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*Home > Exhibitions > Bernie Grant - People's Champion > 1980's Print page*
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This link opens in a new window - Protest Badge *

The 1980's

In the 1979 election, the Labour Government was defeated, and Margaret Thatcher became Britain's Prime Minister. She set about limiting the power of trades unions, cutting public expenditure, and reducing the role of the state. The Labour Party set about reforming its image, determined to revive its support amongst voters, by appealing to the middle classes which had deserted it.

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This link opens in a new window - Haringey defending services *

The 1980's saw discontent surfacing in Britain's inner cities, many British towns and cities with disturbances in London, Birmingham and elsewhere, just as inner city councils were being pressed to reduce expenditure on vital services. Policing of black communities caused mounting controversy and internationally the need for black self determination was highlighted by the struggle for freedom in South Africa. Against this background, an outspoken, charismatic black leader would find the going tough.

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At last, he was on the inside where decisions were taken. Early campaigns were for ethnic record keeping, for an end to racism in education, and for a new committee, the first of its kind, to ensure community representation in decision making (known as the Ethnic Minorities Joint Consultative Committee). He also developed close links with young black people on local council estates such as Broadwater Farm, and advocated the development of proper facilities for young people.

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This link opens in a new window - EMJCC Letter *
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His outspokenness met with resistance, and his outspokenness ruffled many feathers. His removal as committee chair in 1980, provoked this letter outlining the problems of Haringey's black community.
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Bernie Grant campaigned extensively against racial stereotyping as demonstrated in the racial incident files contained within the Archive. For example, the campaign against stereotyping in children's school books such as "Little Black Sambo".



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This link opens in a new window - Black Section Newsletter *
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The campaign for Black Sections in the Labour Party also occupied his time and he became a key spokesman for this campaign nationally.
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This link opens in a new window - Bernie Grant was elected as first ever Black Council leader in Europe.

This link opens in a new window - Mrs Thatcher's policies threatened local services and were highly unpopular locally.
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However it was the Government's "rate-capping" policy which was eventually to propel him to become the first black leader of a local authority in Europe in 1985. His popular campaign brought the community out in large numbers in opposition to the cuts in local jobs and services which would result from reduced expenditure.

Now a popular local figure, he had already recently been chosen as Labour's parliamentary candidate for Tottenham in 1985



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In his own words:
" I found myself in the House of Commons in much the same way I had become a councillor. It wasn't a great personal ambition. I had been asked before, but I'd said no, no, I'm not interested. I was approached in 1985 by a group of comrades who asked whether I'd like to stand in Tottenham, which is a multiracial constituency and we'd been hammering away at this idea of multiracialism, and the need to get black representation in all areas of government. People felt that there should be an MP who reflected the change in Tottenham. So this time I said 'fair enough, I'll have a go.' And I won."

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This link opens in a new window - Haringey Annual Report 1985/86 *

Meanwhile, under his Leadership, the Council set about ensuring that equality of opportunity was extended to all its residents. Jobs and services would be open to all, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and the first ever local authority environmental committee was established. Though commonplace now, this was pioneering at the time.


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Tottenham saw the most serious civil disturbances ever on the Broadwater Farm estate in 1985, in which a policeman, was murdered. The disturbances brought Bernie Grant to national prominence as he passionately articulated the perspectives of the young people involved, who believed that they had no option but to defend themselves against police harassment in what was to be his Tottenham constituency. His refusal to condemn the young people, and what he felt was a deliberate distortion of his remark that the young people believed that the Police had received " A bloody good hiding", was to put him in the national spotlight for the rest of his life.

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This link opens in a new window - Excerpt from the Broadwater Farm Inquiry Report.

This link opens in a new window - He puts the record straight at a dramatic Council meeting.
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The tabloid press engaged in wild speculation about the disturbances. Knowing the pressures on the estate, Bernie refused to condemn the rioters. As the focus of national attention, his words were fatefully distorted by the tabloid press.

The archive contains hundreds of newspaper clippings and racist hate mail which shows the strength of feeling which his stance provoked. There are also however letters of support and encouragement from those who understood inner city tensions.

During the late 1990s, Bernie Grant went on to campaign against the abuse of civil rights in the aftermath of the disturbances. He also went on to successfully campaign for the acquittal of Winston Silcott whose conviction for the murder of a policeman during the disturbances was eventually quashed.


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This link opens in a new window - Memorial of Cynthia Jarrett with Bernie Grant *

For a time his position as a parliamentary candidate hung in the balance. As the press called for Labour Leader Neil Kinnock to disown Bernie Grant, Kinnock however eventually agreed to visit the area to see for himself the situation on the ground and laid a wreath at the memorial of Cynthia Jarrett whose death sparked the disturbances.

