FLYING THE FLAG: Labour MPs (back row) Chuka Umuna, David Lammy, Keith Vaz (front row) Virendra Sharma, Diane Abbott, Valerie Vaz, Shabana Mahmood and Rushanara Ali
WHO ELSE was surprised to hear a Conservative Home Secretary take on the issue of stop and search? Well, earlier this month – sweeping past dropped jaws – Theresa May did just that.
Standing in the House of Commons, she launched a well-overdue consultation on the contentious police practice using words which included “no one should be stopped on the basis of skin colour” after a review she commissioned revealed black people are seven times more likely to be approached by police officers.
The rare acknowledgement of racial discrimination shows how far the Tories have come from the ‘sus’ laws that were rife in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, which fuelled riots in Brixton, Toxteth and Handsworth.
It’s also a complete U-turn on Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2008 pledge that his party would make it easier for officers to stop and search the public without having to give a reason – ‘red tape’, was the buzzword.
Speaking to the BBC at the time, he said: “We need to make sure the police behave properly but I think there is a big change in policing since the 1980s and they understand concerns about racism, concerns about targeting particular groups.”
The party has certainly changed its tune.
With the General Election less than two years away, the results of the 2011 Census, the threat of UKIP and fears of being forced into another coalition may all have something to do with that.
A study of ethnic minority voting patterns, compiled by the Runnymede Trust using data from the 2010 General Election, revealed the Tories and the Liberal Democrats each received 18 per cent of the black vote, suggesting approximately 64 per cent voted Labour.
If black voters pulled their support, the party would not be able to win. If they gave those votes to the Conservatives instead of the Lib Dems or independent candidates, for example, the Tories would have a better chance of winning with a clear majority.
As May launched her public consultation on stop and search, she wrote an exclusive piece for The Voice, knowing the audience she needed to speak to would be listening.
The Tories have woken up to the possibilities of winning the black vote and are actively in open discussion with black communities. They have a natural advantage, too: studies show their conservative values are more ideologically aligned with that of African Caribbeans.
As they up the ante, many black voters might soon start wondering: what has Labour done for us lately?
Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote (OBV) said: “I’m afraid the Labour Party must do better. There’s an election to be won and there’s no doubt the black vote will make a big intervention in Britain’s political history. We are soon releasing research that will support that.
TURNING POINT: (from left) Tory MPs Sam Gyimah, Paul Uppal, Shailesh Vara, Helen Grant, Adam Afriyie and Rehman Chishti
“What’s very clear is that the Conservatives acutely understand they cannot win elections without the black vote. It’s no surprise that Theresa May has almost offered a public inquiry over the Stephen Lawrence smear allegations and stop and search is under review – these are clear policy areas that appeal to black communities. In response, we don’t see the Labour Party being proactive and if they don’t, they will lose. It’s as simple as that. They need to catch back up.”
When challenged, the party is quick to fall back on its record of introducing most of the race relations legislation that has improved the lives of black communities.
But discontent is growing among black and minority ethnic (BME) grassroots activists who feel there is no place for them in the party beyond being a foot soldier, whether at central or local government level. The Labour Party’s national executive has no members of African and Caribbean heritage, Labour currently has only five black and mixed race MPs, compared to the Tories four.
The number of BME councillors – of any party – has been stuck at 4 per cent since the late 1990s.
FORGET ABOUT THEM
Last week, The Voice reported how Southwark councillor Althea Smith claimed she was deselected ‘for speaking her mind’. She added: “The Labour party knows they always get the black vote so they do not do anything for us.”
One of her supporters, Labour financier Prem Goyal cancelled his membership after a failed bid to be selected as the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) for Bermondsey and Old Southwark who said the power BME people did not tally with the number of votes. He added: “They will get my vote when that power is proportional.”
Goyal claims Labour’s approach is to use BME members to attract minorities to the party but “after getting their vote, they forget about them.”
Woolley explained: “Representation is a key issue. Unless Labour can demonstrate it is as proactive as they were in the 70s and 80s, they will continue to lose support. Black voters are a lot more mature now.
HISTORY: Labour elects four black MPs to Parliament
“I have seen Boris Johnson speak to thousands of people in the black church – as a party, they are bending over backwards to appeal. On Labour’s side, other than the black MPs themselves, we don’t see or hear a lot of action and I think that dismays a lot of people. The months ahead will be a critical political battleground. We will be formulating a black manifesto which focuses on race inequality. None of the parties are effectively addressing that. This is where the election will be won or lost.”
Labour sources told The Voice they were concerned party was too focused on winning over new votes, and believed that core supporters, particularly black voters, would stick around on the premise that the Tories are no alternative.
But that might not be the case.
Samuel Kasumu, 25, a young, black Tory who joined the party six years ago, has since set up Elevation Networks, a social enterprise that works to get young graduates into work. He told The Voice: “I joined the Conservatives because I felt that those in control of the Labour branches were too old school, too entrenched in their ways and were not open to new thinking.
“I felt that the Conservatives were the party of opportunity and that appealed to me. For example, the work they have done in entrepreneurship. That’s something that really appeals to black people.”
One Labour activist said: “When I joined the party, I thought they were a good opposition to the Tories, but now my opinion has changed. They can’t represent working class people, many of whom are black. The party is so far removed, I don’t think they have the comprehension it requires to understand they are taking votes for granted.”
Croydon resident Bieneosa Ebite, director of Bright Star PR, says she has been dismayed by attitudes from both parties in her south London area where she hosts a show on a community radio station.
She said: “This is a safe Labour area. The message I am getting from the Conservatives is that the black vote [in north Croydon] is not going to help them win Croydon Council so they don’t bother to open dialogue with us. Ultimately, they’re saying our vote is worthless and that’s the wrong message to send. It also tells Labour that our vote is theirs alone and that can lead to the party having a feeling of complacency.”
In November 2012, former Lambeth council leader, Steve Reed, won a by-election to represent Croydon North, home to one of the largest BME communities in London. Despite Reed’s experience, his selection was seen as a slap in the face among those who believed the shortlist should have been more diverse.
Ebite added: “The turnout [26.5 per cent] was so low, it was shameful. Black voters have to get out and vote otherwise we simply allow people to take us for granted. We need to empower ourselves – that’s the underlying issue.”
*additional reporting by Juliana Lucas