Black Britain Makes Political Gains in an Economic Crisis

Minorities won a record number of seats in Parliament in the last election, and two black women are preparing groundbreaking campaigns. Yet given the U.K.'s severe economic challenges, some observers wonder how much there is to celebrate.

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Labour leadership candidate Diane Abbott. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

While the world focused its attention on the political cliffhanger in May that led to Great Britain's first coalition government in 70 years, the U.K.'s minorities were making significant gains in national representation.

A record turnout of minority voters in the closely contested race doubled the number of black, Asian (in the U.K., "Asian" usually refers to South Asians) and other ethnic-minority MPs in the House of Commons from 14 to 27 (out of 650 members). The government of David Cameron appointed the first Asian woman to a cabinet position, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who was named minister without portfolio and co-chairman of the Conservative Party. She is also the only member of Britain's ethnic-minority communities in the coalition cabinet.

Now two black women are vying for positions that minorities have never held. Dianne Abbott, who became the first black woman elected to Parliament in 1987, is on the ballot for the next Labour Party leadership contest. The winner will be declared in September at the party's annual conference, the first since they were ousted from power by the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition that Cameron pieced together. If she can win the leadership, only then can she steer the Labour Party back to 10 Downing Street, Britain's seat of power -- and potentially serve as the country's prime minister.

A New Day for Black Britain?

Meanwhile, Oona King, a biracial politician whose father is African American, announced that she is running for mayor of London in 2012.

The success of minority candidates is a sign that "Black Britain is arriving," says Simon Woolley, co-founder and national director of Operation Black Vote (OBV), which encourages blacks and other minorities to participate in the political process. However, he quickly adds that there is much work to be done in order to achieve racial and social justice. Black Britain can never relax.

Lee Jasper, a political commentator and activist in the U.K., says that while the gains are significant, Britain's minorities, who make up 8 percent of the population, are still vastly underrepresented in Parliament. "Although we now have 27 MPs, to be represented proportionately, we need 70," he says. "Hence, we are only achieving 25 percent of the necessary representation needed in the House of Parliament."

It remains to be seen how an increase in the number of minority MPs will translate into action on issues at the core of their communities -- especially racial inequality in housing, health and education, with continuous restriction in employment and social mobility. Employment of minorities in the private sector is still very low -- 80 percent work in the public sector.

Still, Woolley says, the mere presence of minority MPs "is a quantum leap and makes an impact in itself because our parliamentary class now have to readjust themselves to seeing their fellow politicians that don't look like them." But, he adds, their presence isn't enough. "We need our black politicians to talk about black concerns. My worry, particularly on the Conservatives benches, is that the new crop of black and Asian MPs will not talk strongly and boldly about the inequalities our communities face."

The Perils of Political Gains During a Crisis

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