Those ignorant of history are bound to repeat its’ mistakes, the saying goes. And it is rarely so true as now because Boris Johnson’s victory in London was due, in no small part, to the absence of a grassroots alliance comprised of all those who were desperate to see progressive politics return to City Hall.
Such a movement may not have been quite enough to get civil rights leader Rev Jesse Jackson to the White House, but his Rainbow/PUSH alliance set the blueprint for a strategy that draws strength from the idealism of those sick of the elites but who haven’t given up hope. It was a strategy used to greater effect by Barack Obama in 2008. From new media-saavy youth to the voluntary sector, to anti-racist campaigns and equality networks of all strands; the uniting of the ’99%’ against the forces of conservatism can be powerful and potent if harnessed.
BAME Londoners alone – about third of the capital – could have won it for Ken Livingstone, Brian Paddick, or even an independent candidate, if their votes had all gone to a candidate who was serious about challenging the barriers that hold people of colour back.
It almost goes without saying that there is no such thing as a homogeneous black community and no party has a monopoly on it, as Labour have occasionally found out to their cost. I have always valued the fact that black and Asian people are members and activists in all parties, and ‘black London’ is as diverse in its’ political predilections as it is diverse in culture, language and religion. Winston McKenzie, standing for UKIP, got a respectable vote in the Croydon and Sutton assembly seat and there were several BAME Greens and independents.
This is great. Yet outside party politics anti-racist campaigns and equality alliances have always been constructed around unity based upon what we share in common as opposed to what divides us, in order to achieve a greater good. Diversity does not have to mean forever sub-dividing and assimilating. We share common experiences today, just as the immigrant pioneers of the 1950s, 60s and 70s shared challenges settling on this island. The original anti-racist alliances were not just between Caribbean and South Asian communities, but involved Socialists, internationalists, trade unionists, Liberals, and a host of others concerned for various strands of equality. Progressive alliances today, such as the ‘Occupy’ movement, have not engaged the black community seriously.
There are moments in time when what unites us and what is in our common interest requires a less individualistic, more community-centred, approach. Times when the fact that we don’t all think alike does not mean we cannot strategise about which candidate will tackle the issues faced by the community regardless of the colour of their rosette.
We are living at a time of a deeply entrenched recession which has ripped hope from black youth amid hugely disproportionate rates of unemployment. A time when black youth are 25 times more likely to be stopped and searched under ‘Section 60′, the modern-day Sus Law. A time of rising crime and gang violence and a sharply-rising black prison population. And a time of ever-increasing deaths in police, prison and mental health custody.
As the austerity-driven cuts continue to hurt in the next few years, and the voluntary sector – so important to the fabric of our society – is slashed and burnt, the question of who we ‘like’ should be of secondary importance to who we need.
Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr did not particularly like President Lyndon Johnson, yet they worked together to achieve civil rights overturning the Jim Crow segregation laws and allowing African-Americans to register to vote. Dr King worked with many white progressives too.
Rev Jackson muttered he wanted to “cut [Obama's] nuts off” for seeming to talk down to black people, but months later he shed tears of joy at the Presidential inauguration after successfully rallying African-Americans behind Obama. Progress was more important than differences.
Over the decades Ken has proven a staunch anti-racist with a proud track record of working for equality in office. His record deserves to be defended whether or not we ‘like’ his personality. Yes, he is a flawed Marmite candidate who has said and done various things I personally disagree with, but he also pumped money into groups rehabilitating offenders and championed positive action in the awarding of public contracts so that black-owned businesses stood a chance.
Boris, by contrast, snatched these away and handed a £1.3m contract for mentoring black boys to a mainstream consortium even though it was beaten by two black-led ones in the bidding process. Under Boris youth crime has gone up alongside disproportionate stop and searches. He scrapped the RISE anti-racist festival and slashed Black History Month funding, hijacked and ruined Diane Abbott’s black education conference.
It is shameful that some of us ignored his record in office and instead voted for his entertainment value. While media coverage of the mayoral contest has always focussed on personality that should not hoodwink us into disregarding the issues specifically most pertinent to the community.
As a Liberal Democrat I voted for Brian Paddick as first preference and Ken second knowing that Paddick’s second preferences would ultimately count. My primary concern was wanting a progressive to beat Boris. Had there been a collective push from black community leaders to back a progressive candidate I would have responded. If such a movement involved others concerned with equality it would be even more effective.
It is regretful that there was no meaningful push to unite African and Caribbean Londoners behind a single candidate. Even the anti-racist movement remained largely impartial. Stateside, Rev Al Sharpton and other independent-minded black leaders are clear that come election-time they will do all in their power to rally supporters behind the Democrats to ensure that forces who would do more harm to the community are kept out.
In Britain, despite the rhetoric about the collective power of black Britain there is much less confidence than in America that this can actually be delivered. Calculations about the potential impact that BAME voters can make on the outcome of elections remain theoretical; recited more in hope of focussing mainstream politicians minds to court our vote and include policies aimed at combating institutional racism.
The record of elected governments of all political hues is that such hopes have been largely in vain, aside from Labour’s brief fad for race equality between 1999 (conclusion of the Macpherson inquiry) and around 2005 (when the ‘Lawrence agenda’ was ditched). Grassroots activists and leaders have yet to demonstrate that the power of the black vote can be harnessed. Pulling a large crowd to a hustings is admirable and impressive, but often the thirst of that crowd to use their collective power remains unfulfilled.
Considering Boris’s record – writing about “piccaninnies” and Africans with “watermelon smiles” – it is a wonder how politically-black activists have remained impartial in this election. While the Evening Standard failed to give column inches to Boris’s attitudes to race that should be no excuse.
Undoubtedly most black Londoners will have heard about such stories over the past four years, yet inexplicably this was not a major factor in this election or the last. As the social entrepreneur Paul Lawrence remarked on Facebook this week, it was if the black community had swallowed a large “ignore the racism” pill when voting for Boris.
A collective push for Livingstone or Paddick, whoever was deemed best placed and most committed to the issues, would have ensured no-one suffered from such amnesia when they cast their vote. Today, rather than mourn the outcome of the election, or worse just shrug it off, we need to get organised, get on the bus and build a movement that won’t be impartial and won’t shy away from pushing a progressive anti-racist agenda forward so that no future candidate can ignore it. Let us take a leaf from the great organisers of yesteryear and, in tandem with the black media, prepare ourselves for 2016.
Next time around there could be black mayoral candidates; Oona King and David Lammy are possible contenders for Labour and we cannot rule out James Cleverly for the Tories. I maintain the hope that the Lib Dems find and pick our own London Obama from somewhere!
There will be those who resolutely argue that as the community is not homogeneous there is no such concept as a ‘black vote’ and that everyone should vote freely. I agree, yet there is a strong argument for a movement that seeks to maximise the impact of BAME Londoners to improve the life-chances of all. From Dr King to Rev Jackson to Obama, examples of grassroots alliances making an impact on elected politics abound. So shall we continue to leave the decision over who rules London to chance or will we accept that we are stronger together?
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