When Vaz invited me to meet Mandelson, I declined

The speculation among the heavy political pundits is that, by the time this issue of the NS reaches you, Keith Vaz will have disappeared into the cold, dark night. Vaz, like Diane Abbott, the late Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng, came into parliamentary politics under the banner of "black sections".

I was at the Labour Party conference when the flag was raised for black liberty. May I remind all that they were not "black and Asian" sections; black, a word with power and resonance, covered them all. Remember that slogan, which shook the soul of black folk the world over: Black Power.

I remember this intake of Labour MPs from their constituency victories: Bernie Grant, resplendent in Nigerian robes; a Garveyite Diane Abbott, genuinely innocent of the wiles of political manoeuvring; the dapper Vaz, self-assured, but with a certain fragility in his smile. And Boateng? "From Brent to Soweto!" he cried. It meant nothing, it was hollow in every way, but we embraced them all, the whole of the new intake, large, medium and small in mind.

There was little tradition by which these new MPs could judge themselves. They started not so much from scratch as from pre-scratch. They were strangers in a hostile atmosphere, novices who did not even know where the toilets were. The right-wing papers felt that the presence of these blacks lowered the tone of the establishment. (I am trying to avoid the charge of racialism as long as I can hold out.)

At the Labour Party conference where the issue of black sections was raised, I witnessed hostility that bordered on hatred. I spoke to one of the leading editors of the right after Abbott had made a courageous speech. He said: "She is lazy!" I just thought at once: "You shit."

Her crime is that she remains a black woman. But black sections are dead. I knew it for sure when some of the leading lights backed Sharon Grant - as white as the driven snow - against a young black man for the Labour nomination to her late husband's seat in Tottenham. Abbott once more came to the rescue. She said to me in person that Sharon Grant would inherit Bernie Grant's seat over her dead body. That statement reminded me of my sister, my mother and grandmother. She still carries that deep Caribbean sensibility which informs the battle for freedom that runs through the histories of slavery, colonialism and racialism.

The difficulty for black MPs is that they are expected to represent three constituencies: their parliamentary seat, the blacks and Asians throughout this country and the people of the countries from which they (or their parents) came.

Vaz had to hang on to someone's coat-tails. He chased Peter Mandelson. He invited me to open a conference on diversity. It was brilliantly organised. Then there was to be a dinner party at which participants would meet Mandelson. I refrained. I had nothing to offer him, and vice versa. I raised an eyebrow and that was all.

I wrote in this column that Vaz had taken to the task of shifting Indian capital to England, where the rate of profit would be much higher than any indulgence in the rupee. He did not see why capital should be exclusively "white".

The Hindujas and others wanted to avoid the tedious bureaucracy of a nation state. They had on their side Mandy, who is of the opinion that all checks and balances are mere humbug.

It was in this impatient tendency to take short cuts that Vaz went wrong. He behaved like a one-man band, with his mother and sister in tow. Pomposity is his other weakness. That, too, is the consequence of being a one-man band.

He needs to turn the volume down and admit his flaws - to himself, at least. The media have been hard on him. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph do not surprise me one bit. But the Guardian, while continuing its legitimate reporting of the case, could have offered at least one historical and thought-provoking piece.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose