‘For all its flaws, the US, where a black child of poverty such as Colin Powell, could rise to be Secretary of State, I wonder frankly whether such a thing could have happened here.’ If we ignore the fact that Colin Powell was appointed, and not elected, as Secretary of State, Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party Conference does raise the question of whether such a thing could happen in our party. Could a black Briton become a senior figure in the Labour Party? Until the party can answer yes, can we truly claim to be ‘the people’s party’?
It’s not good enough for a social democratic party on the one hand to be driven with inspiration, passion and zeal to redress the deficit of female representation in parliament, while constantly turning a blind eye to the inadequate numbers of black and ethnic minority MPs elected – and their opportunity to be candidates in the first place.
One reason for so few black and ethnic minorities MPs at Westminster (there are none in the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament) is the scarcity of black and ethnic minorities who are members of political parties. Labour, working with black and ethnic minority organisations, must redress the deficit of political party membership amongst black and ethnic minorities.
Few politicians view black and ethnic minorities as both citizens and communities, usually grouping them together as a community with little interest in wider society and politics. But, like the rest of society, black and ethnic minority voters are passionate about education, health, crime and employment. Labour’s failure to engage with, and approach, black and ethnic minorities in our drive to recruit new members increases their alienation from the political process.
Take health, for example. For all our party’s heralded attempts to reduce waiting lists and end the internal market, issues on hereditary diseases such as sickle cell, predominately affecting black and ethnic minorities, rank low on Alan Milburn’s scale of importance.
The Labour Party has many things to be proud of in relation to addressing the concerns of black Britain. We are the only political party with black and Asian MPs, have amended the Race Relations Act to include public bodies, and established the McPherson Inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Whilst these are commendable achievements since May 1997, they are not enough.
The party must perform its own surgery: on our structures, activities, policy and image to attract black and ethnic minorities as members, not just voters. The Opposition parties are no better, regardless that both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have given high-ranking positions to members of the Asian community. And it is not good enough for Labour to simply reply: ‘We have elected Asian and black MPs and you haven’t.’
To amend a passage of Tony Blair’s first speech as Prime Minister to the party faithful: ‘We cannot be a beacon to the country unless the talents of our members shine through. Not one black Cabinet minister, no Asians, either. No black activists network like that in the TUC. Not a record of pride for our party.’ The party can learn lessons from our brothers and sisters in the union movement, their active recruitment of black and ethnic minority workers and an established network and black workers’ conference. By tackling the deficit of black and ethnic minority members, along with the deficit of other sections of society, we can truly be called ‘the people’s party’.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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