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Race, New Labour and Politics

 

By Alan Johnson, MP

 

I want to share a quick anecdote with you. It goes back to the time of Enoch Powell when he was saying give "them" £2000 to go back home - meaning people from the minority ethnic communities. At the same time Lenny Henry had just won the New Faces talent show on television. Lenny was at the London Palladium collecting his award and he said: 

 

" Enoch Powell wants to give me £2000 to go back home - it's only £2.50 to Dudley! " 

 

When we won the Olympic Bid to host the 2012 Games, we presented a modern Britain: a country at ease with itself and with different races, religions and cultures. This was not the Imperialist stuffy old Britain of Enoch Powell but a nation proud of its history and its future.

 

History

It is our job to help ensure that people understand that Britain has never been mono-ethnic, we are a nation of immigrants. Black people didn't come here with the 'Windrush' in fact there were black soldiers garrisoned at Hadrian's Wall some 2,000 years ago. As well as Romans, our national identity includes Normans, Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Poles and many more.  We need to do more to educate people about the contribution of black and Asian people in the Britain over many decades.

 

We need to make more people aware of the enormous contribution made by black and ethnic minority people during World War 2. The African Caribbean community played a crucial role in the RAF and soldiers from the Indian sub-continent made the largest volunteer army in history - 50% greater than the sum of the Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, Egyptian and South African armies that fought with the allies during World War 2.

 

The economic contribution of immigrants to the Britain has also historically been significant.  In the main people who are motivated to leave their country and establish themselves in another - with all the hardship that brings, usually end up succeeding in their quest.

 

For Britain that has been no different.  We are a nation built from and by immigrants. From the Romans and William the Conqueror, right through to the plethora of nationalities that run the economic machine that is London today.

 

These are the kind of facts that the far right find inconvenient - they may even question their authenticity - but these are of course the very people who deny that the holocaust took place.

 

Sadly, today there are people out there who want the people in here to feel like foreigners in their own country; so we must send an unrelenting message that Britain is a multi-faith and multi-racial society and what's more, this Labour government is proud of that fact.

 

Labour's achievements

There is much strength in our diversity but there is also strength in our commonality. We are gathered here today, a diverse group of people united by our common values, of fairness, compassion, equality and inclusion - Labour values - that bind us together.

 

We must never forget the country we inherited in 1997.  No paragraph sums this up better perhaps than an extract from Tony Blair's speech to the Labour conference in October 1997:

 

"We cannot be a beacon to the world unless the talents of all the people shine through. Not one black High Court judge, not one black Chief Constable or Permanent Secretary; not one black army officer above the rank of colonel. Not one Asian either. Not a record of pride for the British establishment. Not a record of pride for Parliament, that there are so few black and Asian MPs."

 

That speech laid down our equality challenge for Britain.

 

Today, with a Labour government we have black and minority ethnic Chief Constables, Permanent Secretaries and even High Court Judges. They are there not because they happen to be black or Asian, but because they are talented individuals who have been able to realise their potential under a Labour government committed to dismantling structural inequality in our society.

 

We must never allow people to forget the wretched record of the Tory government on issues of fairness and equality. In those 18 years they couldn't find a single black or Asian person to put in the House of Commons, they couldn't find a single Sikh or Muslim to put into the House of Lords.  Over the last ten years we've changed the face of Britain:

 

The first black and minority ethnic Labour MPs;

 

The first black and minority ethnic Labour Minister

 

The first black and minority ethnic Labour cabinet ministers in Paul Boateng and Valerie Amos - And of course Valerie Amos went on to become the first black leader of the House of Lords - who could have even dared to dream that before May 1997?

 

We instigated the Stephen Lawrence inquiry which was rejected by the Tories when Michael Howard was Home secretary;

 

We introduced the Race Relations amendment Act 2000 - probably the most powerful race legislation anywhere in the world;

 

A Crime and Disorder Act which introduced new offences of racially aggravated assault and harassment;

 

The Tory's 'primary purpose rule' - seen as the doyen of all racist immigration policies - was scrapped.

 

We outlawed religious discrimination in the workplace.

 

We introduced the first state funded black and minority ethnic faith schools;

 

And thanks to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Britain leads the world on debt cancellation, international aid and the eradication of disease and poverty. We are an internationalist party which recognises that we live in an inter-dependent world and have a responsibility beyond these shores;

 

The future - representation

 

But all is not perfect - a lot done and yes I'm afraid still much more to do.

