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10 October 2014

Chuka Umunna’s speech to mark Black History Month: full text

The shadow business secretary on the need for better representation in parliament, Brixton's Black British story, and the Rooney Rule.

By Chuka Umunna

Thank you very much for joining us this morning to mark Black History Month.

I want to thank the Hub, Brixton, for hosting this event, and our Labour council for making this space possible.

This business Hub – made possible by our Labour Lambeth Council and located here in our town hall – offers an affordable base for our local entrepreneurs, connecting them to 50 other Hubs throughout the world.  The goal:  to harness our area’s unique strengths, our entrepreneurial zeal, enabling people to get on and achieve their aspirations and dreams.

I can think of no better venue to have this discussion about diversity and making it in business.

And here in Brixton, which is such a big feature of the Black British story. There is no better area to have this discussion. There’s a reason why when Nelson Mandela came to the UK for the first time as President in 1996, he made sure he came to Brixton. I was there on Brixton Station Road with thousands of others to welcome him.

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And there’s a reason why Britain’s first dedicated black heritage centre, the Black Cultural Archives, this year opened its doors just over the road here in Brixton.



And it was to Brixton that many of our grandparents and parents came, having made the long journeys from Africa and the Caribbean. They came for the chance to create better lives for themselves and their families, to get on – and to make a positive contribution to British society.

Why did they come to Brixton?  Well, I’m sure you all know the first wave of black immigrants arrived from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in Essex.  But what a lot of people don’t know, is that many were then housed temporarily in the deep bomb shelters in Clapham South. Their nearest job centre – the “labour exchange” in those days – was located round the corner from here on Coldharbour Lane.  That is why so many black people made their lives here.


Black History Month

Black History Month gives us a chance to celebrate their journey, their contribution, and those of others – like my father – who arrived later in the 1960s and 1970s from other former colonies like Nigeria and Ghana.

And recognising every person’s contribution to our society is particularly important at a time when there are forces in British politics determined to undermine our Great British values of openness, tolerance and respect: values that make Britain great.

Before we hear from our inspirational panel, I want to say something about the progress of Black Britons since the 1940s and what more we need to do to ensure everyone who works hard and want to make it, have the opportunity to do so regardless of their colour.

That Black Britons have made an immense contribution to the fabric of our nation is unarguable and there is so much to celebrate.

In many respects, our panel today provides a vivid illustration of this in the business arena.



Take Kanya King, founder and Chief Executive of the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) Awards.  Like me, of mixed parentage – Irish and Ghanaian parents – Kanya was the youngest of nine children.  Leaving school at 16 and becoming a young mum, she did not follow the conventional route to business leadership. 

Spotting a gap in the market and noting the failure at the time of the music industry to recognise British artists producing black music like Soul II Soul, Kanya founded the MOBOs in 1996.  Almost two decades on, the MOBOs are now one of the most televised music awards shows in the world, reaching in excess of 400 million viewers across more than 200 countries, and the MOBO brand is now Europe’s leading urban music brand. An incredible achievement and an incredible service to our community . 

Phil Walker, sitting alongside Kanya, has had a long and varied career in business. Phil is CEO of Summerswood Consulting, which helps companies increase growth and profitability.  Before that Phil was the Chief Operating Officer of CapGemini, one of the world’s foremost providers of consulting, technology and outsourcing services with over 140,000 people in over 40 countries.  At the time Phil was one of the very few black leaders in management consulting and a real trailbalzer.

Then there is Nadine Tapping.  All four Nadine’s grandparents actually came here from Jamaica on the Windrush.  She is a flagbearer for the next generation of black British entrepreneurs.  I met Nadine on a trade mission I led to West Africa for UKTI and the London Chambers of Commerce a couple of years ago.  At the time, Nadine was just starting out and had a dream of selling goods into the burgeoning African markets – seven of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. Nadine had saved up and taken time off from work to go on that trade mission to start her business adventure. Her company, Thirty Eight London, specialises in export management and marketing of high quality, consumer goods and lifestyle products into African Markets. Nadine, when you’ve made your first million – as I’m sure you will – don’t forget us here in Brixton!

So in all three of our panellists – who you will hear from in a bit – we see focus, talent, ambition, drive and hard graft.  We see the very characteristics in fact that our forebears arrived on these shores with. And we can never forget, had it not been for our grandparents and parents and all those who supported them breaking down the barriers they faced we would not have seen this kind of progress for the second and third generations. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants. 

But for all the progress there has been – not just in business, but culture, media, sport and other fields – there is still undoubtedly a glass ceiling which needs to be smashed. Some say it doesn’t exist or that we shouldn’t act.

It does. We cannot deny that fact. And we cannot accept it.


The Glass Ceiling

Think of education – with higher education being part of my brief as Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Last year, there was an outcry when research was released showing that out of 18,510 professors in the UK, just 85 – less than half a percent – are black. This is shocking and unacceptable. Education is supposed to be the key which unlocks the door to opportunity and yet for black people seeking to reach the higher echelons of our universities the door appears to be shut. For young people looking at education and academia, isn’t the danger this lack of role models tells them – this is not the place for you?

