Not Black and White

Why should ethnic minorities be castigated for voting Conservative when the Left have betrayed them educationally?

Katharine Birbalsingh

In spite of our expressed intention of serving the needs of inner-city children, it has become clear that Lambeth council will never support us in trying to set up a free school. So we have turned to Wandsworth, which is Conservative-run, in our search for a school site.

To many people in my world, the idea that Conservatives should be the ones who are seeking social justice is contradictory. To lefties, ethnic minorities and inner-London dwellers, Conservatism is simply at odds with concepts of justice, equality and truth. But if the Left is so concerned with these values, why would its councils rush to sell off buildings to prevent free schools from establishing themselves? Free schools are simply a gift from central government, offering any local community the chance to set up a school that meets its needs. This is not to mention the massive injection of cash a free school brings to the community. Yet Camden prevented the establishment of a free school by selling a building and Bedford delayed a free school’s opening by a year. If they truly believed in social justice, why would these Labour-run councils oppose the idea of providing inner-city children with much-needed school places and the possibility of better schooling? 

It took me many years to see the contradictions of the Left. As an ethnic-minority, comprehensive-schooled, inner-city state-school teacher, I simply swallowed the mantra of the Right being bad and the Left good. I believed Conservatives were interested in making the rich richer while Labour helped ethnic minorities, the poor and oppressed to succeed. Of course, some in the Labour Party, such as the MPs Frank Field and Kate Hoey, are true to their ideals. Kate Hoey did everything she could to support our free school bid in Lambeth, but was unable to soften the hard-edged ideology of  Lambeth officers and councillors. Unlike these councillors she believes in providing the black kids of Brixton with real opportunity. Unfortunately, not all on the Left are like her. In north Lambeth only one child out of every 100 gets the Ebac (five C grades in English, maths, science, a language and either history or geography). Yet every Lambeth councillor I have spoken to implies that black children, poor children, those with single mums, are incapable of real achievement by claiming their schools are doing well, “given their intake”.

No one seems to notice this blatant prejudice. At election time, the ethnic minority population will fill the polling booths and blindly tick the boxes for unknown Labour councillors-just as I once did. So those councillors never fear for their positions: they know they can count on the ethnic minority vote. There are historical reasons for this. In colonial times, Labour held out a helping hand when Conservatives ignored the black man’s plight. But nowadays the ethnic minority population should question this belief.

I have learnt the hard way. Not only has the Left fought us every step of the way in the establishment of our free school, but when I voted Conservative last year, many on the Left were deeply hurt. I cannot count the number of times I heard that “someone like me” should know better. There was a deep sense of betrayal: how dare I, a woman of colour, vote Conservative when I should be grateful to the intellectual Left elite? They understand Toby Young being a Conservative. People like me are not allowed such freedoms.

But if the Left is so concerned with the ethnic minority plight, how can Hackney council be attempting to shut down the black bookshop Centerprise, which hosts all sorts of events for the black community? Not only that, but Hackney council has one of the worst records for placing adopted children, whereas Harrow (which has a far smaller ethnic population) is the best. Most children in care in Hackney are from ethnic minorities. Because certain councils are unable to move babies off their books quickly, these babies are grown before you know it and lose their appeal for many potential adoptive families, thus ensuring them a lifetime in and out of care.

Not all left-wing councils have absolutely rejected free schools: Newham, for instance, has embraced Peter Hyman’s. Being Tony Blair’s strategist before becoming a teacher probably explains Hyman’s success. The difficulty Ray Lewis-Boris Johnson’s adviser and former deputy mayor who does remarkable work with local black boys-has had with Newham council leaves me wondering what on earth is going on.

The problem may lie with the Conservative Party. It does very little to show ethnic minorities that Tories might have something to offer them. Nor does it challenge the ludicrous assumption that Conservatives are bad by definition. I wish ethnic minorities were floating voters. Then the Right might take some notice of us, and the Left might not take us for granted.

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