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People of colour have been moving to Britain since the days of Elizabeth I. The major influx of migrants, however, moved to Britain in the wake of World War II. Many settled in our big cities from Birmingham to Manchester, Liverpool to London. They brought their families with them and went on to become nurses, teachers, bus drivers and local government officers and made huge advances, in all fields’ right across British society.
Indeed, Britain is a very different place to the country that it was when my parents left Jamaica in the 1950s. At that time it was intolerant of difference, despite the fact so many children of the Commonwealth helped rebuild Britain in the late 1940s. Coupled with campaigns and a constant movement for social change, race relations legislation developed over decades to alter the way Britain delivered for, and represented her minority groups. Finally, we were given the chance to fully participate in society and hold equal standing.
As we celebrate Black History Month this year, I also celebrate 25 years since my election as the first Black woman member of Parliament. I was elected alongside Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz as Britain’s first four Black MPs – an important landmark in Black British history. Strictly speaking although Bernie, Paul and I were definitely the first MPs of African descent, Keith was following in the footsteps of earlier Asian MPs. But, at the height of 1980s Black activism African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean communities had come to realise the importance of unity in our common struggle against racism and under-representation.
We campaigned under the political term ‘Black’ – a term that I am pleased to see that many trade unions and campaigning organisations proudly maintain. Back then we were told we wouldn’t win but 23 years later Britain celebrated the record election of 27 Black MP’s. Campaigns for increased representation have often been criticised and misunderstood. Advocating fiercely for increased Black representation in politics, does not equate to voting for someone simply because they are Black. In the 21st century, a winning progressive movement must reflect the views and concerns of all groups.
A lack of diversity and a lack of representation in any institution is instantly reflected in debate, policies and implementation. If we do not have a political leadership which looks like the community around us then it will lack legitimacy. We need a political leadership that reflects our increasingly globalised world and Britain today – not the Britain of the 1950’s.Black people have achieved many things politically in Britain, but we still have so much more to do.
There is a new generation of young, proud members of the Black community emerging on Britain’s political scene. They are joining political parties, campaigning in elections and making a change. They are conscientiously determined to make their own mark in history – actions that make someone like me hugely proud.
This article first appeared on the Young Fabians blog on 5th October