'We had to fight tooth and nail': BAME parliamentarians talk representation and tackling racism
The current House of Commons is the most ethnically diverse ever. But a new poll has revealed that more than six in ten BAME MPs have experienced racism on the Parliamentary estate -– while more than half have experienced racism from fellow MPs. Anahita Hossein-Pour hears from BAME parliamentarians past and present about progress made on equality, and who should speak up for ethnic minorities
Abena Oppong-Asare was taken by surprise at the heartfelt reaction on social media to her proudly wearing her Kente scarf while making her maiden speech in the Commons. Showcasing the bright colours of the Ghanaian material was a way of bringing her heritage to Parliament.
“It was about me bigging up my Ghanaian roots...I didn’t realise it would make such a big deal, because quite a lot of people on social media said, ‘I’m so proud of her’.” Oppong-Asare explains. “I was like ‘oh ok! I just wanted to wear something a bit traditional.’”
Oppong-Asare is one of 65 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) MPs elected in December’s general election according to think tank British Future, making this Parliament the most ethnically diverse ever.
But while progress is celebrated, problems persist. Last week a poll for ITV revealed that more than six in ten BAME MPs have experienced some form of racism on the Parliamentary estate – while more than half have experienced racism from fellow MPs.
This has ranged from repeated cases of mistaken identity among BAME women, to MPs being questioned by security. Oppong-Asare herself was asked by a Conservative MP to look after their bag, while Dawn Butler has revealed she was once escorted out of the tea room by staff who refused to believe she was a Member.
Getting into politics was not an obvious route for Oppong-Asare. It took years to pluck up the courage to become a councillor in her constituency of Erith and Thamesmead; she lacked confidence in public speaking and “didn’t really see anyone that looked like me in those positions.”
“There is a perception that certain ethnic groups in particular are not interested in politics which I disagree with. I think it’s very much the barriers in getting to those places are really difficult, you have to be extremely resilient.”
In her maiden speech she thanked trailblazers Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng – the first black MPs, all elected in 1987 – for the part they played in her entering Parliament. Even in her non-political family, they were household names growing up. “Everyone celebrated their success,” she recalls. “They spoke up on issues that I guess a lot of people wouldn’t normally talk about, like stop and search. They helped me a lot actually, because you can kind of resonate when you see someone who is from quite a similar background… You don’t really see people from my descent in politics.”
Her Labour colleague, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, demonstrated similar resilience to become the first turbaned Sikh MP in any European Parliament in 2017. He says he feels the eyes of the global Sikh community upon him and “fully accepts the huge responsibility” of breaking the glass ceiling. “Hopefully they’re proud of what I’ve done so far,” he says.
The Slough MP went viral last year, after demanding an apology from the prime minister in his first PMQs for Johnson’s previous “derogatory” language towards Muslim women.
Reflecting on the episode, where he shared his personal experiences of being called “towelhead” and “Taliban” growing up, Dhesi tells The House: “Sometimes certain things resonate with people and sometimes they don’t. Perhaps because it was a bloke standing up for women, and also probably because as a Sikh person standing up for some other faith community...also the passion I felt about the topic, it was personal.”
Dhesi was born in his constituency before being sent to the Punjab for school until the age of nine, and speaks eight languages, (Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, French, German, Latin and Italian, and “a bit of English”).
“That made me feel very, very proud ultimately of being British, while simultaneously being proud to be Sikh, whilst simultaneously being proud of my ancestry,” he explains. “I think you can be proud to be British, proud to be Sikh, proud to be a European, proud to be a global citizen all at the same time.”
Munira Wilson has also recently joined the Commons, as one of two Liberal Democrat BAME MPs alongside British-Palestinian Layla Moran. Wilson, of East African Indian heritage, was born and raised in London and her passionate pro-immigration views were shaped by her family’s own experiences. Her parents, both born in Zanzibar, didn’t meet until they separately travelled to the UK under very different circumstances. While her father came to study, her mother arrived in the country as a stateless person aged 21, seeking safety during the Zanzibar revolution.
“I couldn’t have [become an MP] without their hard work and I don’t see why I should turn around and deny that opportunity to other people who want to come and do that. We’ve benefitted so much as a country from all these diverse communities coming together and I’m really proud of that.”
However, she rejects the idea that certain groups only care about ethnic community-related issues as “a bit of a misnomer” and “quite patronising”.
“Whenever I’m asked ‘what do you think the issues are that matter to ethnic minorities or the Asian community and what they care about’ – well actually it’s the same issues that matter to anybody. They care about being able to access the health service, about being able to get decent education… we all use the same services.”
Lord Boateng smiles as he reflects on his journey to becoming the first mixed-race cabinet minister in 2002. “I think sometimes we forget just where we’ve come from as a nation,” the Labour peer says, thinking back to his early years in 1950s London. “I mean people would touch my dad for luck – in Tottenham!...It was a very different time.”
Born to a Scottish mother and Ghanaian father, Boateng was brought up in an inescapably political family. They moved to Ghana during the movement for colonial freedom, where his dad became a cabinet minister, and was later thrown into prison without trial for four years following a military coup.
