Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Speech to the black and minority ethnic taskforce

Mulberry School, Richard Street, E1
Tower Hamlets, London


26th October 2006, 7:30pm


Thank you very much indeed, Keith for organising this event tonight and for inviting me to speak.


This is an important event discussing an important issue at an important moment.  But your commitment to making Labour the party that speaks up for, and is of, the black and minority ethnic community has been dogged and lasted more than 2 decades. Thank you.


I want to take this opportunity to say talk about three things

·        Fair political representation

·        A democratic debate about foreign policy and

·        A fair legal system


First Fair Representation


When I was first elected Member of Parliament in Peckham, Southwark was an overwhelmingly white borough.  Now we have, joining the Caribbean community who came in the 1960s, communities from countries across Africa. When I did a consultation on the Commission for Africa in my constituency, people from 14 countries responded.  The African community now plays a vital role in the life of the borough, and of London as a whole.  They run businesses, work in health and education, shops and offices and as well as providing for themselves and their families here (sometimes by two or even three jobs) they send money back to their village to support their relatives back in Africa – vital, unseen contributions to International Development.  Many of them are staunch Labour supporters – voting Labour and many joining the party.  But what I see as so important in Southwark – and want to see in the country as a whole – is the role the African community plays as part of our democracy.  In Camberwell and Peckham at the May 2006 council elections, we increased our share of the vote and won back a ward from the Lib/Dems with three new Labour councillors.  But I knew as I stood outside school gates with the candidates and as I gave out leaflets and knocked on doors with party members that we would do well.  And the reason was because we were a diverse team – in every ward.  Now we have 42% women, 58% men, born and bred Peckhamites and newly arrived “yuppies”, the oldest is 65 and the youngest 24,  4 Labour councillors of African origin and we have two councillors who are Muslim women (out a total of 10 BME Cllrs). And this is my point about representation.  What those black and minority members do as part of Labour’s team is they make the reality of our commitment to equality and inclusion.  They show that democracy works.  When I was first elected in 1983 I was one of only 3% women in a House of Commons which was 97% men and all white.  It simply was not democratic, it was not representative.


Now we have 13 members of the parliamentary Labour Party from black and minority communities.  And, in particular, our MPs from Muslim background play a major part in debates.  They don’t always agree with each other – not surprisingly – but what they ensure is that we don’t talk about the Muslim communities in a parliament with no Muslim voices.  But we still have no Muslim women in the House of Commons (though we have my friend Pola Uddin in the House of Lords).  Political discussions need to involve those who are most knowledgeable and directly affected.  The debate about the veil has shown how much we need the voice of Muslim women in Parliament.


Fair representation is not about doing women, or people from black and minority communities a favour – it’s a democratic imperative.  Our democracy is simply not legitimate if it is nor representative of the people. And legitimacy matters because we believe that you cannot make the right decisions if the people making them don’t know what they are talking about.


As well as having fair representation, I think we also need a fair and representative legal system.


It is that much harder to get a young black defendant to believe that the court has been fair and that they must accept its judgment if they can protest that the magistrates were white, the police were white and the prosecutors were white.  “they never were going to listen”  Just as women will never believe an all-male judiciary will really take domestic violence seriously.


But more than that, we need our defence barrister, prosecutors and our judges to be chosen from among the very best and most able people.  That means looking at a wide pool of people – not just the old boy network.  Sometimes it is argued that we opening up the judiciary to people from black and minority ethnic communities must only be done in such a way that does not undermine “merit”.  I think that argument is so rude.  How can it be that to have more black and minority peole and more women in the judiciary could possibly be a threat to the merit and integrity of the judiciary.


We reject that argument.  That’s why we’ve set up the Judicial Appointments Commission under Baroness Usha Prashar with the specific task of ensuring that we have proper selection of judges based on merit and a wide trawl of all those with the right qualifications.  And that’s why, when I was Solicitor General with the responsibility for the Crown Prosecution Service, I set up the CPS Law Scholarship programme which has seen people working in admin and clerical jobs in the CPS become lawyers.  I always say that I will know that the CPS law scholarship programme has succeeded when we have our first black judge with a scouse accent – the only question is will she be wearing a wig!


So we’ve made progress but we have further to go.


Next foreign policy.


It used to be assumed that foreign policy happened abroad and that people here at home didn’t care about it.  And that it was too complex to expect ordinary folk to have anything sensible to say on it.   It could all be left to a cadre of elite mandarins led by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.  But that has to change.  People travel abroad now, more than they ever did before.  And many people from abroad live and work here. Email and the internet has shrunk the globe – as has 24 satellite news reporting.  They care about poverty in Africa.  People think that our foreign policy affects them directly - it affects immigration and they feel it affects security.  So people do care about foreign policy and they want a say.  When we talk about education or health we talk about “your schools” and “your hospitals”.  I’ve never heard an MP or minister talking in a public meeting about “your foreign policy”.  We have to ensure that the foreign office which leads debate and discussion so effectively abroad in the great capital cities of the world – leads a debate in the great cities of Britain. .


And I think there is no area of government policy which is not improved by a wider discussion.  Democratic “ownership” or our foreign policy is essential for its effectiveness abroad.  How much more powerful is our argument about democracy abroad if we have the full backing of people at home.



The Conservatives are trying, under David Cameron, to pretend to leave behind their narrow, xenophobic “nasty party” image.  They have only one non-white MP and no Muslim MPs.  And compared to our 97 Labour women MPs they have only 17 women.  They haven’t changed. Scratch the surface and the reality of the Tory party remains the same. We, in the Labour Party,  must together fight to ensure that we build the party to ensure that we make a success of this third term and build a fourth term.

We are the party that believes in equality, committed to tackling inequality and poverty – not just here at home but also abroad.  Labour is the party which many of us joined precisely because it sets its face against racism and prejudice. The struggle is not yet won but Labour is the party to lead that struggle.  That’s why I’m proud to be Labour.

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