Speaker's corner: Howe (left) rallies anti-fascists, in Lewisham, 1977. Photo: Syd Shelton
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Diane Abbott on Darcus Howe: “A living embodiment of the struggle against police racism”

The MP recalls being in the Old Bailey for the “Mangrove Nine” trial in 1970, in which the great black activist and intellectual walked free. 

Darcus Howe: a Political Biography
Robin Bunce and Paul Field
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £54.99

This biography of Darcus Howe is undoubtedly a labour of love. Robin Bunce and Paul Field have made a creditable attempt to chart postwar black activism through one man’s life. And there can be no other person more appropriate to build the story around – because Darcus Howe is one of the standout activists and public intellectuals of his generation.

I first saw Howe in person in the Seventies. He was in the dock defending himself in the Mangrove Nine case at the Old Bailey, one of the most notorious postwar political trials. Nine black activists had been charged with incitement to riot for organising a demonstration in defence of a café in Notting Hill, the Mangrove, that had been raided 12 times in 18 months and subjected to a sustained campaign of police harassment. Bunce and Field make clear that the police did not just stumble into the trial. The British state was in a condition of advanced paranoia about black activism. Special Branch even had a “black power desk”. The charges against the activists were a “deliberate strategy to target and decapitate the emerging black power movement”. And yet, despite a high level of collusion between government ministers, the police and the criminal justice system, the strategy failed. The charges were thrown out and Howe left court a free man and walked into history.

When I attended the trial, I was just a young onlooker, too insignificant to be introduced to the great man. But I have never forgotten the sight of him in the dock, a living embodiment of the struggle against police racism and injustice. Even more importantly, he was the embodiment of the idea that police racism could be challenged successfully. As he said in a recent interview, “It was a time of vulgar racism. The everyday abuse black people would get from strangers on the street and the police alike would shock you today. But I never once believed what they wanted us to believe – that we as black people are inferior to whites – and fighting my corner at the Mangrove trial was part of that.”

To understand Howe, it is important to put him in context. He is part of a generation of black activists who lived to see that they had altered reality for generations yet to come. There is a tendency in the press to believe that black activism began with the Stephen Lawrence case. I bow to no one in my respect for Doreen Lawrence, her courage and fixity of purpose. I was the first person to raise the case in parliament. But the issues she raised had been articulated and campaigned for 20 years earlier by Howe and his peers.

Black leaders in Britain then were mostly Caribbean in origin, which gave their politics a particular character. They had emerged from the post-colonial struggle in their respective countries – so they were a mixed group with a genuinely international perspective. African-Caribbean and African leaders worked easily together, as many of them had been fellow students at the same time in postwar London.

The biggest mass political entities in Britain’s overseas territories were the sugar unions (and oil in Trinidad) – something that is rarely understood about Caribbean politics at that time. Michael Manley was a highly educated member of the Jamaican elite whose father had been the first prime minister of independent Jamaica (he, too, went on to be PM), but even he had to make his name as a sugar union organiser at the beginning of his career. The unions were so important that collectivism came naturally to Caribbean-origin political figures such as Howe. And, in an era before state funding for black organisations in Britain, collective organisation was vital for survival.

Howe’s generation of black leaders had a strong intellectual streak. It is no coincidence that the favoured project of black activists of the time was to run a bookshop, as with New Beacon Books in north London. So with Howe – as with most other black political leaders of the time – his political activism marched in step with his work as a writer, journalist and public intellectual. As this biography points out, he was not a member of an uneducated black underclass. He went to an exclusive school in Trinidad and travelled to London to study law at the Middle Temple. All his life his chief mentor was the great Caribbean writer and intellectual C L R James.

The biography describes some of the big political campaigns in which Howe played a central role, which may not be familiar to those who know him only for his television appearances. He was also the editor of the monthly Race Today, required reading for any black activist of the time, and played a crucial role in the Race Today Collective. In March 1981, after a suspected racist arson attack caused the New Cross Fire, killing 13 young black people, Howe helped organise the Black People’s Day of Action. I was on that march and it was electrifying – over 20,000 people, the largest black demonstration I had ever seen. I remember our chant: “Thirteen dead; nothing said.” The following month, in the aftermath of the original Brixton Riots, Howe was again at the centre of the community’s response.

He went on to have distinguished career as a journalist for national publications, including the New Statesman, television presenter and commentator. And yet, for many of us, he will always be that man in the dock at the Mangrove trial, standing up for himself against the might of an institutionally racist state – and standing up for all of us. This meticulous biography sets out facts about a life and an era that should be far more widely known.

Diane Abbott is the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, London

Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.