Caribbean Brits - Yes, you can!
By Debbie Ransome,
writing from London
It was called Caribbean Question Time UK, with the challenging subtitle: “We can make a difference.”
And that was the exact message passed on throughout the evening, as a Caribbean-British audience met MPs from the country’s three main political parties.
The ornate hall in Westminster – a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament – was the perfect setting for a discussion about the role of being Caribbean in modern British society.
Organisers and politicians alike repeated the message for the Caribbean voter in the UK: if you want to make a difference, get organised, vote, become councillors and MPs and make sure your collective voice is heard.
The event on 3 December was called Caribbean Question Time. Based on the BBC TV political audience programme Question Time, it followed that format, allowing members of the audience to put politicians on the spot over issues of the day.
The panel consisted of Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote (OBV), Mike Gapes (Labour), Nick de Bois (Conservative), Simon Hughes (Liberal Democrat) and Dr Floyd Millen of the think tank Yes Minister.
As the evening moved on, it was clear that the Caribbean Diaspora was also being put on the spot, with constant challenges reminiscent of John F Kennedy’s comments: “Don’t ask what your country can for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
The Caribbean edition of Question Time brought MPs from Britain’s three main political parties to answer questions which had been sent in advance and read out by their senders as members of the audience from the floor.
The topics ranged from Britain’s controversial Air Passenger Duty (APD) to whether Britain had fallen out of love with the Caribbean.
The theme of the panellists’ responses remained the same: make your vote count and come together, so that the mainstream political parties cannot ignore you.
Labour MP Mike Gapes urged the audience to get further involved in politics at local, national and European levels.
He said that while the Labour party had made early moves to bring the first Caribbean MPs into British politics in 1988 with the election of Jamaican-born Diane Abbott and Guyanese-born Bernie Grant, those gains had slowed.
“We have made some progress, but not nearly enough,” he told the packed hall.
That answer clearly led to the issue of the sacking of Diane Abbott from Labour’s shadow cabinet earlier in the year.
Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote (OBV), one of the organisers behind the event, raised Ms Abbott’s removal from the shadow cabinet, but concluded by throwing the real challenge back at the audience.
He pointed out that Labour had sacked Ms Abbott “because they could”.
Mr Woolley added that politicians treaded more carefully with decisions involving Asian representatives, because they were aware of the possible backlash from the Asian community.
“They did it [removed Diane Abbott] because there’s not feedback from us,” he told the audience.
In your hands
Taking questions on whether Caribbean voters could make a difference, all of the MPs rolled out figures to indicate the number of constituencies where Caribbean voters could dictate the outcome of the vote.
That was, of course, if they came out to vote and made their issues clear to local politicians.
“It’s entirely in the hands of the diaspora,” Conservative MP Nick de Bois told the audience.
He pointed out that it was not only a question of numbers, “but the quality of how you use those numbers”.
Urging more Caribbean engagement in British political life on the issues Caribbean people care about, Mr de Bois said: “You’ll be pushing at an open door.”
One door that Caribbean groups have been trying to open up is the APD, which has, year on year, raised the cost of travel to the Caribbean.
The issue is over the Caribbean being placed in a tax band that makes its tax level higher than flying to Hawaii, which sits in the US tax band.
For the Tories’ Nick de Bois, this was an example of a business case to be made by Caribbean and other lobby groups on the economic gains to be made by the government if it moved the Caribbean to another band.
A former businessman himself, Mr de Bois suggested a lobby based on calling for band allocation changes, which would make more money from the APD but place the Caribbean in a more advantageous tax band.
Labour’s Mike Gapes said that it would not make sense to call for the scrapping of the APD.
He pointed out that the Treasury [Finance Ministry] was “always reluctant to give up any source of income”.
Simon Hughes of the Liberal Democrats pointed out that the anti-APD lobby had been running since 2009.
“Just making noise has not changed the argument,” he told the audience.
Pointing out that the APD raised £2.9bn for British coffers, he suggested one option could be proposing a change of bands, to be based on cities rather than countries, which would mean that Hawaii fell into a different category from Washington.
As MPs urged the Caribbean and other lobby groups to “come up with a cleverer argument” on the APD, audience members could be seen taking notes.
The applause was less vociferous at this stage, but the message was clearly being noted.
Dealing with deportation
The other bone of contention – sending people born in the Caribbean home after they had committed a crime – did, however, get the applause back into full-on mode.
One audience member received much applause when she said that young people born in the Caribbean and brought to England as children had “learnt to be criminals in the UK”.
All the MPs, however, made it clear that their parties had no plans to change rules on keeping criminals in the UK and paying for their upkeep and rehabilitation.
Mike Gapes of the Labour party did make the argument for more flexibility and compassion on some deportation cases.
But Simon Hughes of the Liberal Democrats summed up the politicians’ shared response: “If you are not British, then there is no argument for us to pay significant amounts of money [for you] to stay in prison here.”
He drew applause in adding that these rules applied whether a person was from Jamaica, Trinidad or anywhere else.
The issues of the education of black boys in British schools, police stop-and-search, employment and housing discrimination all came up and received the perennial responses urging improvements, monitoring and funding.
On European migration levels, the current political hot potato in British political circles, all the panellists warned against the Caribbean community getting into an “anti-foreigner mindset”.
Mike Gapes pointed out that 1.4 million British people lived in Europe and that London was now a global city.
He argued that anti-European rhetoric would harm everybody.
“It won’t stop with Bulgarians and Romanians,” he told the Caribbean audience.
Simon Hughes said that the British governments of the time had not valued the Commonwealth enough when they had changed migration laws in line with the European Union.
He added, however, that as an MP, he had been visited by several people of Caribbean and other origins who had been sent to “play the [migration] system” by some whom he called “really rubbish lawyers”.
Simon Woolley of OBV took the responses to another level, describing the current migrant issue as the “biggest bogus political debate”.
“It was not Polish workers who have brought us to the edge, it was the bankers,” he said.
Future Caribbean-UK relations
So, has Britain fallen out of love with a post-colonial Caribbean as it pursues other global sweethearts?
When this question came up in different guises during the final part of the question session, all three politicians indicated a willingness to engage better with the modern Caribbean.
Labour’s Mike Gapes said that Britain was due what he called a “heritage discussion” to get people to discuss the legacy of Britain’s grand infrastructure, including the ornate hall where the event was being held.
He said a wider discussion was needed to remind people that such buildings across Britain had been built with money from the slave trade.
However, he added that the modern message was that globalisation had meant that the world was different today.
Pointing out that other waves of migrants had come to Britain since Caribbean people had first arrived, he advised the Caribbean Diaspora to think globally, as the Caribbean role was now “one of several competing relationships”.
The Conservatives’ Nick de Bois said that the event had “made us listen” and could be the start of a dialogue.
He advised, however, that nothing would be achieved unless it was a “two-way street”.
The Liberal Democrats’ Simon Hughes admitted that, because the Caribbean was small in numbers, “it’s not had the attention of China and the US”.
He proposed a UK/Caribbean Forum to take place in London to engage the Caribbean Diaspora and bring together political parties and the business community, to improve links in a way that could become part of the political parties’ manifestos.
Right to the end of the discussion, the “get involved” message was the main one coming from MPs, the other panellists and organisers.
“Get active, be involved,” Labour Mike Gapes told the audience.
“If you feel there’s no point, you’ve already defeated yourselves.”
As groups of Caribbean audience members left the ornate hall to seek out Tube connections and parked cars in the Westminster area, Big Ben sounded, reminding the departing audience of the British democracy they had been asked to play a greater role in.
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