would invite Bernie Grant – the eldest of the four new BAME MPs – for a glass of port in his office. Abbott believes this was a ploy to “manage us better as a group”. “They thought it would be like the Fenians,” she said in reference to the group of Irish Republicans elected to parliament in the 19th century. Boateng says he was well received by his fellow MPs. “For me personally, I had a warm welcome from my colleagues on all sides of the House and from the parliamentary staff.” 

There were cases of mistaken identity early on. Abbott was often called Sharon, in reference to her fellow black sections member, Sharon Aitken. “They kept calling Bernie, Paul and Paul, Bernie,” Abbott said, noting: “You weren’t really dealing with a very sophisticated understanding of the ethnic minority community.” 

This is a problem that persists today for new black Members of Parliament. Abena Oppong-Asare, who in 2019 became the first woman British Ghanian MP along with Bell Ribeiro-Addy, was mistaken for another black Labour backbencher by a Conservative MP. When she clarified who she was, the MP replied: “Wow, there’s more of you?” 

“This has happened with colleagues of mine where they’ve been confused with other MPs, but I don’t think they’ve been that public about it. I should stress that it’s not just one party; it’s across the parties,” Oppong-Asare says. A similar incident fell upon Dawn Butler, the MP for Brent Central, when an MP once told her: “This lift really isn’t for cleaners.”

Telephone calls meant for another black MP have been forwarded by the parliamentary switchboard to Oppong-Asare’s office, members of her team have told her. “They found it quite disturbing, whereas for me it’s got to the point where, well, it is what it is. It’s really bad that I see it as normal,” she says. House authorities are said to be approaching the MP about this claim.

The media has also been guilty of such errors. Oppong-Asare raised a point of order in February after being mistaken for a colleague on Parliament TV. “I would like to know what you are going to do about this, because it is unacceptable,” she said to deputy speaker Nigel Evans. She received a written letter and a personal apology from Parliament TV soon after.

Florence Eshalomi, another new Labour MP, has also been mistaken in the media for colleagues including Kate Osamor, the MP for Edmonton since 2015. “I have never really taken it personally,” says Eshalomi. “Mistakes happen, I totally understand that, but this mistake seems to be frequently happening. We do need to look at why that is, and try to get better at understanding. I’m thinking should we call a meeting with the media lobby and say, ‘Right, I’m Florence, this is Kate, that’s Diane’. I don’t know.”

Labour MP Janet Daby, elected at a by-election in 2018, was having drinks on the terrace overlooking the River Thames early on in her parliamentary career. It was during summer recess, and she had bought a bottle of alcohol to drink with her guest as Parliament’s bars were closed.

According to Daby, a doorkeeper approached, questioned what they were doing, why they were there, and asked them to leave. She alleges that the staff member was rude to her in front of her guest. Daby argues she was discriminated against because of her race – prior to entering Parliament, she had been invited for drinks on the terrace by another MP who had not been reprimanded for bringing in alcohol from outside the estate.

After taking the doorkeeper to one side, she was told there was a sign about bringing alcohol onto the terrace. “I said, ‘Okay, I did not see that sign. It is good that you bring that to my attention but it’s how you do that. What you’ve done is humiliate me in front of my guest, you’ve told me to get up and leave’,” she explains.

Daby continues: “What I detected straight away was that she felt she had a right to speak to me like this because I was a black person and she probably wasn’t aware or didn’t care that I was a Member of Parliament. Whether I was a Member of Parliament or not, you do not speak to people in this improper and rude way.”

Daby raised the issue with the Serjeant at Arms office. The Serjeant agreed that it was a miscommunication and that the rules in relation to the consumption of alcohol on the estate - decided by a committee of MPs and enforced by staff - should have been explained to her in a different way, particularly in front of a guest. A Commons team also investigated the incident and all doorkeepers have since attended internal customer service training. Daby, who continues to see the doorkeeper on the estate, argues no action has been taken. “So, for me, it has always remained an unresolved situation,” she says.

A House of Commons spokesperson said: “We are truly sorry that any member of our Parliamentary community feels discriminated against, in the very place where the rights of all citizens should be championed equally. We are committed to listening, learning and taking action to remove barriers and better reduce inequality for the future."

