Black History Month 2023: Exploring the historic 1987 General Election31/10/2023
As we near the end of Black History Month, a celebratory period to recognise the impact of the Black community, Atticus explores the historic 1987 General Election when Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng changed the future of British politics as the first Black MPs elected to the House of Commons.
A decade of turbulence
What did it mean to be Black and British in the 1980s? The decade started with the 1980 St Pauls riot and then the 1981 Brixton riots; both of which were clashes between youths – mainly from Black African or Caribbean backgrounds – and the police. The protests centred around the increased use of stop-and-search by the police, with many Black people feeling that they were being targeted for these searches simply because of the colour of their skin.
These riots occurred at a time of increasing racial tension in the UK following the growth of far-right groups, such as the National Front, in the late 1970s. One example from The British Social Attitudes survey in the 1980s found that more than half of those surveyed expressed uneasiness about inter-ethnic marriages.
Considering this suspicion of the Black community and the prejudice against people who were deemed to challenge the racial status quo, the events of the 1987 General Election can be considered even more monumental. Although the Conservatives were ultimately successful, winning the election with a majority of 102 seats, it is the Labour party who changed the future of Parliament – and what it meant to be Black, British and political – that night.
The year of change
Before being elected MP for Tottenham in 1987 Bernie Grant acted as the Borough of Haringey leader, including during the 1985 Broadwater riots, which offered him a clear view of the difficulties faced by the Black British community in the 1980s. These riots, sparked by the death of an Afro-Caribbean woman during a police search of her home, helped contribute to the narrative that the police were institutionally racist and that the Black community was being disproportionately targeted.
Throughout the riots Grant acted as an advocate for the Black community, including by calling for the local police chiefs to resign to restore trust between the community and the police. Although he was later criticised for his comments, with the Conservatives calling for his resignation, Grant maintained the support of his local Labour party, particularly the Black Section, enabling his election in 1987.
The 1987 election was not only a landmark year for the wider Black community, but also for Black women as Diane Abbott was elected as the first Black female MP in the UK, representing the Hackney North and Stoke Newington seat. Abbott has subsequently had a political career spanning over 30 years, but in interviews detailing her historic win she has stated that the biggest challenge she faced at the time was racism, with people believing that she simply could not be elected to Parliament as a Black woman.
These MPs were key in the fight to diversify a traditionally white institution, including through how they defined themselves and their role in Parliament. As said by Paul Boateng, who was elected to the House of Commons for Brent South in 1987, he was “a politician who is black, not a black politician”.
This sentiment, however, was not equally shared by others in Parliament and creating a double-edged sword for Abbott, Grant and Boateng. They were the first representatives of a historically under-represented community in Parliament but they subsequently had their choices, opinions and values questioned through the lens of their race.
A lasting legacy
In 1991, 1.6% of the British population identified as having a Black background, making them the third largest ethnic group in the UK. Considering this, the fact that only 0.46% of MPs in the 1987-1992 parliamentary session were from a Black background can seem like a shameful underrepresentation.
The three MPs, however, were more than just a number, with their inclusion in the House of Commons signifying a change in the British political system, including a greater representation of the increasing diversity in the UK.
Sharon Grant, widow of the late Bernie Grant, said the Labour leadership at the time recognised the need for politicians to reflect communities’ “lived experience of inclusion and discrimination”, despite the racial tensions at the time.
Discussing the 1987 election on its 36th anniversary, Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy credits the three MPs’ “stalwart determination” with enabling his career progression to Shadow Foreign Secretary and further highlights how they have allowed Black, Asian and minority ethnic MPs to be elected as representatives for all four main parties in Britain. Thirty-six years later, the current Cabinet includes three of the four Great Offices of State being held by politicians from ethnic minorities.
1987 was a landmark moment in British politics and significant advancements have been made since then. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure racial equality in political office and to make Parliament truly representative of the people it serves.
As recently as 2019, MPs from a Black background have reported experiencing racial prejudice within the walls of Parliament. Furthermore, at present just over 3% of the MPs in the House of Commons are from a Black background; 1% less than the 4% of the British population who consider themselves to be Black. So, whilst the legacy of Grant, Abbott and Boateng is a powerful one, it is not yet finished.