In the wake of the stalled Brexit, young politicians of African origin are emerging as some of the sanest voices. Writes Clayton Goodwin.
Africans are finding a way to make their influence felt beyond the fragmented parameters of traditional British politics. I was reminded of this when my wife said “I feel that this has got nothing to do with me” as we walked to the polling station to cast our votes in the recent European Parliamentary elections.
Since arriving here from her Jamaican homeland as a schoolgirl, she has invested a lifetime in Britain, but with the Conservative Party shattered and Labour seemingly unable to decide which way to turn, this electoral battle was fought out by the newly-founded Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, neither of whom are known for the number of Black people within their ranks.
To add a theatrical touch to the tragedy, Theresa May resigned as Prime Minister between the casting and the counting of the ballots. At the steps of Downing Street, ‘tearful Theresa’ cried for herself but not for the victims of her ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy.
Even now several thousand European Union citizens were denied their right to vote in this election. The error was blamed on administrative malfunction. That, although probably true, sounded a touch hypocritical coming from those who would blame as ‘malpractice’ any similar electoral shortcoming in an African country.
James Cleverly, whose mother came from Sierra Leone, and Samuel Gyimah of Ghanaian heritage and Oxford University education, one of the few top Tories to advocate holding a second referendum on EU membership, are among the dozen and-more MPs who had flirted with the idea of challenging for the Conservative Party leadership but any appeal they may have would need to lie in the years ahead.
The young African connection
Magid Magid, an unusual politician by any standards, sporting the T-shirt slogan ‘immigrants make Britain great’, shone in the European elections by winning a seat for the Green Party in the Yorkshire and Humberside region.
Born in Somalia, this former child refugee, whose mother worked as a cleaner, has crammed a lot into his 29 years. He has been mountaineering, having climbed Kilimanjaro, run marathons for charity – once dressed as a tree – participated in the television reality show Hunted, and gained a degree in aquatic zoology.
Until a few months ago, he was Lord Mayor of Sheffield, the city where the unemployment caused by the devastation of the steel industry led to men taking up unusual ways of making a living – including striptease, as in the film The Full Monty.
Magid, who has brought a sense of fun to politics, has described UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), progenitors of the Brexit Party, as “competent at being evil”, exploiting “people’s disengagement with politics and their frustration”.
Daze Aghaji, a 19 year-old student from Goldsmiths College in London, was the most eye-catching of those young people who, riding the current popular mood of the Extinction Rebellion to save the environment and the planet, came together as ‘Climate and Ecological Emergency Independent’ candidates.
Daze expressed herself as “hoping to make a fresh face in politics”.
Her concern for the environment found resonance with the public. It was close to her own south-east London neighbourhood that nineyear-old Ella Kissi-Debrah died from acute respiratory failure arising from asthma.
The first inquest did not specify what had brought on the asthma. The dignified and clear-cut manner in which Ella’s mother, Rosamund, has fought successfully for a second inquest to be opened has caught the hearts and imagination of the nation. She was backed up by Professor Stephen Holgate’s report that air pollution levels at a monitoring station one mile from her daughter’s home consistently exceeded lawful EU limits over three years prior to her death.
Rosamund told a major rally in Central London that she was “too heartbroken to be angry”.
Just a short while ago Chuka Umunna, telegenic and one of the few African parliamentarians favoured by media commentators, was touted as ‘Britain’s Obama’. A prominent advocate of the country’s membership of the European Union, he was regarded as an unofficial spokesman of the ‘moderate’ opposition to the Labour Party’s hard-left leadership and placed well for preferment should the tide of opinion turn.
Earlier this year, however, he and ten other MPs resigned from the traditional parties to sit in Parliament as independents. That was fair enough – but they were persuaded by peer and press pressure, and the desire to fight these elections, for which they were ill-prepared, to form a new party (Change UK).
This tactical blunder put them into opposition with the other parties they wished to influence, and they were crushed before they got started. Umunna was now in the position of a cricket batsman who starting on a run finds that nobody else has left the crease and he is stranded mid-wicket. A number of MPs then left Change UK, and Umunna was one of them. At the time of going to press, he has joined the Liberal Democracts, a party that the like-minded Change UK had considered merging with. The Lib Dem leadership will become vacant when the veteran Sir Vince Cable retires. Could Chuka take it on? We will see.
Femi Oluwole, too, found himself wrong-footed in the political conundrum of the Peterborough parliamentary by-election which was caused by the deselection of former incumbent Fiona Onasanya after she had been jailed for perverting the course of justice.
With Nigel Farage’s newly-founded populist Brexit party sweeping up the Leave vote, the fragmented Remain movements wanted to put up a united candidate by sinking their differences in support of Oluwole, the co-founder and chief spokesman of Our Future, Our Voice, the youth campaign for a second referendum – the People’s Vote.Femi turned down the invitation amid rumours that Labour had put pressure on him through the People’s Vote coming within that party’s influence.
Miatta Fahnbulleh, the Liberia-born chief executive of the New Economics Foundation, shamed the politicians, who have been immobilised by their fear of the opinion polls and the media, by her exposition of the Brexit question on the television programme Question Time.
It was an impressive performance. Miatta, who did her dissertation on the adoption of and success of industrial policy in Ghana and Kenya, was formerly head of cities in the policy unit of the Cabinet Office and then director of policy and research at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
There was more encouraging news in education. Sonita Alleyne, 51-year-old businesswoman and media executive, has been elected as Master of Jesus College at Cambridge University. She will be the first female (and Black) head of a college founded in 1496. The Barbadian, who was brought up in Leytonstone (east London) and educated at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, began her media career at Jazz FM. She has progressed to membership of the BBC Trust, the corporation’s governing body, and, among numerous other honours over the years, was recently appointed as chair of the British Board of Film Classification (colloquially, the “censors”).
Meanwhile Mike Fuller, the former Chief Constable of Kent Police, asked recently why he was the first, and still only, Black officer to achieve such a high ranking. It is a reasonable question so far unanswered. Among other initiatives, he set up Operation Trident to combat Black-on-Black (mainly gun) violence.
“Yes,” I told my wife on our way back from the polling station. “This election has got everything to do with you – with us – the country and society we wish our children to inherit.” Out there, away from the political shenanigans, are the people bringing it about.