COMMON CAUSE: Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott during Labour party conference in Brighton, in 1987
IT WAS a great day in Britain when the black and Asian MPs gathered on the steps of Westminster Hall last Wednesday for a historic, once in a lifetime, photo to mark the 25th anniversary of the election of Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz.
I brought them together. I came up with the idea to take this unique photograph for the sake of our children, our history, but also for the sake of unity amongst those politicians gathered. To remind them that they stand on the shoulders of giants who had a common cause – defeating racism – and to turn this country of ours into a fitting home for our children, and our children’s children.
I was delighted when Shadow Health Minister Diane Abbott accepted my invitation to be in the photograph. As the only woman in that ‘gang of four’ who were elected to Parliament in June 1987, it was crucial that she was present. I couldn’t have done it without her.
Afterwards we spoke for some time on the terrace of the Palace of Westminster, overlooking the Thames, and she cast her mind back to that historic election which changed the face of Britain forever, and her role in it.
“On the day itself it looked like I was going to lose,” she told me. “It wasn’t until early evening when it seemed like every black voter in Hackney came straight from work to the polling stations that things started looking positive for me.”
She remembers also that on entering Parliament, her distinctive plaits made her easily recognisable as the member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington to security and staff at the Commons, unlike her three male counterparts who were constantly being confused with each other – even though they looked nothing alike.
Diane Abbott agrees that the election of herself, Paul Boateng, the late Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz in 1987 was Britain’s ‘Obama moment’ – 20 years before Obama. But back then the press was full of hostility towards the four MPs. Some elements of the press have never forgiven them for that audacious intervention into British politics, and continue to snipe at them with broadsides that have less to do with politics and more to do with revenge.
Crucially, the black press has always been extremely respectful of the four and their place in history.
Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary and the man often dubbed ‘Britain’s Obama’, accepts that he stands on the shoulders of those four pioneers, whose struggle was arguably harder than Obama’s. Whereas Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm before him had prepared America for the coming of a black president, Britain in 1987 wasn’t at all ready for one Obama, let alone four!
“I am still deeply humbled to be invited to appear in the same photograph as the likes of Diane Abbott and Keith Vaz,” says Umunna. “These guys, along with Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant, made it possible for me to be where I am today.”
The Streatham MP was only nine years old in 1987. But he was already politically aware, and he remembers his mum waking him up the day after the election and telling him that there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that Neil Kinnock was not prime minister. The good news was that there were now four black MPs in Parliament.
Perhaps the most iconic moment from that 1987 event was the election of the civil rights barrister Paul Boateng in Brent South. I reminded him, as he joined us on the parliamentary terrace for afternoon tea, that his victory speech included the immortal words, “Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto...”
Lord Boateng, as he is now, has got enough sense of humour to enjoy the exuberance of his youth. However those words were prophetic. South Africa’s apartheid system collapsed within a year or two of that statement, and Nelson Mandela was released two-and-a-half years later.
The member for Brent South later became the first black British ambassador to South Africa. So it really was ‘today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto’ for him.
Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng was 12 years old in 1987. He recalls Paul Boateng’s declaration and remembers thinking that “Britain was a long way from South Africa.” Kwarteng, MP for Spelthorne in Surrey, is part of the new breed of MPs who have swelled the black and Asian numbers in both houses of Parliament to 70. That is an astonishing number.
There are nearly 20 times as many black parliamentarians now as there were then. That is the magnitude of what Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz achieved 25 years ago.
I have done my small part in bringing them all together. It is now down to the 70 to realise that together they are stronger. If they don’t all see eye to eye or don’t want to be regarded as black and Asian MPs, at least they can kotch together every now and then and take afternoon tea together on the terrace, as we did. There’s no harm in it. In fact, it is quite convivial.
But it also sends out a powerful message. Much more powerful than any of them individually could send out.