Black Britain Makes Political Gains in an Economic Crisis

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

As Jasper sees it, it's no coincidence that minorities are taking leadership positions during a time of deep economic trouble. "It's the nature of the black experience that when inclusivity comes our way, it's usually at a time of national crisis." He cites the example of President Barack Obama and the huge deficit he inherited. In the U.K., Jasper points out, there are more minority MPs in Parliament at a time of unprecedented public-sector cuts. "But one thing is for sure: Unless there is a cross-party, nonpartisan approach on the issues of race equality and tackling deprivation," Jasper says, "we may be in a sad situation of having more MPs, but at a time of increased levels of poverty, unemployment and deprivation in black communities."


In the past few weeks, the coalition government has enacted the biggest budget cuts since World War II, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, an economic think tank. Harriet Harman, current Labour Party MP, describes the budget cuts as "reckless." The budgetary cuts, of course, translate into dramatic cuts in public spending and services, cuts that will have a disproportionate impact on the black community.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a nonpartisan political think tank, an estimated 750,000 jobs will likely be lost in the public sector. The U.K.'s minority communities are already suffering from acute levels of high unemployment, with an estimated 60 percent poverty level among Britain's Asians, 49 percent for black Britons and 20 percent for white Britons.


What is certain, according to Woolley, is that Britain is entering a brave new political world, from its draconian downsizing to its unprecedented coalition government — not to mention the two black female politicians striving to make political history. The level of political ambition in the black community has been ratcheted up several notches.

A Black Woman Makes Herself Heard

So far Abbott, who is still campaigning, has come out strongly against plans by the new coalition government on immigration. She has described the announcement of a new targeted immigration cap of 24,100 non-European Union workers between now and April 2011 as a "bogus policy designed to placate people who don't like immigrants."


She also has harsh words for David Cameron's newly proposed "Big Society," in which charities would pick up the slack for government programs. Cameron's plans for a "dramatic redistribution of power" are, Abbott said shortly after Cameron's announcement, "nothing but a gimmick. The Lib-Cons are attempting to come across as cuddly and friendly just weeks after making some of the most savage cuts we've seen in years."

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Abbott is the first person from Britain's minority community to compete for a leadership position within a major political party. "I followed the Obama campaign, and it seemed strange that when the U.S. has a black president, we didn't even have a black candidate for our leadership," she says. "I looked at the front-runners — all male, all white, all former policy wonks — and it just seemed wrong."


Abbott, who has been an MP for 23 years and who voted against the Iraq War when Tony Blair was prime minister, is one of five contenders, and the only woman in the race. She has described herself as the alternative candidate. "I put myself forward for the job because I believed we needed to offer the party someone different, someone who wasn't part of the ruling elite of the last 13 years. We need a new beginning. I'm that new beginning," she told The Root.

She has a hard road ahead of her, however. Since 1997 the Labour Party has lost more than 5 million voters. Her decision to run was met with a certain amount of criticism. Some accused her of egotism, while others described her inclusion in the final ballot as tokenistic. Others still accuse her of hypocrisy: She's a Labour Party member who sent her son to private school.


Of Abbott's historic candidacy, Woolley says, "[She's a] woman who knows about struggles and taking the fight on; whether or not she wins, she is already a winner because she will have blazed the trail for many black men and women to follow in her footsteps." Her candidacy, Woolley adds, is akin to Jesse Jackson's historic 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. "[He] actually laid the foundation for Obama to arise years later," Woolley says.

Then there's King, who in 1997 became the second black woman to win a seat in Parliament. If she goes on to win the Labour nomination and unseat the current Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in 2012, she will be the most senior elected female black politician in the country.


Abbott and King are from opposite wings of the Labour party, with different political perspectives. King, for example, voted for the 2003 Iraq invasion. Abbott recently backed outspokenly left-wing Ken Livingstone as the Labour Party's London mayoral candidate. Jasper says the presence of two black female politicians with distinctly different political philosophies demonstrates "the sheer diversity of political opinions within black communities. We are not a homogeneous political group."

Belinda Otas is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow her on Twitter.