Our streets are aflame. Now black Britain will be allowed its say

The politics of race has, at best, retreated to a narrow debate around the issue of Islamophobia.

Like most of those leaping on the flaming bandwagon of Tottenham, I have no idea what lay behind the weekend's disturbances. It may well be, as some have suggested, that the chaos represented a realisation that the idyllic existence enjoyed by black inner-city youth during our years of plenty is now drawing to a close. Perhaps the Metropolitan Police is now so cash strapped it is no longer able to deploy significant manpower to low priority targets such as the prevention of a full blown riot. Or maybe we've simply been made aware of the full length to which London's drug gangs are prepared to go to defend their lucrative trade.

But now these issues will be debated. Crime, the cuts, drugs, social policy, policing policy. Oh, we'll debate them. There's nothing like a burnt out high street or two to get us debating.

And something will happen during the course of this debate. Something different.

We will invite black people to contribute to it. To be precise, we will invite members of the Afro-Caribbean community to participate in our political discourse.

There will be youth workers. Community leaders. Street kids. A local politician or two. They will all be allowed to articulate their case. Tell us about what it's like to be black, as opposed to white or Asian, in Britain. Because we are happy to let black people speak about politics, just so long as they have flames or body bags as their backdrop.

The riots of the 1980s produced some positives. The police finally dropped the 'one or two rotten apples' mantra, and embarked on a far reaching, and genuine, process of modernisation and reform. Casual social tolerance of racism became the exception, rather than the norm. Politicians of all persuasions began to focus seriously on inner-city, not jut regional, regeneration.

But those advances came at a price. And one of them was the de-politicisation and marginalisation of Afro-Caribbean politics, and with it the effective political disenfranchisement of an entire section of society. At the start of the 1980s, the black community had tribunes. Black politicians like Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng were elected to parliament speaking openly, honestly and provocatively about the issues affecting their communities.

Where are those voices and advocates today? Before this weekend when did you last see David Lammy on your television screen? Probably not since the brief period when Tony Blair put his arm round him, told him he was a future leader of the party, then dumped him.

A quarter of a century after our first black politicians were elected, how many currently sit around the cabinet or shadow cabinet tables? How many senior black parliamentarians chair our select committees? How many senior black advisors are part of either David Cameron or Ed Miliband's inner circle?

This is not an issue about the exclusion of minorities. There are influential Asian politicians across the political spectrum. And they form the spearhead of similarly influential lobbying groups. Our Jewish community, our Indian community, our Muslim community; all have effective advocates who sit at the heart of the political process. The Afro-Caribbean community, almost uniquely, has no such representation.

Of course there is Chuka Umunna, the great black hope of British politics. But he is totemic, his profile a symbol of what we have lost, rather than what we have achieved. And even Chuka is careful to represent himself as a politician who happens to be black, rather than a black politician.

No one is expecting Chuka Umunna to stand at the Despatch Box at the next session of Treasury questions and give a black power salute. But there is no point pretending that black politics and politicians have successfully broken into the political mainstream. Nor that the handful who have made it have brought their community and its agenda with them.

The politics of race has, at best, retreated to a narrow debate around the issue of Islamophobia. At worst, it has been pushed into a cul-de-sac of British Jobs for British Workers and cups of tea with Mrs Duffy.

And as our streets burn, what plans are afoot to address this political gagging of black Briton? None. Our selection processes are geared exclusively to tackling the under-representation of women. Our policy agenda to addressing the plight of the squeezed middle, not those at the economic margins. Our entire political narrative built around an appeal to the White Working Class.

And so there is silence. About the appalling levels of educational attainment by black male youth. About the scourge of gang culture that blights black communities. Or if there is not silence, the voices that are raised are not strong enough to force these issues to the top of the political agenda.

But we've had our riot. So now we can have our debate. And once again, for as long as the flames continue to flicker, black Britain will be allowed to have its say.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.