Think of our media – which plays such an important role in shaping how people view our different ethnic communities. Almost all of our major broadcasters and newspaper groups have no people of colour on their boards. There is just one ethnic minority editor of a national newspaper – Amol Rajan at the Independent. How can you present an accurate portrait and reflect the experience of people of colour in our country, if those very people do not sit at your top table?

Then think of sport – often held up as an arena in which barriers have been broken.  We rightly cheer the success of our many black footballers – I know of course that depends on which club you support!  But take a look off the pitch, where a lot of power is wielded, and you see a different story. When the Premier League came into being in 1992 my late father was a member of the Board of Directors at Crystal Palace. He was, as far as I’m aware, the only African director on the Board of any Premier League Club at the time.  Things haven’t changed much in 22 years.  Look at Premier League Clubs now and you’ll see most have no people of colour on their boards or in any senior roles. Out of 92 professional league clubs, there are currently only two black managers. So while around a quarter of players in the professional game are of colour, just two per cent of managers are. We can’t carry on like this – this has to change. Can we really say to our young people that we rate their physical ability more than their other talents?

Looking beyond football, even our labour movement, that led the charge for equality of opportunity and the legislation in the 60s and 70s, cannot point to any prominent General Secretaries of colour in 2014.

And it would be remiss of me not to touch on politics.  I am proud that my party has more ethnic minority Members of Parliament than the other parties put together.  I am proud that when Ed Miliband appointed me to the Shadow Cabinet, he appointed the first black member of a British Shadow Cabinet.  But, looking at Parliament as a whole, there are just 27 ethnic minority MPs.  If Parliament reflected modern Britain there would be more than 90.


The need for action

So the glass ceiling is still there. Perhaps with a few cracks, but it’s still solid. The diversity deficit is large and undeniable.

“You should appoint on merit” is the cry of those who say we protest too much.  I agree, but if you use that line of argument to justify inaction, the logic follows that you do not believe there are sufficient people of colour who have to the ability to make it. That is simply not true.  There are  too many people with the talent, too many people with the qualifications in our different communities in 2014 for that argument to hold water. 

We need to act. Because we know that if we do, we can help build a platform that gives all of our people, of every colour and creed, the chance to realise their aspirations and succeed.

So this is what I will do if we are elected next year and I am appointed to be the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

With respect to education,  I will be holding our universities’ feet to the fire on the unacceptable lack of diversity in their leadership and their senior staff.  This will be an important part of my engagement with universities and higher education representative bodies: challenging them and helping them to step up.

Looking at our businesses – which of course also covers the media, sport and other sectors – you cannot act unless you first understand the extent of the problem in each company. That’s why I have said there is a very strong argument for extending the annual reporting requirements of quoted companies. We must not only oblige companies to report on the gender diversity of their board, senior management and workforce but on their ethnic diversity too. 

I am pleased my opposite number, Vince Cable, has now said he wants to do this and he will have our support in the Parliament if he takes action.  If he’s not able to before the end of this Parliament and we are elected and I am appointed to this post, I will effect a change in the law to do so .

Also, Vince deserves credit for commissioning my Labour colleague, Lord Mervyn Davies, to carry out a review into women on boards. Mervyn’s  landmark report has helped dramatically increase the number of women on our companies’ boards in non-executive positions. I will commission a similar review into the ethnic diversity of our boards, if we get in.

While I’m talking about businesses, increasing diversity is not just the right thing to do, it also makes economic sense. Our diaspora communities connect us into the opportunities of the world.

I talked about football. Recently there has been a lively debate on whether the ‘Rooney Rule’ should be introduced. Not Wayne, but Dan Rooney – an American Football club owner who led the creation of a Rule that stipulates at least one non-white candidate must be interviewed when a manager’s job comes up.

It’s made a real difference in American football. Voices from both inside and outside the game, including PFA Chief Gordon Taylor, have said there is a strong case for examining this proposal and whether it can be introduced in English football. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy for this and would think it deserves consideration.

Finally, looking at Parliament itself, we are clear we want to see even more ethnic minority Members of Parliament and have some excellent parliamentary candidates like Clive Lewis in Norwich South, Azhar Ali in Pendle and Sarah Owen in Hastings but – as Ed Miliband has said – we are determined to select more candidates to increase numbers at next year’s general election.



Black History Month celebrates the journey, the talents, the spirit and the joy that our black community has given to this country. My message here today is this: we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

To see what we can really do, we can no longer accept inaction. Let’s take action to break that glass ceiling together, so that all our children and our grandchildren live lives not limited by the colour of their skin but inspired by the scale of their talent and ability.

And with that thought, I want to turn to our panelists. As catalysts for change and for others to have dreams of success, there is nothing like shining the light on role models who have made it.

Thank you very much.

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