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.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.