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This link opens in a new window - Loony Left Press Clipping

This link opens in a new window - Loony Left Press Clipping

This link opens in a new window - This was the front page of a local newspaper on the eve of the 1986 local elections.
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Bernie commissioned a formal enquiry to look into the reasons for the disturbances.

Almost continuously for 2 years, the national tabloid press waged attacks on him and invented myths about the Council's progressive policies. None of these stories was true. The progressive policies became an issue in local and national elections.

The council's policies on lesbian and gay rights brought particular venom from the press and opposition parties, and they attracted national attention as elections approached. This was the front page on the eve of the Borough elections in 1986.Council meetings were disrupted and a local vicar threatened to starve himself to death until they were changed.


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In his own words:
"When you get targeted by the media, you just take it in your stride. When the Broadwater Farm riot occurred I had a hell of a lot of hassles, apart from the door-stepping the media were doing. All sorts of threats - death threats, threats of violence. I couldn't travel on public transport. The few times I tried it people would threaten to beat me up. I don't go into pubs anymore.
There is no doubt that the reaction would not have been so vitriolic if I'd have been white. Absolutely. It was very clear: I was the baddie of the year for the Tory party conference of 1985. In 1984 it was Arthur Scargill, but it was not the same thing. In 1985 someone got up at that conference and said, "This man should be deported." Now I'm a British citizen just like Scargill, but nobody would get up and say Scargill should be deported. So there was the extra racism element, over and above the normal abuse. I've talked to Ken Livingstone and other people that have been attacked but none of them have ever had the level of treatment I did. It's very much through the advent of papers like the Sun. What happens is that the Sun runs a headline 'Barmy Bernie'. So somebody cuts it out and sends it to me with some obscene message or something. Or they cut my picture out of the Daily Mail - another paper that was pretty bad - and they'd draw a noose around my neck and send that to me. So it's as if these papers and the racists are working hand-in-glove."


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Fed by the tabloid stories, sacks full of racist mail, including death threats, arrived at the Civic Centre. The archives contain a considerable amount of distressing and offensive hate mail sent to Bernie Grant; in addition there are racial incident dossiers and race relations research that Bernie maintained. This letter, with the tabloid clipping that accompanied it, is dated c.1996.


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This link opens in a new window - Hate Mail
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Note that this document contains language that is by its nature offensive to black and other ethnic minority groups. It has been included for the purpose of illustrating the disturbing nature and extent of racial hatred in contemporary British society as displayed towards Bernie Grant and other ethnic minority individuals.


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This link opens in a new window - Black Focus Leaflet Front

This link opens in a new window - Black Focus Leaflet Back
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His defence of local services of the black community earned him passionate support as a local election approached in 1986. Voters returned his party with a massively increased majority.
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This link opens in a new window - Hattersley Letter *
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The hate campaign continued however as the 1997 General Election approached and a nervous Labour Party leadership sought to distance itself from an increasingly vocal black membership.
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This link opens in a new window - Greater London Labour Party *
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Around the same time, Labour support his help in securing the black vote.
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This link opens in a new window - Letter from TA Stainsby *
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Finally elected as one of first black MP's of modern times in a campaign in which support came from surprising quarters.
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This link opens in a new window - Winning the 1987 election *
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His election in 1987, with four other black MP's was seen as an historic triumph for black representation, and a personal triumph after years of vilification in the press and media.
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This link opens in a new window - Caribbean Times *
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Elation in the black community.
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This link opens in a new window - Bernie in Dashiki
Photograph by Sharron Wallace
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* *Once in Parliament, he lost no time in making his point. The pictures went round the world as Bernie made an early and controversial statement of intent by attending the State Opening of Parliament wearing African dress.
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This link opens in a new window - congrats note from Weatherill *
* *Some felt this to be outrageous but the Speaker appreciated the gesture
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Courts controversy in his maiden speech to highlight the plight of the inner cities.

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In his own words:
"I see the House of Commons as giving me an opportunity to make the odd speech, get a little media coverage for black causes, and most important of all, when there are issues that come up, we are able for the first time to put forward a black point of view from within Parliament. That is important in terms of image for the black community. I don't know whether I'm a good role model myself, but the fact that black people can become MPs does get some esteem."

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This link opens in a new window - House of commons racism *
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The new MP's experienced racism however even in the Houses of Parliament
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In the locality, he uses his new office to defend local people.

There are copious amounts of material demonstrating the cases of injustice which he exposed.

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This link opens in a new window - Police Immigration Raids - Press release *
* *This is just one example from the extensive files containing press releases issued over 15 years, which form part of the collection:
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This link opens in a new window - INVITATION TO THE LAUNCH OF THE PARLIAMENTARY BLACK CAUCUS
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Bernie Grant set up the first Parliamentary Black Caucus with the new black MP's and Lord David Pitt and brought United States Congressional Black Caucus members to the UK. The demand for greater black representation was a constant theme throughout his political career.


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