Thomas L. Blair
As Britain elected its first Conservative-led coalition government in living memory, African Caribbean British legislators were making history, too. They more than doubled their numbers - from four to nine - in the “Home of parliamentary democracy”.
Noticeably, their differing backgrounds, achievements and political membership – Conservative or Labour (there are no Liberal Democrat African Caribbean or Asian MPs) – are a mixed bag of roots and allegiances. First, let’s look at the Conservative Party winners. They owe a special debt to voting and equality campaigners.
Activists challenged Chairman David Cameron to counter the white, male, middle-class image of the Party. He trawled the candidates’ lists for “suitable Blacks” and placed them in safe seats or battlegrounds he hoped to win - and his strategy paid off. The Black Conservatives are in the company of wealthy bankers, property owners and professionals.
One of these is Helen Grant, 44, a star performer in sports and “a reflection of modern Britain”, she told the Guardian Weekend. The first Caribbean Conservative elected to Parliament gained 48 per cent of the votes cast in overwhelmingly white Maidstone and The Weald.
Born in poor circumstance in London and taunted as a child for “being black”, the family lawyer runs one of the largest counseling services in the region. Her street cred comes from rescuing victims of domestic violence and campaigning against racial and religious hate.
Like Grant, overcoming adversity is sweet for Ghanaian born Sam Gyimah, 34. Educated at Achimota School and Oxford, he won a massive 56.7 per cent of the votes in the largely “all-pale”, middle-class outskirts of London’s Surrey East. Raised by a single mum, he represents high-value £300,000 property owners – twice the national average – in a solid Conservative stronghold.
Impressively, Gyimah is one of an elite gang of fellow old Etonians that Cameron packed into Parliament. His CV includes the Confederation of British Industry’s “Entrepreneur of the Future” award, chair of the influential Conservative Bow Group, and editor of the policy document From the Ashes, an Anthology of Essays on the Future of the Conservative Party.
Similarly, top-class credentials and well-developed business acumen helped Kwasi Kwarteng, 34, born in London of Ghanaian parents, capture a winning 47 per cent of the votes in Spelthorne Borough in Surrey. Located in an affluent and thriving commercial hub in Greater London south of Heathrow Airport, he represents the interests of international companies and the famous Shepperton Film Studios. The seat's largest town is Staines.
Educated in the elite Tory strongholds, Kwarteng entered Eton at 13 years-old and went on to Trinity College Cambridge. He is a financial analyst and a former chair of the Bow Group. His writings include Ghosts of Empire about the global legacy of the British Empire and articles about improving local public services, schools and business opportunities.
However, the jewel in the Conservative crown is Adam Afriyie, 44. The multi-millionaire agricultural economist of Ghanaian-English parents was re-elected with 60.8 per cent of the votes cast in affluent Windsor, Berkshire. Notably, he represents Windsor Castle, the historic centre of the Empire and official residence of the Queen and the British Royal Family, and, of course, the tourists’ delight. Famed Eton College is also within his constituency.
The rise of this first Black Conservative MP is a rags-to-riches story straight out of the party’s public relations office. Afriyie started life in low-income multi-racial inner city Peckham, London. He left to make his fortune in informatics and news services, became Entrepreneur of the Year, and led the Policy Exchange, a centre-right policy body. Significantly, Afriyie’s story shows how some new Black Parliamentarians have gained higher social status as well as political influence in the new government.
Black Labour newbies, in contrast to the Black Conservatives in power, must learn to adjust to the slog of opposition. Soundings suggest loyalty to the defeated Labour Party remains firm, but there is disquiet in the ranks over failed social and economic policies.
Loyalty has paid off for Chuka Umunna, 32, of Nigerian and English-Irish extraction. Clever and ambitious, he is hailed by many as “Britain’s Barack Obama”. Hardly a horney-handed son of toil, the employment lawyer with upper middle class family connections won 42 percent of the votes cast in Streatham, south London. His interests include urban regeneration, inner city youth, fairness and wealth redistribution.
Labour’s Chinyelu Susan Onwurah, 45, of Nigerian parents is the first African woman entering Parliament. The engineer won a comfortable 46 per cent of votes cast in the northern city of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Raised in a Newcastle council estate she says: “I joined the party when I was sixteen, for the same reason as most people – to make a difference. I was always active in politics and campaigned against the Federation of Conservative Students at Imperial and for causes such as Anti Apartheid”
Onwurah’s pet projects include installing new technologies for emerging global markets. Her Nigeria project “rolled out one of the first national Global Systems for Mobile networks in Africa”, she says.
The returning Labour Party members of Parliament - two in inner city London areas of Black disadvantage - had an easy ride to victory even though the party was defeated.
Cambridge educated Diane Abbott of Jamaican heritage and the first Black woman in Parliament in 1987, retained her seat with a much-increased 55 per cent of the votes in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, inner London. A bit of history is important here. Abbott, (born 27 September 1953), won her spurs as one of the first four Members of Parliament from ethnic minorities in 1987, the others being Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz, members and beneficiaries of the Labour Party Black Sections movement.
Abbott, a diehard left-winger who is currently running for the leadership of the Labour Party, is a lightning rod for dissent. Her constant concerns are Black educational opportunity, social justice and human rights and racism in British immigration policies. Even her most implacable political enemies acknowledge Abbott as "a worthy opponent”.
David Lammy, (born July 19 1972) was re-elected in multi-racial Tottenham, north London with 59 per cent of the votes. (He was preceded by Bernie Grant MP). The Harvard Law School-educated politician (the first Black Briton to do so) supports school achievement programmes, Black cultural heritage centres and equality rights. Once called the Baby of the House (the youngest MP), Lammy’s impressive political CV includes government appointments in constitutional affairs, culture, sport, business, universities and innovation ministries.
To the north of Britain, Mark Hendrick, (born November 2 1958), an engineer of Somali-British heritage, won 48 percent of the votes cast in Preston, Lancashire. Re-elected for the fourth time, the “local lad” Hendrick represents a depressed city whose minority Black and Asian workers and families are concentrated in bleak streets and run-down neighbourhoods.
Election Day 10 May 2010 launched this extraordinary bunch of Black parliamentarians into the corridors of power, and Black history. Some are already tough-minded champions for Black and working class communities and race equality, some will become so. Others will sink in the ravenous maw of multi-cultural expectations, without trace.
There are 18 Asian MPs - a two-fold increase.
Thomas L Blair is a sociologist writing on creative renewal in Black Britain and Afro-Europe, see Chronicleworld web site http://www.chronicleworld.org.
Read more in 'Black British culture is in crisis' says leading scholar” in The-Latest.com; and his Chronicleweblog “Post-racial Britain and the End of Black Politics" at http://chronicleworld.wordpress.com.