‘The Black Vote’: Public Discourses in the Public Sphere

Est. read time: 8 min

In this blog, I return to the subject of my last: ‘The Black Vote’ and the 2015 General Election.

Simon Wooley, head of Operation Black Vote - by Coventry City Council (Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Simon Wooley, director of Operation Black Vote – by Coventry City Council (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It is clear that Operation Black Vote (OBV) was not well pleased with the blog. Indeed, OBV director Simon Woolley (pictured – right) called me a few days ago to raise his objections to the article on two grounds. One was that in OBV’s view the article misrepresented their position by claiming that OBV appears to want to send out a message to Black Britain that hope, if not salvation, lies in throwing in their lot with these politically and morally bankrupt political parties’ and the other, implying that OBV sees ‘the black electorate as some unified, undifferentiated mass that can collectively bring about change’.

Simon Woolley’s more fundamental objections, however, had to do with what he saw as my undermining of the efforts of people such as OBV who were fighting the same cause as myself by writing in this ‘critical tone’ rather than picking up the phone and speaking to him. He felt he had a right to expect that, rather than a blog in which I was effectively ‘washing our dirty linen in public’.

It is possible for me to say much about OBV’s objections to the blog. In this article, though, I want to address their last point about having internal conversations as black people fighting for a common cause so as not to appear ‘disunited’ and to be ‘pulling one another down’. In their view, the latter is what happens when we ‘wash our dirty linen in public’.

There has been a tendency ever since the 1950s for community based African organisations in the UK and especially those from the Diaspora to discuss issues facing our communities ‘in private’ and in spaces where white people could not claim an automatic right to be part of the conversation.

Given the level of infiltration of progressive and especially ‘Black Power’ organisations by the State and its apparatuses  and the need to share people’s experience of racism in the community, in the workplace, in political parties and elsewhere across the country, that space for ‘talking to ourselves about ourselves’, clarifying our ideological positions, sharing what we knew of how the police and the British Secret Service were operating in relation to many of our struggles and examining what the Left in Britain was doing on the issue of ‘race’ and racism in the Labour movement was absolutely critical.

We were, after all, people from a common Ancestry coming together for the first time in most cases, whether we were from the different countries in the Caribbean region, or from the African continent, most of whom had experienced Britain under colonialism, as well as the neo-colonialism it had spawned since former colonies won their political independence and hoisted their national flag.

‘Working for the man’

I well remember being thrown out of a political meeting at 22 Alfred Road in Acton, just off the High Street and a stone’s throw from my parents’ home in 1969. 22 Alfred Road was the home of the Small family, a family of fearless revolutionary warriors from Gouyave in Grenada.

My brother Clem John was a member of the Black Panthers, my younger brother, the late Stanley John, was a member of a cell in Acton as were many of his peers. My sin was that I had taken a job with the Runnymede Trust, doing action research on youth and race in the inner-city of Handsworth in Birmingham. I was Runnymede’s first paid worker barring their director Dipak Nandy and the staff in their office at 2 Arundel Place in Aldwych in London.

That Alfred Road meeting took the view that because I ‘worked for the man’ (a phrase that nowadays translates, curiously and irritatingly, into ‘working on the plantation’), I could not be allowed to be part of the meeting. That was despite the fact that I had been so alarmed about what I had been witnessing in Birmingham, especially in relation to the treatment black people were receiving at the hands of the police  and in schools, that I felt it was necessary to share it with that meeting and try and strengthen the links between the radical black movement in London and ourselves in Birmingham.

That said, we also knew that we had to be part of the conversation in the country and among the political class that was about us and the way we were being projected to the country.

But even then, not everyone observed and respected the firm boundaries that were erected between blacks and whites in the society. A radical and revolutionary brother who was eager to flaunt his uncompromising radicalism by booting the likes of me out of a political meeting was equally comfortable entertaining white philanthropists and especially white women outside of those meetings, people who were even better placed to provide information to ‘the system’ than I was.

Those were contradictions with which we lived and which are part of the human condition and as such part of any struggle, as history has revealed across the centuries, whatever pretensions to the contrary there may be.

"Voters short and tall" by Columbia City Blog (Flickr - CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Voters short and tall” by Columbia City Blog (Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Against that background, I was intrigued to see the number of African activists who were prepared to berate me for my recent blog on defining the African family in the context of African Liberation Day celebrations for ‘washing dirty linen in public’, without presenting one single argument in refutation of my position in the article. The messenger and the fact that I dare speak these ‘uncomfortable truths’ without fear or favour becomes the issue and the target of attack, rather than the message which those whom it angers refuse to contest in public.

And so to Operation Black Vote.

That anachronistic and frankly meaningless position on ‘dirty linen’ being washed in public is both backward and dangerous.

The notion of ‘washing our dirty linen’ rather suggests that we, the Black Electorate or at least those purporting to be ‘leaders’ of people or of opinion among them, are a ‘family’ that is bound together by common ties, bonds, beliefs, origins or experiences, all of which presuppose an unspoken right to certain loyalties and expectations. The implicit assumption is that to refuse to sign on to, or to respect those loyalties and deliver those expectations, therefore, places one at odds with the collective, undermines its cohesion and leaves it vulnerable to outsiders.

Those on the outside are not presumed to have an interest in your internal business or the way in which you are dealing with it. You might be operating in the most undemocratic and tyrannical way, denying members of your group natural justice let alone human rights, obliterating those who oppose you or insist upon sharing an alternative position with the collective; but you still feel that all of that is an internal matter and of no concern to anybody else.

If, therefore, any one of your own spills the beans and opposes you externally, they are dealt with mercilessly for taking the collective’s business outside the closed circle and empowering outsiders to cause it potential harm.

I have never signed on to the tenets of any such group, nor have I sought to belong to one.  Operation Black Vote is not a secret society as far as I am aware. Rather, it is an organisation that operates in the public sphere, commenting on the democratic process in the UK and the right of black and ethnic minority people to be part of that process and not be marginalised within it through acts of commission or omission on the part of those, of whatever political party, who form the majority ethnic group in the country.

Whatever OBV puts in the public domain is presumably for public consumption. The public can endorse, criticise it, comment favourably upon it, recommend it to political parties, governments, donors or punters in the nearest pub.

The suggestion, therefore, that a blogger cannot or should not analyse and critique what Operation Black Vote does or publishes, irrespective of whether or not that is with the primary intention of advancing ‘the cause of the BME community’ is in my view entirely spurious.  The fact that it is someone like myself who is a political activist and commentator who is commenting on OBV’s public pronouncements should not make an iota of difference.

I am not in a pact with OBV any more than I am with the Lib Dems, the Labour Party or UKIP.

As I told Simon Woolley, I believe in ‘open, free and democratic debate’. I believe that such debate is empowering and adds to the political literacy of the society and especially of young people. I believe that empowering the individual to develop his/her capacity to act in a self-directing way and to take collective action with others in pursuit of change is at the very heart of the process of managing and expanding a democratic culture.

That is why what OBV does is so very important. That is why it should not seek to silence those who engage in open discourse in the public sphere about the positions it espouses, but should defend its case in the public sphere and not expect to be allowed to say what it likes without fear of contradiction by having meetings behind closed doors with those who prefer open, free and democratic debate in the public sphere and might therefore take issue with them, publicly.

OBV, you have started a debate. In the 20 months or so before the 2015 General Election, let that debate continue!

Photo (home): “Guest Speaker Simon Wolley Director (Operation Black Vote) addressing BME Employee Network Members” by Coventry City Council (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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