For Adam Afriyie, who in 2005 became the first black Conservative MP, the only pushback he received was from his opposite numbers. “When I arrived, in terms of the mood, the Labour government looked at non-white Conservative MPs as odd,” he says. “They could not quite work out what we were, because it was assumed that if you had brown skin you would need special help and that the Labour party would give that to you, whereas Conservatives treated you as exactly the same, which was great for me.”

However, he insists that while there “remain challenges with racism” in Britain, “I don’t sense any inherent racism among MPs in the House of Commons today. None. I don’t see any, I haven’t witnessed any, certainly not in the last several years.”

Clive Lewis, the MP for Norwich South, says: “My own experience of Parliament has been an overwhelmingly positive one.” Helen Grant, the first woman Conservative MP, says: “I was embraced, encouraged, mentored, guided, not just by people on the Conservative benches but across the House. I enjoyed it enormously, worked hard and got on fairly well.” Daby too says MPs on both sides “reached out” to her in the early stages of her career. 

Oona King became the fourth black MP after the 1997 election, with David Lammy succeeding the late Bernie Grant in 2000 as the MP for Tottenham.

In a historic first, Paul Boateng was appointed a government minister in 1997. He became the first black Cabinet minister when he was made chief secretary to the Treasury in 2002.

Early on in his time as a minister, he and his driver had been unable to locate a terrible smell in his car. Eventually, it was discovered that frozen brussel sprouts had been strapped to the underside of a car seat. “The pathological hatred that must have gone into someone doing that – the planning – it is just unbelievable. We shouldn’t ever delude ourselves: racism is a pathological thing. The great evil of racism is it diminishes everybody, white and black. It is deeply dehumanising at every level. And it continues,” he says. 

I don’t even see all the racist messages I get; they go directly to the police. It’s sad reality being a black MP in a so-called post-racist society

Even without the internet, there was one aspect of life as an MP, especially pernicious these days for women and women of colour in particular, that was still prevalent. “It was a never-ending stream of poisoned pens, letters, threats and abuse,” Boateng says. “So my staff used to have to keep the hate letters from me. But they were there. That is part and parcel of the experience.”

Many BAME MPs have similar stories to tell. “There is now a protocol in my office whereby I don’t even see all the racist emails and messages that I get because those that threaten to harm me go directly to the police,” says Labour MP Clive Lewis. “That is really sad, but it’s become part of the reality of me being a black MP in the 21st Century in a so-called post-racist society.”

Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, says: “I get racist trolling whenever I open my mouth to say something vaguely controversial, and [Tottenham MP] David Lammy gets it. I get tweets from Nigeria telling me to stand up for Nigerians. All BAME MPs end up being seen as representing or not representing different groups.”

In 2017, a study by Amnesty International revealed that Diane Abbott received almost half of the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run up to that year’s election. “We have watched over the years the unprecedented level of vile racist and sexist abuse that she has endured. It would be enough to put off the best of us,” says Claudia Webbe. “It shows just how much work is left to do if we are to end the evils of racism and misogyny.”

Such abuse is feared to not only put off people of colour from entering politics, but also silence those from speaking out on issues. Helen Grant says: “Racism and unpleasantness is alive and kicking above and below the radar across society.” She continues: “I am aware of some colleagues, notably people like Diane Abbott who have been treated in the most disgraceful and terrible way. She in particular has dealt with that awful abuse with great dignity.”

Prior to running in Vauxhall for the 2019 election, Florence Eshalomi’s husband, disturbed by the abuse black women in Westminster had received, asked: “Why do you want to do this?” She explains: “There are so many burning issues I’ve campaigned and continue to campaign on… I decided I wasn’t going to let the people hiding behind fake profiles silence me into not standing.”

The killing of George Floyd has seen discussion move from police brutality in the United States to allegations of institutionalised and structural racism here in the UK. As part of the debate, focus has turned to Britain’s historical legacy, and that of some of its most revered figures.

For some, Parliament itself has come to stand for elements of the UK’s past. “The history of Parliament is the history of the United Kingdom. That is a history of colonialism, slavery and all the other things that have taken place in our history, although that is a part of it,” says Clive Lewis.

