2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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England: Is there a British Obama?

 

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David Matthews
2/11/08 New Statesman 20


We are still decades away from electing Britain's first black prime minister.

A few years ago, interviewing the Tottenham MP David Lammy for a Sunday newspaper, I asked how he had felt about being heralded as "Britain's first black prime minister" on entering Westminsterinzooo. "Don'teven touch that," he replied, grimacing at the suggestion, first made by the Sun. "Please. Try and write something different."

Given the fanfare that Lammy, just 27 at the time, received, the lack of competition he faced for the black PM mande and his oratorical skills, he was bound to attract attention. Across the pond, the same could be said of Barack Obama, who became America's only black senator in 2.0 04 and has used his gift of the gab to great effect. Whether he becomes president or not, it is hard not to be impressed by the fact he has mounted such a popular campaign in as racially divisive a country as the United States.

But as we marvel at Obama's meteoric rise and hold our breath to see if America really can send a black man to the White House, it is hard not to look at the Palace of Westminster and conclude that the odds of Britain producing a black PM in the foreseeable future are pretty slim, if not non-existent.

Of the 646 sitting MPs in the Commons, 15 are from an ethnicminority background, and only five have African or AfricanCaribbean antecedents. As black people make up 2. per cent of the UK population, there should, for the Commons to be representative, be 13 black MPs in the House.

However, the numbers of black parliamentary candidates are slowly improving. For instance, Chuka Umunna, of the left-wing think tank Compass, is a favourite in the forthcoming Streatham selection battle, while the Tories continued their Damascene conversion to all things ethnic when they selected a further African-Caribbean candidate, Helen Grant (who had defected from the Labour Party), to contest Ann Widdecombe's safe Maidstone and the Weald seat at the next election.

And who 's to say that the first black PM would come from Labour benches? As Adam Afriyie, Tory MP for Windsor and a challenger for Lammy's "first black prime minister" crown, has said: "The Conservative Party did elect the first Jewish prime minister, the first bachelor prime minister, the first woman prime minister."

There is also the question of voter support. Obama can draw on a 13 per cent African-American population, while the comparative 2. per cent in Britain seems too low to create a grass-roots "movement for change " that would get a black MP into the public consciousness, let alone into No 10.

Of course, there is more to producing a black PM than ethnic number-crunching. As Obama has illustrated, you do not become a populist leader -or raise $32.111 (£16m) in campaign funding in January alone - by appealing only to electoral niches. You have to have the charisma and ability to transcend race and racism.

In a recent poll from CNN/Opinion Research, 72. per cent of white Americans and 61 per cent of black Americans indicated that the US is ready, in theory, for ablackcommander-in-chief. (This is higher than the proportion of either men or women - 64 and 65 per cent, respectively - that felt America was ready for a female president.)

African-American politicians also have the weight of history behind them. From the days of New World slavery to the civil war, the civil rights movement, two presidential campaigns by Jesse Jackson in the igSos and now Obama, their presence is stitched tightly into the political fabric of America. The black vote can make or break a presidential candidate.

Black people have had a presence in the US for more than 400 years, far longer than that of most African and African-Caribbean people in Britain. Obama can call on the clout and resources of powerful African Americans such as Oprah Winfrey. But who would a wannabe black PM be able to call on for support? Trisha Goddard?

In the absence of a well-heeled, well-connected black middle class in Britain, black politicians in the UK need a far greater level of white patronage in order to succeed.

Yet despite Gordon Brown's pledge to "create a government of all the talents", out of a 23 -strong Labour cabinet sitting around the big table there is not one black or ethnic-minority MP.

To paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have any talent you want in Gordon's government, as long as it'snot black.

Baroness Scotland, the government's chief legal adviser, and Baroness Amos are rare examples of high-ranking black political powerbrokers. But, for the purposes of nurturing a British Obama, wouldn't their presence be more effective in the lower House than in the Lords?

While the political elite remains dominated by Oxbridge graduates, Old Etonians and sundry public school alumni, it would be impossible for a black MP to mount a leadership campaign and subsequent run at No 10 without an Old School network, a Commons support base and, above all, huge party backing.

SIDEBAR

Powerful, but not powerful enough: (from left to right) Baroness Scotland, David Lammy, Baroness Amos and Adam Afriyie. (Below) Barack Obama has the support of a well-heeled, well-connected black middle class
 

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