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What is the future of black representation in Britain?

LOVE AND POLITICS: The cast of Upper Cut (pic: Bob Workman)

THE LABOUR party has a thorny relationship with black representation.

And it is this tricky subject that is deftly and humorously tackled in Upper Cut, a play written by Sky journalist Juliet Gilkes Romero.

It focuses on the love triangle between Karen, an ambitious black woman selected for a safe Labour seat before a spectacular fall from grace, her former lover Michael, a one-time black activist now fully absorbed into the New Labour establishment as deputy leader of the Labour Party and, Barry, a special adviser who wields huge influence.

Though it goes back in time to tell the story of the characters and their relationships, it also charts the rise of New Labour between 1986 and 2012.

Crucially, Romero’s latest script has plenty to say about the state of black politics in Britain today.

It draws on the real life experiences of many activists who created established black sections, which then became the Black Socialist Society and now Black Asian Minority Labour Network (BAME Labour), of which I am a current committee member.

The play is loosely based on some of the experiences of the famous four – Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz who were elected in 1987 – and also Sharon Atkin, famously deselected by Neil Kinnock for calling the Labour Party racist at a public meeting in Birmingham.

As a former Labour councillor, the play resonated on a personal level as it will with many others over the years who have lobbied, campaigned and made the case for more black councillors and MPs.

Many of us have made huge personal sacrifices as part of this process, which not many in the community understand or appreciate.

The road to elected office, particularly as a black politician, can be a lonely journey, often soul-destroying, unless you have good strong social networks and personal resilience.

Although the play’s primary concern focused on the dynamics of power struggles within the Labour Party, Upper Cut is also a statement of the black experience in the 1980s and life under Thatcher.

Ironically, under David Cameron, the Tories are trying to learn the lessons of the past, and are on track to have more black MPs than all the political parties together come 2015.

Even UKIP has taken notes, and are fielding more black candidates of their own.

Yet the Labour Party, for all its good work on race relations, appears to be going backwards, and the call for an all-black shortlist is still an uncomfortable debate.

Upper Cut is a timely reminder of the need for more black MPs in safe seats – a demand from BAME Labour and the recently-formed Labour Black Network.

The play also charts of the UK’s civil rights movement of which the 1980s was a crucial period .

Sadly, too many young people in the UK more easily relate to Barak Obama and the history of the American civil rights movement – perhaps a side effect of Hollywood, hip hop and a narrow history curriculum.

What is missing from school lessons is the fight against the UK’s ‘colour bar’ as well as the history of the Windrush, which is too often a footnote with little national recognition of an event which shaped modern Britain.

For the mini baby boomers, our achievements during the 80s and 90s are also erased from public memory, particularly in all those nostalgic television programmes and books that are rewriting British history under Thatcherism and New Labour.

This is another area where Upper Cut makes an important contribution.

I hope this will inspire our politicians and community activists to write their biographies and record their experiences for the next generation to learn from.

In my view, the play lays down a fundamental challenge, which is how do we establish a new generation of black politicians who can effectively navigate both mainstream and grassroots politics?

This is one of the key differences between African Americans and ourselves. Our US counterparts are aware of the legacy of the civil rights movement yet still have their eye on the prize.

In Britain we are still finding our voice, leadership style and a united front.

Upper Cut is a great platform to generate a debate on current issues around black representation, voting, manifestos of political parties and political education.

I hope it gets more shows in London, the Midlands, the South West and the North East.

Major cities with significant African and African Caribbean demographics, such as Sheffield, Nottingham, Wolverhampton have virtually have no or very levels of black councillors and MPs.

The battle for representation continues.

Upper Cut is at Southwark Playhouse until February 7.

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