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13 November 2014

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You are in: London > TV > Television > TV Features > A new script for politics?

Barack Obama

A new script for politics?

In a week which saw the American voter change the script for modern politics, Kurt Barling has been speaking to prominent members of the Black communities about whether there is likely to be an Obama effect here in London.

By Kurt Barling, BBC London's Special Correspondent

Like many Londoners I stayed up most of the night on November 4th. I watched with incredulity as what had seemed an American pipe dream, turned into a strong possibility and then, just past 4am, a reality.

In a brief few minutes, as the official announcement was made, the perception of who could lead a western developed nation was changed forever. Even if there was never another mixed race or black President of the USA (which I sincerely doubt) there will never be a time in which it is possible argue that a Black or mixed race leader is unelectable simply because of the colour of their skin. It has now been done.

Grant Park

Crowds watch Obama in Chicago

Inevitably, questions have been asked and debated here over the past few days as to whether this could ever happen in Britain. It is probable although not inevitable that leaders in our community will emerge from different communities. The question is how and when.

From the grassroots

Equanomics was launched in the UK last year by the American politician Jesse Jackson. Viv Ahmun has been at the heart of its attempt to stimulate fresh political debate in minority communities. He believes that the stimulus for change must come from a grassroots movement. Communities need to develop coherent strategies to engage with local political institutions and in this way community organisers will gain the necessary leaderships skills to gain a role in national politics.

In Ahmun's view, Obama's election will have provided inspiration to many people who believed that it was not possible as an ethnic minority to gain access to the sources of power.  

The question of the resources needed to stimulate these fresh networks and support the incubation of civic leaders also needs to be addressed according to the Rev Nims Obunge of the Peace Alliance. The growing influence of the Black churches in bringing a community's voice to the table of national decision-making has been seen in the debates over gun and knife crime. Obunge believes that although these efforts have brought new voices into a dialogue with government it won't necessarily translate into new political leadership.

Political engagement

This may partly depend on the way the political parties decide to address the issue of engaging with minority communities. The statistics don't tell the whole story but out of 74 London MPs only 5 are from ethnic minorities.  4 London Assembly members out of 25 are Black or Asian and around 13.5 per cent of London councillors are from minorities. There is only one ethnic minority council leader in Tower Hamlets. By most measures these figures do not reflect the modern demographic of the capital.

It is difficult to establish a picture of just how many people get involved in politics at the local level but historically speaking minority communities have not been a significant part of the local political machinery.  

"Minority communities have not been a significant part of the local political machinery"

Kurt Barling

Shaun Bailey is the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush and believes that Obama will probably encourage greater involvement here by minority communities.  He hopes that it will help a more sophisticated debate to evolve where ethnic origin becomes less and less of a factor determining who should represent diverse constituencies. 

He believes that Obama's skill has been to get first Democrats and then the national electorate to look beyond the colour of his skin and to see the content of his character.

Standing for office

Of course, the changing demographic of America will have had a profound impact on just who is voting and that is unlikely to happen outside of urban areas of Britain for many years to come.

David Lammy

Higher Education Minister, David Lammy

What it probably does mean in London though is that the prospect of a Black or mixed-race Mayor is entirely imaginable. It will naturally depend on suitable candidates coming forward, but Obama's election will have scotched any idea that Black candidates for high office are a liability. That in itself should prompt more people to seek selection.

As Chuka Umunna, Labour PPC for Streatham, also points out there are a number of ethnic minority Ministers in the current government. The Attorney General Baroness Scotland, Higher Education Minister David Lammy and junior Ministers Sadiq Khan and Dawn Butler are examples. He believes that there is a greater willingness for his party to find representative candidates in winnable seats. With Helen Grant selected to stand in Anne Widdecombe's vacant seat in Maidstone and the Weald the same could also be said about the Conservative Party.

Appealing across racial divides

Obama has also made a strong impact on the prospects for transforming America's debate on race. In effect he has taken his appeal across the old cleavage of racial politics. It cannot be an accident that a man of mixed heritage has managed to do this.

Obama family

The new First Family

Obama's references to the dual cultural influences on his life, the slave blood of his wife's family and an African father along with the white mother and grandmother who raised him, enabled him to personally project an inclusive image.

There is a strong message in this for those who want to develop an inclusive political discourse here in the capital. It would still be rash to predict what the likely effect of Obama's success could be in London. Those who wish to lead mixed communities must decide what it is they want voters to follow.

Can it happen here?

What is clearly hoped though, is that the energy, enthusiasm and engagement of ordinary voters in his American campaign, can some how be replicated here. This week has seen a steady stream of optimistic voices saying they believe this opens up genuine opportunities to change the complexion of British politics.

I'm old enough to recall the impact of the speech Martin Luther King made when he said he dreamed of a day when men could be judged by the content of their character and not by the colour of their skin.  This past week it would be no exaggeration to say that Obama, as the most powerful elected politician in the world, has ascended that particular mountaintop. 

Of course now he just has to prove he can do the job well too.

last updated: 11/11/2008 at 13:28
created: 11/11/2008

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