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A black history of Parliament

A black history of Parliament

The British Parliament officially came into being in 1707, with the Acts of Union transforming the English Parliament – which had first been convened in 1215, following the signing of the Magna Carta – into a Parliament for the new nation of Great Britain. Yet, for more than 100 years, Parliament was solely represented by white men.  

This changed in 1832; the first black man to ever be elected to Parliament (exactly 125 years after the Acts of Union) took his seat as the Tory MP for the seat of Lymington. John Stewart entered the House of Commons just 25 years after the United Kingdom had officially abolished slavery, going on to serve for fifteen years.

John Stewart was himself a slave plantation owner, for which he received £22,486 worth of compensation for when the 433 enslaved peoples he held in British Guiana were freed. It took a further 11 years before another person of colour joined Stewart in the commons, when Whig MP, Henry Redhead Yorke – son of former radical writer and publicist of the same name – was elected for the City of York.

By 1848, both men had left Parliament. Stewart stepped down in 1847 and Yorke passed away the following year; although Yorke was a strong reformer and progressive voice in the commons, between 1848 and 1987 (a further 139 years) there was only one other black MP elected to the commons, Peter McLagan.

After a historical defeat in 1983, the Labour Party secured a slight improvement in 1987, clawing back 20 seats to hold 209 in the House of Commons, but that seemingly unremarkable result was significant in history, four black MPs were elected: Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Keith Vaz and the first black woman ever elected to Parliament, Diane Abbott.

These four MPs – all representing the Labour Party – consistently made history throughout their Parliamentary careers, with Paul Boateng becoming the first black cabinet minister in 2002, serving as Chief Secretary to the treasury until 2005. All four were members of a now-defunct caucus within Parliament called the Labour Party Black Sections (LPBS) which fought to increase the number of black Britons selected as candidates by the Labour Party.

Diane Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, has served as an MP for 33 years. Having graduated from Cambridge, she joined a fast track scheme in the Home Office department of the HM Civil Service, before becoming a researcher and reporter for Thames Television in 1980. From 1985-86, she became a press officer for Ken Livingston, who later became the Mayor of London, before she became the Head of Press and Public Relations at Lambeth Council in 1986.

Abbott was elected to Parliament in 1987, however, she had served as a member of the Westminster City Council since 1982. Throughout her Parliamentary career, Abbott served in many shadow cabinets positions, but was never appointed to the front bench during Tony Blair or Gordon Brown’s governments. Continuing to represent her constituency, she has been one of the most consistent voices for social justice throughout her more than three decades in Parliament.

The LPBS, set up in 1983, was a large driver behind the election success of Grant, Abbott and Boateng, with the group significantly increasing the representation of black people amongst the candidate's list for all elections. The 1986 council elections saw more than 200 African Caribbean and Asian candidates selected, a more than three-fold increase amongst Labour Party candidates.

Since 1987, there have been many more black Britons elected to Parliament (although still below the average population) with 26 black and mixed-race people being elected to Parliament in the subsequent decades.

Yet despite the increased representation in Parliament, it took until 2003 for the first black woman to be selected to serve in cabinet with Valerie Amos appointed as the Secretary of State for International Development, although she was a member of the House of Lords, not an elected member of the Commons, and served for just 6 months.

Baroness Amos, who was appointed to the Lords in 1997, just 28 years after Lord Constantine became the first black life peer 1969. The former cricketer served for just two years until his death in 1971, having been a lawyer and high commissioner following his Cricket career.

In 2000, Bernie Grant, who was amongst the class of 1987 and had served as the MP for Tottenham for 13 years, passed away, being replaced by David Lammy, who has since become one of the most significant voices in the House of Commons in speaking out against racism in the United Kingdom, particularly within the criminal justice system.

David Lammy attended SOAS University of London, before completing a Master of Laws at Harvard, becoming the first black Briton to attend Harvard Law School, graduating in 1997. In 2000 he was selected as a Labour candidate for the London Assembly, before being selected to replace Bernie Grant as the MP for the constituency in which Lammy had grown up.

At just 27, he became the youngest MP in the house, before becoming an under secretary of state for health in 2002. After Labour won a third successive general election in 2005, Lammy was appointed as a minister for Culture, Media and Sport, continuing to serve within government until Labour’s defeat at the 2010 election. He has since been a major voice within parliament in speaking against racism within the criminal justice system, and was appointed to become the Shadow Justice Secretary in 2020 by new Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer.

In 200 years of history, parliament has come a long way in increasing the representation of black Britons, but progress was extremely slow and has seen many periods of backwards steps. Whilst by 2020 we have seen many improvements, there is still yet to be a black Briton occupying any of the major great offices of state and systemic barriers to black Britons still exist.

With the celebration of black history and increased awareness of ongoing injustices within the United Kingdom, trailblazing black Britons such as Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng are forging a path for the future, but a full black history of parliament is yet to be written.