We blacks should copy those rural marchers
Sir Herman Ouseley leaves the Commission for Racial Equality shortly - probably at the end of January. He is less than pleased. Jack Straw, he says, does not view the modernisation of the 1976 Race Relations Act as a matter of urgency. Ouseley insists that, in spite of all that was said and done in the Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawrence affair - and, let me add, in spite of the gaggle of ambitious advisers from the black community at the side of the Home Secretary - nothing is promised for the Queen's Speech to come. Ouseley wants to get to grips with discrimination in employment and wants the power of parliament to tackle the big companies. He wants to bring the police within a new Race Relations Act.
But Ouseley and the rest of those who sit at Straw's elbow have no power. They are unable to excite the black community to back their demands.
The passion generated by the Stephen Lawrence matter is spent, channelled into an inquiry that produced more than 70 recommendations. I have met no one outside the legal team who has read the document thoroughly. Ask the race relations industry to tell you what is recommendation number five and you receive a blank stare. There is no focus to the recommendations.
I was part of the campaign for the implementation of the first Race Relations Act. The black community and an army of liberal whites built an organisation, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (Card).
The membership ran into thousands: workers, students, professionals, the lot. We were linked with the rising tide of black revolt in America. We elected a leadership, held our annual conferences, demonstrated, picketed and propagandised - Asian, West Indians, everybody joined. We had no members of parliament then; but we had what can be described as grass-roots power. In those days, racism thrived with greater intensity. (There may be some who would contest this observation because of the recent vicious attacks against blacks and Asians. But violence has increased in society in general - black against black, white against white, man against woman.)
In the end, we were outmanoeuvred by the Wilson government, which passed a law without much teeth. A wily Harold poached our leadership and attached them to the Home Office as advisers. We were dead in the water. The police were exempt and so was big business. Essentially, Labour Party supporters were the chief offenders on the question of race. Wilson could not afford to alienate them.
While Labour met in Bournemouth, a young man lay critically ill after racists plunged a blade into his chest. Yet nothing is proposed. These are moments when legislation goes way beyond detail. It sets a mood, gives a lead. What better moment than now? Instead we are offered draconian legislation on petty crime.
May I say this. The Labour Party will not, under any circumstances, interfere with big business on the say-so of a gaggle of powerless advisers. Some in the Police Federation are mischievously fomenting a serious backlash among police officers. In the Home Office, there is a conservative strand which says that the Macpherson report has gone too far. Jack Straw is deeply conservative himself. I will be very surprised if he opposed the right on a police issue.
Ouseley's decision to go public shows that the comradely sessions with the Home Secretary will yield nothing. Strangely, the other advisers are as silent as the night. I am not being personal here, because I have no idea who they are. Ouseley is on his own, a voice in the wilderness.
How interesting it would be if there were a mass resignation of advisers as a first step in a national campaign. It would be bound to have an impact. The support for radical legislation is greater now than it was in the days of Card. It is time we took a lead from the mass movement in rural areas. We have nothing to lose but our chains, and after centuries they are old and rusty. It would not take much to break them.