“When you go in and you see the despatch box or the Commons chamber with different items from all over the world, you begin to see the breadth and depth of the reality of that. The fact that Parliament was the power base of that colonial empire.”

The history of Parliament is the history of the United Kingdom. That is a history of colonialism, slavery and all the other things that have taken place

Chi Onwurah argues: “One of the things which is curious is there are a lot of MPs and parliamentarians with an interest in Africa from having colonised it, basically. That is particularly true of the Lords.”

Portraits of the first MPs from a BAME background sit proudly in Portcullis House, an offshoot building connected to Parliament. Statues of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi are raised in Parliament Square. MPs such as Lewis would like to see more diversity in some of the artworks and statues that feature on the parliamentary estate.

“I’d love to see a statue about the ending of the slave trade. I’d love to see a statue of some of the achievements of black people in Britain over the centuries. I’d love to see a Windrush statue in Parliament about the positive achievements that black people have given to this country. The issue of statues is a complicated one. It’s a prism through which we can see power, equality and injustice,” Lewis says.

Onwurah argues: “We definitely need to promote more diverse images and representation in Parliament.” On first entering Westminster in 2010, she says: “It is the biggest culture shock I’ve ever experienced… At that time – it’s less so now – the building reinforced that with paintings and images of what I call dead white men in tights that followed you everywhere.” She adds: “It did seem to make it very clear that this space was not for people like me.”

Though obstacles remain in the journey to becoming MPs – many of those interviewed want to see improvements from their party in this area, such as on training and greater support networks – politicians from a BAME background are keen to convey that times have moved on in Westminster.

“What I would say to younger people who are aspiring to get to Parliament is almost forget the colour of your skin, forget your background, you do what you do today, and you work your way towards it,” says Conservative MP Adam Afriyie. “When you look at Parliament, you need to forget the old narrative that it’s really tough to become an MP if you’re not white and middle class, because that simply isn’t true anymore. It is not fully representative of Britain today, but it is getting pretty close. Be self-confident in who you are, and don’t define yourself by one characteristic.”

Progress has also been made in senior positions behind the scenes. In 2010, Rose Hudson-Wilkin was appointed the first woman and first BAME Speaker's Chaplain. Six years later, Saira Salimi achieved the same landmark when she was made Speaker's Counsel. Nigerian-born Ugbana Oyet is currently serving as Serjeant at Arms, four years after Kamal El-Hajji became the first BAME person to hold the position.

The current Parliament is the most diverse for gender and ethnicity in history. Around 10% of MPs are from a BAME background, while 220 of 650 MPs are women. In Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel, two BAME politicians currently occupy two of the Great Offices of State. Kwasi Kwarteng, James Cleverly and Kemi Badenoch all hold ministerial posts.

“There are black and Asian people at every level of government. So, there has been progress made... but there is still so much more to do,” says Paul Boateng, who argues recent events have highlighted the scale of racial inequalities in Britain. "We know what the problems are, the question now is, what are we going to do about it?”

Clive Lewis says better BAME representation will not in and of itself end structural racism. “There is a bigger task than simply having more representation, as important as that is,” he says. 

 There is a bigger task than simply having more representation, as important as that is

There can be a tendency to talk of BAME MPs as one homogenous group. Adam Afriyie explains: “If we go down the route of defining people by a single attribute and try to say that everybody within that group is part of a coherent community, then you’re actually undermining the individuals. You’re dehumanising.”

He continues: “There is no homogenous black community. Even within parliament you can see this when you have people like myself who have recent ancestors of West African heritage which has a rather different history and culture from East Africa, Asia, the West Indies, and elsewhere. The unity, common interests, and cultural connections are forged in the UK as British citizens with common values, social norms and all of those other attributes that bind people together.”

The Black Lives Matter protests, formed in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, have highlighted differences of opinion. During a debate in Parliament, Priti Patel spoke of racist abuse she faced while at school. “When it comes to racism, sexism, tolerance for social justice, I will not take lectures from the other side of the House,” she said. More than 30 BAME Labour MPs then wrote to the home secretary accusing her of “gaslighting” black people’s experience of racism. Responding, Patel accused them of dismissing those who “don’t conform to their view of how ethnic minorities should behave”.

