Thirty-four years ago today, Labour suffered an appalling defeat in the 1987 general election. The Conservatives won 376 seats, with Labour on a mere 229: it was the third victory—and the second landslide—for the Tories under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.
But despite being a dark day for British politics, the UK also gained three of its first black MPs, all of whom were members of the Labour Party. These were Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, and the renowned community leader and political pioneer Bernie Grant.
Born on 17 February 1944, in the colony of British Guiana, now Guyana, Bernie Grant was the second son of two schoolteachers, Lily and Eric. He came to Britain in 1963, attending Tottenham Technical College on his arrival before studying at Hariot-Watt University in Scotland, which he left in 1969 in protest against the discrimination faced by Afro-Caribbean students.
Grant spent nine years as an international telephonist and swiftly became involved in the Union of Post Office Workers (now the CWU), fighting for equity and justice for himself and his colleagues. In 1978, he took up a role as a full-time Area Officer for the National Union of Public Employees, responsible for its health workers and the local authority. He then founded the Black Trade Unionist Solidarity Movement, which he worked in full-time between 1981 and 1984.
In 1973, Grant had decided to join the Labour Party, then under the leadership of Harold Wilson. He held multiple different positions within the local party in Haringey before being elected its leader in 1985, a victory which made him Europe’s first black head of a local authority. Liable for the welfare of around a quarter of a million constituents, many of them of Afro-Caribbean descent, he spent his time in office pioneering efforts to eliminate discrimination, making Haringey Council one of the first local authorities to develop policies aimed at tackling racism and homophobia while also improving access for disabled people.
Predictably, these changemaking efforts left Grant’s character open to assassination from political opponents and the press alike.
The Broadwater Riot
Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm uprising of October 1985, a struggle between predominantly black young people and the Metropolitan Police, was a response to the death of Cynthia Jarrett. Jarrett, an Afro-Caribbean woman, had suffered heart failure during a police search in her home following the false arrest of her son; her daughter said she had seen a police officer push her mother during the search, which the cop in question denied. In the ensuing clashes another police officer, Keith Blakelock, was killed by rioters.
Grant’s observation to the press that ‘the youth think they gave the police a bloody good hiding’, more often reported and remembered as ‘the police got a bloody good hiding’, and his reported suggestion that ‘maybe it was a policeman who stabbed another policeman’ brought him both fame and notoriety. In response, the Labour Executive Council distanced themselves from him.
But he refused to be silenced. Speaking in the House of Commons after the disorder, Grant asked that the Home Secretary go and visit Tottenham to ‘seriously examine that area’s social problems, the background surrounding Mrs. Jarrett’s death, and other matters that led to the tragic events’. His attitude might have been controversial in Parliament, but it didn’t stop his constituents from loving him: Bernie Grant became a household name in Tottenham and won his Commons seat with a significant majority in the 1987 election.
A Parliamentarian Apart
For the first time in British history, politics was taking a progressive turn towards diversity. Bernie established an extensive and distinguished campaign record as a new MP, founding the Parliamentary Black Caucus in 1988—an emulation of the United States’ Congressional version—which was committed to forwarding the opportunities of ethnic minorities in the UK. In 1989, Grant told its inaugural conference: ‘For far too long the black community has had no voice in Britain, and we are seeking to redress that.’
As a parliamentarian, he remained committed to radical change. Addressing a discussion about the anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘River of Blood’ speech at the 1993 Labour Party Conference, Grant called for the government to pledge a voluntary repatriation scheme for citizens of African and Caribbean descent who ‘have had enough of this lousy country’.
The demand left a member of his own party astounded, but Grant didn’t relinquish his beliefs: the following year he took the initiative a step further, motioning it for a debate in the House of Commons. ‘The Secretary of State for the Home Department [then Michael Howard] told me recently that he feared that an enhanced resettlement scheme would make black people feel unwelcome here,’ he told the House. ‘That is rich, coming from someone who has set back race relations by at least twenty years in the relatively short time that he has been in office.’
Grant’s principles were also rooted in communalism, and he associated himself with the Socialist Campaign Group, which supported the miners’ strike and the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. His peers progressed through career highs under the Blair government, but Grant stuck to his community-focussed, grassroots approach, standing solid for populist democracy, trade unions, and black representation in the Labour Party.
In 2000, his final year, Grant addressed the Commons and stated that the Stephen Lawrence case was ‘the last chance for British society to tackle racism.’ He passed away from a heart attack shortly after, and his funeral procession through Tottenham was attended by 3,000 people.
Since Grant’s passing, Tottenham’s Bernie Grant Art Centre has been opened in his name, a blue plaque marking his surgeries has been mounted on the wall of Tottenham Town Hall, and a portrait of him has been unveiled in Parliament.
But none of this would have satisfied him. Grant’s demands for an egalitarian society, free from exploitation, were unfaltering, and his work changed the course of British history, fast-forwarding public awareness of the racism that remains so widespread. Only by continuing the struggle against injustice do we serve his memory well.