 

It is simply unacceptable that in today's Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly there is not a single person from the black and minority ethnic communities. 

In the GLA out of 25 members only 2 are visible minorities compared to one third of London's population being black and minority ethnic - both incidentally are Labour.

 

And in our Westminster Parliament there is not a single woman of Asian origin. Ultimately, we have to take responsibility for correcting this situation.

 

We only have 12 MPs from a visible minority, but other parties are much worse.  The Tories only have 2 black or ethnic minority MPs while shockingly the Lim Dems - who talk much of justice - have none.  But if we are the party of fairness and equality, which I believe we are, then comparing ourselves with other profoundly inadequate political parties is not the way forward. Our aspirations for our country must be much higher and our principles for governing much clearer.  

 

If 10% of Britain is black and minority ethnic then we ought to expect a similar percentage in our democratic structures.

 

That is why I am not dismissive of the concept of targets - not quotas - but targets to help ensure that we create a party that better reflects society.  I use my words carefully here because it is not for elected individuals to represent constituents on the basis of their race.    

 

Black MP's don't represent black people but everyone in their constituency irrespective of race, as indeed do all white MPs. But their presence will allow people from all races to feel that they have a real stake in our democracy.

 

That we live in a country where each individual can fulfil their potential despite the colour of their skin or the circumstances of the family into which they were born.

 

One of my priorities for our party is to embrace further the equality agenda: for women; for black and minority ethnic members; for the disabled; and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community - we have achieved much more than any other party in government but we can never rest on our laurels - each day presents a challenge and we must continuously endeavour to rise to that challenge.

 

That is way I have established a commission, led by Shahid Malik to look at all these vital issues and report on how we can overhaul our Party structures to ensure we have fairer representation at all levels within the Party.  I am not saying I can provide all the solutions but my intention is to put to our members fresh thinking about black and minority representation at the highest levels of the Party.

 

Education

But it's not just about representation, although that is an important key to unlocking further progress.  As education secretary I'm focused on improving the life chances of all our children no matter what their background.  A good education system is at the heart of our society - it engages, enables, and engenders fairness and tolerance.  It is the engine of social mobility.  If we get education right then most of our social tensions and problems will fade away.

 

That's why it's so scandalous that in 1997 the percentage of Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani pupils achieving the expected grade at age 11 was half that of white pupils.

 

Since then we have worked hard to turn this situation around.  Last year, black pupils demonstrated nationally the greatest progress in GCSE results of any ethnic group, improving at more than twice the rate of white pupils. And this wasn't a one-off. Across Inner London as a whole, the number of black pupils achieving five good GCSEs has risen by more than 50 per cent in the last eight years, including a decisive improvement in results within the black community.

 

Beyond the cold statistics are individual children given a decent education so that they have the chance to make the most of their potential.  Students like Alex Mbaya, who studied at Hackney Community College. Alex came to London alone from the Congo only two years ago, without even speaking English. But he has just gained high grades at A-level and is going on to study biochemistry at university.

 

Alex is part of our wider success in ensuring that Black and minority ethnic groups are over-represented in higher education relative to their proportion of the working age population. Last year, 18 per cent of higher education students came from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, as against 11 per cent of the general working population.

 

This is encouraging, but we need to do more.  That's why I want to see more teachers, head teachers and FE principles from black and minority ethnic communities. Nothing will do more to provide the role models, the leadership, and the aspiration needed for the future.

 

Conclusion

In the middle of the 3rd term of a Labour government of course there's going to be some blues.

 

I know that Iraq is a big issue for many people and there will be other differences as well for example on Trident - but we must never lose sight of the obvious - namely that it is only a Labour government that is committed in word and in deed as we have proven over the last ten years to deliver social justice for our people.

 

Equalities legislation is part of our Labour heritage.  From the pioneering 1976 Race Relations Act to the 2000 legislation which implemented the Macpherson inquiry recommendations we have a record second to none.

 

We live in a tolerant society but we must never tolerate the under-representation of people from black and minority ethnic communities in politics and public life or their over-representation in our deprivation indices. 

 

As a party in government Labour has been responsible for ensuring that there are people from visible minorities in the highest echelons of our society - our challenge now is to ensure that these people become the rule and not the exception.

 

This is text of a speech delivered by Alan Johnson to the British Labour Party's Ethnic Minorities Forum.

 

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