Afriyie says: “To be frank, among my colleagues and on the Conservative benches there is no tension when it comes to the Black Lives Matter campaign. We are comfortable with peaceful protest that respects social distancing and are appalled by the unnecessary violence of a small minority undermining the campaign to raise awareness of residual challenges of ethnic minorities in the UK.”

Abena Oppong-Asare says: “I am an ethnic minority but you may find that there are other ethnic minorities that may not have the same views as me, so I don’t want to be that person that goes around saying, ‘I speak on behalf of the community’, I think that’s wrong. No one goes around and says the prime minister Boris Johnson is speaking on behalf of all white men.”

Greater diversity in Parliament has undoubtedly helped inform debate in Westminster, with the first black MPs leading the way. Oppong-Asare says: “They were the people who broke that glass ceiling. They also spoke about issues that many MPs did not speak about. They spoke about things like stop and search.”

Tory MP Helen Grant says: “There has been an increase of BAME MPs in the Chamber, and they’re adding their voices to speak out against racial discrimination and injustice, suffering and pain that the communities have experienced, in particular the black community.” MPs such as David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, have featured prominently in the discussion over the Grenfell Tower tragedy. In 2017, he produced a review into the treatment of and outcomes for BAME individuals in the criminal justice system. As shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott led Labour’s response to the Windrush scandal.

This, along with greater support from non-BAME colleagues, is likely to keep the focus on the issues raised in recent weeks on racial inequality, and the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus crisis on people of colour. “As MPs, we can now say, ‘I’m not going to let this one slide and other people aren’t either’,” says Clive Lewis. “There is an opportunity for us here to talk and have those discussions about what racism is, how it affects people, how insidious and deep-rooted it is.”

A number of milestones have been reached since the first three black MPs entered Parliament. Dawn Butler became the first black woman to speak at the despatch box when she became a minister in late 2009. In 2019, Diane Abbott became the first black MP to speak for their party at PMQs.  

As MPs, we can now say ‘I’m not going to let this slide’. There is an opportunity for us here to discuss what racism is, how it affects people and how deep-rooted it is

However, a number of hurdles, particularly on party leadership, remain. Currently, there are no black members of the Cabinet or BAME leaders of a parliamentary select committee. “There has been some progress, but there is still a lack of BAME voices,” says Chi Onwurah. “It’s been nice that BAME MPs are now being approached by the media – but otherwise, they’re not the first to be called on. People often call on people they know.” Smaller parties such as the SNP and the Liberal Democrats have also been singled out over concerns on diversity. 

Helen Grant, a former minister, has heard from people with a diverse background who say they are “put off” standing to be an MP as they believe Parliament is not necessarily a place “where they can achieve, progress and reach their full potential”. “I say that I’ve been here ten years and I’ve worked hard from the beginning, I’ve done my best and I’ve had many opportunities for promotion and advancement. It’s there,” she says.

Afriyie, who once doubted there would be a non-white prime minister in his lifetime, says: “Now, I’m pretty sure that there will be.”

Periodically in the thirty-three years since Parliament has had BAME MPs, racial issues have come to the fore. From the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the resulting Macpherson inquiry, to the creation of the race disparity audit by Theresa May, racial inequalities have often been in the spotlight.

For many MPs, the days of reviews should be over. The recent sea-change in the debate, which has included more voices from non-BAME backgrounds speaking out, represents an opportunity not seen for more than three decades.

Clive Lewis argues: "It is a potential turning point, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to last. Like democracy, it has to be held onto, fought for, and worked on. It has the potential to be something very special in the long history of racism and anti-racism.”

“It is horrific what happened to George Floyd. I just think that black people have experienced so much oppression and disadvantage, it’s almost like it’s come to the top," says Janet Daby. "It is very painful. What we’re seeing is a lot of pain and wanting the same freedoms that everybody else has. Why shouldn’t we as black people have that?”

Paul Boateng says: “This is a moment where we have an opportunity for change. For me, the hope lies in youth, the coming together of young BAME and white people marching together to say enough is enough, that black lives matter. It is a very special moment in that regard.

“The challenge will be whether or not those who currently have power are prepared to listen and to take on board what they are hearing from the streets and from this grassroots movement.”

He concludes: “In 1987 we made this demand. In 2020, another generation is making a demand. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.” 

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