Darcus Howe predicts Diane Abbott is here to stay

Black candidates for supposedly safe seats have a habit of ending up in the Lords

The Tories unveiled two prospective candidates, one black and one an Asian woman, to show their commitment to the idea of inclusiveness, a new buzzword in the parliamentary lexicon. Mind you, this is nearly two decades after the black sections in the Labour Party successfully fielded a clutch of MPs in safe seats. Anyway, Adam Afriyie is now the prospective candidate for Windsor, a very safe seat indeed, and Sandip Verma won the nomination for Enoch Powell's old seat, Wolverhampton South-West. But I am sure Afriyie knows that a safe seat is not what it seems, whether Tory or Labour.

As early as the first Wilson administration (1964-66), we were promised our first black Labour MP. A safe seat was eventually found for Dr David Pitt in Clapham, south London, in 1970; he had first run for parliament in 1959. The political vultures converged and Pitt lost the seat. He was eventually elevated to the House of Lords as compensation. Years later, it was the Tories' turn. John Taylor got the candidacy for Cheltenham, the safest of Tory seats. It was a shoo-in, or so the wallahs at Central Office said. But Cheltenham turned out to house a fair number of old colonials who had settled there after long and privileged lives in Africa. Taylor was nig-nogged into oblivion. He, too, went to the Lords.

Let's hope that young Afriyie doesn't follow that route. Racialism is on the retreat and he appears to have charmed the pants off those Tory women of Windsor, one of whom suggested he might become the first black prime minister. However, it may take just one BNP candidate for his show to come off the road. He said in an interview that he had been in the party for 15 years. It took him a hell of a long time to surface. He said he would bring a new language to the Tories. I didn't understand his point, because he was speaking quite normally anyway.

The Labour conference did not feature any of the established blacks. Paul Boateng seems to have been locked away safely in one of Gordon Brown's dungeons. Keith Vaz drifted around rather aimlessly. Young David Lammy, Bernie Grant's successor in Tottenham, clapped furiously.

But Diane Abbott starred in her regular slot on BBC1's This Week, hosted by Andrew Neil. Fashionable, humorous, relaxed, superbly intelligent, she holds her own with Michael Portillo and others. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she will be part of the governance of Britain for years to come.

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 13 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The awakening of liberal England