Yasmin Begum Column
The current Parliament has seen an increase in Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) representation, from just two percent in 1997, to four point six percent in 2010: I suppose it’s an improvement, depending on what you call “improvement”. But in the general population, eight percent of people are from a black or minority ethnic background.
Thirteen Labour MPs have a BME background, eleven Conservative MPs – and no Lib Dem MPs. We’re missing out three point four percent. Does that really matter?
No, I’m afraid it doesn’t – it depends on what you really mean by the term “representation”. For example, take the million or so who opposed the War in Iraq, and then take the MPs who voted for it. There were roughly 160 political abstentions. If democracy is the rule of the people and the people disagreed with the war, what sort of “democracy” do we really live in?
I don’t see a few people within the public eye or the political sphere as being “representative” of my community, or of any BME community. I don’t see white men and women in the political sphere as being representative of the UK community as a whole, either.
According to a report published by the Sutton Trust, over a third of MPs in the current Parliament attended private school. Around seven percent of children are educated in this sector, compared to over ninety percent in state schools. Less than half of MPs attended a regular comprehensive or high school. A huge factor behind this rise is the role of the Conservative government in Parliament: fifty-four percent of Tory MPs went to private school, as opposed to forty percent of Lib Dems and fifteen percent of Labour MPs. This still means, however, that over a third of MPs who supposedly “represent us” are taken from an educational pool of less than ten percent.
This privately-educated, seven percent group represents seventy percent of barristers and judges, as well as the vast majority of highly paid professionals such as medics. One private paying school alone – Eton – sent twenty of its alumni to Parliament. Nineteen of these MPs are Conservative MPs; one is a Lib Dem. Twelve of these twenty also went to Oxbridge, including the leaders of all three political parties.
The report also states that, overall, ‘thirteen schools (twelve of which are fee paying) produce a tenth of all MPs in the new Parliament’. Conservative MPs were also twice as likely to go to Oxbridge than any other group in Parliament: thirty-eight percent of Conservative MPs went to Oxbridge, compared to twenty-eight percent of Lib Dem MPs and twenty percent of Labour MPs.
Overall, one hundred and two out of six hundred and forty-nine MPs went to Oxbridge. Only seven percent of the population has attended these two elite institutions.
Parliament is politically elite; you’re more likely to get into Parliament if you’re a white male who attended a private school and then went onto Oxbridge, because this group is hugely overrepresented in the House of Commons. Most ironically, the man that leads the House of Commons, Sir George Young, is an Oxbridge graduate himself.
So, BME representation? What hopes have we got of a proper BME representation in Parliament when the average representation of the UK people comes in the form of a plutocracy?
Lawrence, born in September of 1974, was brutally killed – in a racially-motivated murder – while waiting for a bus in south-east London, in April of 1993. He was just eighteen years old.
He was killed by a gang of young, white, racist men who stabbed him in a wholly unprovoked attack. The last word he heard before dying was “nigger”.
The murder sparked a national outcry; even right-wing newspaper the Daily Mail published a picture of four of the alleged gang, claiming that they were Lawrence’s murderers. If they were wrong, they invited the aforementioned men to sue them.
The men never sued.
Eighteen years on, two of those men – Gary Dobson and David Norris – were convicted of murder. This means that Stephen Lawrence’s parents had to lobby and raise awareness of his case for longer than he was alive.
The first case failed owing to problems within the Metropolitan Police, which was deemed “institutionally racist” by an inquiry. Institutional racism isn’t a new term; it was coined by a Black Power activist, Stokley Carmichael, in the 1970s.
The man who led the inquiry after Lawrence’s murder was called Lord Macpherson, and his explanation of the institutional racism to which Stephen Lawrence’s case was subjected is more or less identical to Carmichael’s interpretation of institutional racism. The similarities are uncanny; it’s testament to how little things have changed.
It doesn’t stop there. We’ve had our own experiences of racism within the police force rearing their ugly head in Wales. Think of the Lynette White case.
Lynette White was a white woman who was brutally stabbed. She died in her flat. Those interviewed for statements were seen to be “vulnerable” members of society; one man named Stephen Miller, White’s boyfriend and pimp, would eventually confess – after being worn down by nineteen hours of questioning. He had a mental age of an eleven year old. He was denied access to a lawyer during this time.
His confession wasn’t taken seriously. When it was presented at the appeal, the overseeing lord, Lord Taylor, said that the police had ‘bullied and hectored’ Miller. No DNA evidence from him was found on the scene which might have tied him to the murder.
Mark Grommek, a man who went on record to make a statement, said he knew nothing of the murder. Yet later that afternoon, he gave a detailed statement. His friend, Paul Atkins, told the police that Grommek killed White, but later changed it to say that he himself was the killer. His statement contained four different accounts of the murder, and, again, was subsequently not taken seriously. No DNA from these men was found at the scene, despite their falsified confessions.
A statement was taken from a woman who was put under hypnotherapy and later used in evidence. Another statement taken and used was from a different woman, deemed to have mild mental retardation, with an IQ of fifty-five. She too was considered to have been ‘bullied’ into making a statement.
The police were given a clear description of a man apparently observed leaving the scene by witnesses – a white man. But they decided to arrest nine men, all of whom were black. Then it was whittled down to five, and then three men – who were still all black.
Despite no physical evidence tying these three men of colour to the scene, in 1989 they were jailed for life. Three years later, the appeal headed by Lord Taylor declared their convictions ‘unsafe and unsatisfactory’, and they were released. The real killer was eventually brought to justice through DNA evidence.
This resulted in four of the witnesses going on trial a few years later. All – apart from Paul Atkins, who was deemed unfit to stand trial – were found guilty of perjury. Two further witnesses were also found guilty of perjury during a later case.
When all of these things came to light the police were put on trial for the framing of three men (known as the Cardiff Three) in 2009. It was called the biggest police anti-corruption trial in British history, and the biggest police trial in British history.
It fell through.
The police never gave an apology for ruining the lives of the Cardiff Three, for falsifying evidence, or for bullying vulnerable people into making false statements which later helped to convict them.
But this was not the first time the police framed black men for a murder they did not commit. In the 1920s, a Somali sailor named Hussein Mattan was framed for murder. He was hanged. The police issued an apology to his wife and revoked the conviction – in 1998.
These are specifically Welsh cases; they happened here. Just because the Metropolitan Police have been called out on their racism doesn’t mean that other police forces walk free. There are dozens of other cases involving miscarriages of justice, but they just aren’t reported. It’s simply testament to the tireless campaigning of Stephen Lawrence’s family that the Metropolitan Police did not manage to get away with their racism.
People of colour in the UK are more likely to be stopped and searched under the Stop and Search law; in fact, it’s over 70% more likely that they will be stopped than their white counterparts. They’re over-policed as perpetrators and under-policed as victims. According to statistics, they are also more likely to be jailed for offences where Caucasian people would be let off.
Of course the UK police system is institutionally racist. In fact, it’s just one of a number of racist institutions. You’re more than three times more likely to be expelled from school if you’re black. You’re also much less likely to be put in the top streams for your GCSEs – resulting in ethnic minorities being less likely to achieve 5 A*-Cs at GCSE level.
The bringing to justice of Stephen Lawrence’s killers was a victory for us all. But there are many victories in every sector of society yet to be won when it comes to the insidious institutionalisation of racism.