‘Nothing has really improved for black people in terms of the institutional racism we face. New Labour ignores us. But there is a thirst for a new political movement.’
I HAVE been active since the 1970s, when I was part of the struggles against the Nazi National Front organisation. I remember when Martin Luther King was shot, and having political discussions at home about things like the civil rights movement. My dad was in the air force, and he spoke about the inequalities he saw in there between the officers and ordinary men.
I started putting things together and became a socialist. I’ve been involved in so many justice campaigns-Joy Gardner, who died after police forcibly restrained her, and with the Sylvester family after Roger died in police custody. I helped organise a speaking tour round Britain for the Cardiff Three, who were wrongly imprisoned in 1990.
It’s no wonder many people who have been campaigning feel betrayed by New Labour. Look at people like Paul Boateng. He posed as the radical Brent MP who made that infamous speech comparing his struggle to become a black Labour MP with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Now he is in government in the Treasury pushing through cuts and a blank cheque for the war. Nothing has really improved for black people in terms of institutional racism. You can see that in the number of young black people who are unemployed or pushed into low paid, low status jobs. And you can see it in the way we still get abused by the police.
People’s hopes that there would be change for the better after the Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence have long gone. Now the police say they dare not deal with criminals because they are so terrified of being accused of racism! Yet everyone heard the vicious racism the police came out with in that BBC documentary, The Secret Policeman.
You can pass all the citizenship tests, be totally integrated in society, but if you have black or brown skin you face racism. Young black people are very integrated in terms of culture, music and sport, and that’s positive. But it doesn’t break the cycle of discrimination.
New Labour ignores us. But there is a thirst for a political movement that speaks for those bearing the brunt of New Labour’s policies and the racism that David Blunkett loves to whip up.
EDUCATION IS a huge issue for black people. There is massive underachievement among black boys in particular. Some people blame this on racist teachers. But it is also connected with the whole process of selection in schools.
There is pressure on schools to get as many children as possible through exams so they get extra funding. This pressure happens in the context of a racist society, where teachers have preconceptions about which kids are likely to succeed and which to fail. The Labour MP Diane Abbott has been in parliament while her own government has further undermined the comprehensive education system.
It is hypocritical to say that if schools fail our kids we should send them to public schools. What kind of solution is that for most black families? My youngest child is at a primary school in Southwark. It has a brilliant mixture of pupils from the council estate and from the ‘desirable residences’, from Vietnam, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, France, and so on.
This is celebrated as an enrichment of education and social experience. But when the kids get to secondary school exam mania sets in, and the idea of mixing goes out of the window. The pressure of exams turns lots of children off learning.
I am committed to education, but I have three kids, and my heart sinks at the thought of having to pay tuition fees. The government goes on about choice, but it all comes down to money in the end. And black people are still stigmatised in our society. I work in Lambeth council. All the low paid jobs are done by mainly black workers.
Because of the campaigns of the past there is a layer of black managers. But that doesn’t mean there is a better service for our community. It’s all about balancing the budget. We have to challenge New Labour. I wanted my children to have better opportunities in life than I did, but they haven’t. It is pursuing a neo-liberal, business agenda.
And Labour doesn’t care if people like us and our children get trampled in the process.
I WAS born and raised in Brent, west London, and went to a local comprehensive school. My family came here in the 1960s. My father worked at the Heinz factory. Before that he worked nights at the Walls factory. I was the first one in my family to go to university. The history of slavery, of what has happened to black people in Britain over the last 40 years-these things can’t be forgotten.
If you are a young black man in London, criminal lawyers like me are the fourth emergency service. Most of what I do is about lessening the impact of the criminal justice system on individuals.
I try to stop people getting a criminal record because it makes it so hard to get a job. I try to stop people getting a custodial sentence-they are handed out disproportionately to black men.
And lots of young black men get into trouble because disproportionate numbers are excluded from school and left to rot. Labour can’t tackle these things-they are the engine of these things. Their first instincts are what the Daily Mail thinks. They just don’t have socialist instincts on anything.
I know lots of people are being stopped under the anti-terror laws. There is a big Moroccan community in west London-they face getting their doors kicked in in the middle of the night. Only 1 percent of these searches, I call them break-ins, have resulted in arrests for terrorism-related offences. And we don’t know how many of them will be found not guilty.
The Moroccans tell me they have experienced a big increase in racist verbal abuse from the police since 11 September 2001. It means more young people are trying to understand their place in the world. So getting young people to vote is a priority for me.
Housing is another big issue for people. In west London you find people who came and bought small houses in the 1960s. But their children had to buy houses further out. Now we can’t buy houses at all. It’s time we stood up to Blair at the ballot box.
THE COMPLEXITY of being British right here and now is something that never ceases to baffle and inspire me. On one hand there is the challenge to respond to issues of need, poverty, exclusion and disempowerment.
Alongside this is the persistent need for change, and the action each of us plays in creating and challenging the environment we inhabit. The universal desire for a ‘better’ life for all global citizens is elusive and distant, but somehow closer now than it has ever been to being achieved. Not unsurprisingly the ‘wicked’ issues for me are the ones shared by many of us in Britain today.
They are an education system that fails more children than it helps, a health system that is being gradually eroded, and a response to poverty that has seen an ever-increasing gap between the rich and poor.
The political system persistently fails to respond to the needs of working class people. The good news, however, is that I, and others like me, seek to challenge and change all of those systems that create and sustain inequality. The presence of those individuals, and how inspired I am by their commitment, prompted me to stand as a candidate for Respect. I do not come from a culture or experience of active political campaigning.
But I recognise that without actively engaging with and supporting alternatives to our current systems we risk missing a vital opportunity to make a real difference.
Black people are still forced to accept low wage, low status jobs
The statistics below show the continuing discrimination suffered by black people from an African and Afro-Caribbean background
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth