Abbott, Boateng & Grant – The First Black MPs
By the mid-eighties, the UK had a growing diverse population, especially in various big cities. Yet at the time there were no Black or Ethnic Minorities elected representatives in the Palace of Westminster. This changed forever on the night of the general election held on 11th June 1987, when Labour candidates Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant achieved this historic electoral breakthrough to much joyful celebration.
This blog, written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer will focus on their formative years in the House of Commons as these trailblazers grabbed the legislative lapels with an inspiring gusto that made tremendous waves within the halls of power.
In the build-up to the nation going to the polls Bernie Grant was in a confident mood. The Times joined him at the opening of a cricket college in his Tottenham manor. Clad in protective pads he happily batted a few balls for the photo call. Grant knew it was his time to shine helped by the sizeable Labour majority inherited from departing incumbent Norman Atkinson. On the flip side, Paul Boateng was keeping his own counsel as fresh in the memory was his Hertfordshire West defeat in the 1983 election. This may have explained the emotion displayed in his victory speech proclaiming, ‘Never again, we go now as tribunes of all the people black and white in Brent South’.
The morning after the night before Diane Abbott appeared on TV-AM (a programme she’d previously worked on as a researcher). The presenter’s questioning bordered on aggressive at one moment enquiring whether we ‘should all be frightened of you’. Absent from proceedings was Michael Profitt, a black candidate for Lewisham East who was expected to push Colin Moynihan to the wire. In the event, the Conservative got over the line benefitting from a healthy turnout for the SDP (Social Democratic Party).
One of the most contentious political subjects of the era was South Africa’s ongoing discriminatory apartheid policies. In November 1987 the subject was tabled for debate as Bernie Grant assisted by Paul Boateng went on the offensive responding to the accusation that the African National Congress (ANC) operated as a terrorist organisation akin to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This opposition bench tag-team combined detailed oratory and witty asides as Boateng lambasted members who’d accepted invitations to visit Sun City derisively labelling them ‘ticket boys’. Diane Abbott would later reflect on Desert Island Discs about the euphoria she felt witnessing Nelson Mandela becoming South African President and seeing enthusiastic voters queueing hours in advance outside Soweto polling stations.
International affairs were dominated by the Gulf War at the turn of the decade. Bernie Grant was almost a lone detractor remonstrating that John Major’s Government shouldn’t automatically follow America’s lead on attacking Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime stressing its immediate effect on the Middle Eastern Third World. Grant did draw upon one aspect of American politics with the formation of a Parliamentary Black Caucus mirroring the stateside congressional version although Paul Boateng decided not to join the others in this seminal group.
Top of the agenda for the trio was to bring prevalent community concerns to the forefront whether of a local or cultural nature. Diane Abbott’s Hackney constituency was home to a large Bangladeshi diaspora. The 1988 Immigration Bill sought to deport migrants perceived to have ‘knowingly overstayed’ and questioned the ‘right to abode’ that affected families reuniting. Relaying case-study scenarios she argued against the clauses to such a degree that an opposing MP insensitively compared himself to ‘Kermit the Frog facing a berating Miss Piggy’.
Stop and Search (SUS) had proved to be a root cause of the 1981 Brixton Uprising and relations between the police and Black youths remained strained. Bernie Grant excelled in tabling questions for written answer to the Home Office tackling profiling based on race, famously highlighting the incorrect use of an image of boxer Nigel Benn in an identikit parade of criminal suspects. Paul Boateng took a keen interest in expanding the influence of emerging Black artists and companies in the entertainment sector. Soon after his election he accused the Arts Council of dismissiveness towards this untapped music and theatre talent pool stymied by a restrictive system that required a rethink of its funding criteria.
Subjects for discussion in the Chamber and Committee Rooms drew on a variety of issues but the post-war societal fundamentals of housing, education and health remained the core reason for contention across party lines. Diane Abbott was beginning to despair at what she saw as the creeping gentrification of inner-city London to the long-term detriment of its native council housed residents, as money was redistributed from the capital’s house-building development schemes to bolster a mammoth docklands redevelopment. Education cuts ignited Bernie Grant’s fury as he felt that consequently disadvantaged working-class pupils suffered as a result. In 1991 he demanded that the Minister of State widen the history curriculum to include modules exploring modern themes of gender and racial diversity.
Like education the NHS was finding itself increasingly under severe financial pressure. As a former barrister Paul Boateng had an instinctive knack of discovering discrepancies in the latest health service efficiency targets. The 1989 Government White Paper titled Working for Patients laid the groundwork for setting up self-governing health trusts that Boateng vociferously protested was the catalyst for standard patient care being eventually monetised. Not afraid of stigmatisation he called out for additional expenditure at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
As the leader of Haringey Council, Bernie Grant formed connections with the borough’s gay and lesbian organisations. Part of a cross-party delegation scrutinising the 1988 Local Government Bill, he was incensed at the late inclusion of Section 28 Prohibiting of promoting homosexuality by teaching or publishing material in the draft legislation. Heated exchanges followed as Grant noted that the ‘amendment is merely a device to attack the rights of the minority in society’. Diane Abbott viewed the lack of intolerance fuelling the proposal as a cause for great fear and alarm. This law wouldn’t be repealed in England and Wales until 2003.
Equal opportunities were paramount to the personal beliefs of the three contemporaries. Paul Boateng was determined to utilize the platform of elective office to champion women’s rights and challenge instances of sexism. Influenced by the European Commission Childcare Network he suggested that the Treasury approve similar recommendations stipulating fairer provisions for mothers in full-time employment. As the nineties began and despite the efforts of Labour’s Clare Short tabloid newspapers still flagrantly featured semi-nude pictures of young females for its predominately male readers. Boateng rounded upon the civil service to reprimand any staff found displaying ‘pin ups’ in departmental premises.
Lord David Pitt had been the sole Black Peer in the Upper House since 1975. A respected public figure he was an experienced campaigner for social reforms highlighted by his chairmanship of the homeless charity Shelter. London’s homelessness problem was too widespread not to be addressed in both chambers. Diane Abbott chose not to ignore the rising vagrancy levels and sought solutions requesting a straightforward benefits procedure for the destitute while Paul Boateng probed the vagaries of a temporary housing framework centred on bed and breakfast accommodation.
Privatisation of national industries divided political opinion. The 1989 Water Act granted private companies an opportunity to monopolise control of supply and sewage. Paul Boateng feared the worst describing it as a ‘punkish bill’ driven by ‘wealth, greed and avarice’. He was now a mainstay of the Environment Committee as an awareness of the ozone layer and climate change started to manifest itself amongst Parliamentarians. As the 1987 Parliament came to a close Bernie Grant looked beyond domestic matters to comment on the Rio Earth Summit taking place in the summer of 1992, prophetically saying that ‘we ensure that the earth’s resources are rationed so that our children and grandchildren benefit from them’.
Hansard Parliamentary Debates
‘Grant is batting for cricket vote’, The Times, June 3rd, 1987
Paul Boateng’s 1987 Election Victory Speech
Diane Abbot, TV AM Interview, June 12th, 1987
Diane Abbot, Desert Island Discs, May 28th, 2008
HC/OF/SC/282, 1987-1988 Local Government Bill Standing Committee Debates, Parliamentary Archives
HC/OF/SC/290, 1987-1988 Immigration Bill Standing Committee Debates, Parliamentary Archives
HC/OF/SC/303, 1988-1989 Water Bill Standing Committee Debates, Parliamentary Archives
 HC/OF/SC/290, 1987-1988 Immigration Bill Standing Committee Debates, Parliamentary Archives, col 632
 HC/OF/SC/282, 1987-1988 Local Government Bill Standing Committee Debates, Parliamentary Archives, col 1220
 HC/OF/SC/303, 1988-1989 Water Bill Standing Committee Debates, Parliamentary Archives, col 1178