Boateng’s road to Westminster however would not have been possible without a multitude of groups deciding the lack of diverse representation in British Parliament was “unsustainable”. As Boateng observes, for the Labour party it came from a grassroots movement while for the Conservatives it was a “very effective” top-down approach from David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
“Nobody woke up one day and thought ‘wouldn’t it be nice to have BAME Members of Parliament’. That never happened, we had to fight tooth and nail,” the former chief secretary to the Treasury says. “It was a diverse group of people from many different walks of life who came together and said ‘we are not going any longer to have a monoethnic parliament’.”
Breakthroughs in representation have snowballed most prominently since 2010, and success has also been hailed over increasing diversity on the Government and Opposition front benches.
Seeing the Conservatives appoint a black party chairman – as they did with James Cleverly in 2018 – was not even conceivable to Boateng when he left the Commons 13 years prior. “Barriers have been quite deliberately broken down and appointments have been made – on the basis of merit – that truly reflect the diversity of our nation,” Boateng says.
He remembers Parliament as a welcoming place to the newcomers in the 1980s, from colleagues on both sides of the House, as well as a conscious effort from Speaker Bernard Weatherill. However, he received “the most horrible, horrible, hideous letters” each week, filled with hate and death threats due to his race.
An incident the former minister never revealed at the time involved his government vehicle. “My driver and I noticed a terrible smell in the car and we couldn’t work out what on earth it was. It got worse and worse and worse. After about two weeks my driver found what it was – somebody had strapped some frozen brussels sprouts underneath the seat. If you made a fuss about it, they won. So we just took it out, threw it away and never mentioned it.”
He adds: “There were very many people that were out there clearly… they just couldn’t stand the notion of a black person in a position of authority, so a way had to be found to diminish and degrade. But you know you just have to stick with it. You can’t break through a glass ceiling and expect that there won’t be hurt, there will be, there has been, but you go on.”
Does he think things have improved? The former lawyer says there are “very many more good people…than there are bad” but adds: “We should never ever believe we can be complacent when it comes to racism and anti-Semitism. They are facts of life and we have to be vigilant.”
Oppong-Asare agrees. “There’s obviously still issues,” she says. “A lot of political parties will brag about all of this diversity, but a lot of work needs to be done to change the culture to make it more accessible and friendly.”
Simon Woolley has spent decades campaigning for more BAME representation in politics, and in 1996 founded the group Operation Black Vote, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to address the democratic deficit among ethnic minorities.
Woolley, who was given a peerage late last year, agrees there is still a way to go in addressing unequal representation. “As a new Lord I would guess there are more African Caribbean cleaning staff than there are African Caribbean MPs. I think the estate needs to wake up to the fact that we are there in all areas, at all levels, and this assumption we are cleaning staff is totally appalling.”
Woolley praises the progress at the 2019 election as a “huge starting point”. But the next critical stage, he presses, is translating representation into policy outcomes. “The real test for this historic number in Parliament is whether or not this group can forge a cross-party voice that can demand – of any government – policies that must close these persistent racial disparities,” he says.
“BAME politicians are not homogenous… but we all should be united that we all should tackle racial injustice. We can have diversity in many areas, but we should be on the same page.”
“We are still not effectively tackling BAME unemployment, we are still not tackling the fact there are very few senior BAMEs in FTSE 100 companies, or other cases when it comes to criminal justice – race politics is still prevalent.”
The Racial Disparity Unit, set up by Theresa May during her time in No 10, has been seen as a positive step in addressing societal discrimination as it lays bare the facts officially recognising inequalities (Woolley chairs its advisory group).
Among its data, the RDU shows black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be permanently excluded from school compared to white British students, and black Caribbean people were the most likely out of any ethnic group to be detained under the Mental Health Act in 2017/18.
“The next step in progress is to see real progress made in terms of addressing the horrific figures in the audit of outcomes...these are scandalous,” Boateng says. “And much as I celebrate the fact that we are so much more diverse in Parliament, until we make real inroads in those figures I for one can’t rest easy.”
Dhesi believes leadership on tackling racial injustice needs to come from the Cabinet, with prominent BAME figures such as home secretary Priti Patel and chancellor Rishi Sunak. “We don’t want mere tokenism,” the Slough MP warns. “We would expect that while they will be standing up for the greater good of the country, they also need to be vocal about issues that affect BAME people. We have got great hopes pinned on those BAME individuals within the cabinet actually speaking up.”
However, for Boateng, tackling racial injustice will require non-BAME colleagues to take greater action too. “Tackling issues of sexism and racism isn’t comfortable and it’s not easy. It’s wrong that women and BAME should constantly be having to raise these issues and fight these battles,” he says. “There’s no direct correlation between representation in Parliament and improved outcomes for women and for blacks, so all of us – whatever our race, our gender, ethnicity – within Parliament have to get more intentional about dealing with issues of inequality.”
Oppong-Asare agrees. “There is a perception sometimes that only ethnic minorities should be looking at ethnic minority issues which I fundamentally disagree with,” she says.
“It’s not just about visibility – we’ve all got to take positive action in terms of looking at policies that impact everybody. It should not just be left to a diverse group of people to be looking at – everyone needs to be at the table fighting for this.”