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Gary Younge
Getting it together

Worse still, I knew there were many back at home who would agree with them. The insults - "Go back to where you come from" - and the interrogation - "But where do you really come from?" - were still ringing in my ears. A few years later Norman Tebbit would set us his notorious test. So if news of the black MPs' election validated me in the eyes of the Sudanese, it also helped to legitimise my own personal narrative. It assisted me with a meaningful description of who I was, at a time when no definition was readily available. I was a black Briton; I even had "compatriots". I might have been born here, but their electoral success helped me feel that I had arrived.

In that sense, their victory was of symbolic importance. And while symbols should not be dismissed as insubstantial, they should not be mistaken for substance either. Fifteen years later, we have treble the number of black parliamentarians and a lower level of turnout in the black community. It is time to start asking whether they are serving Britain's minority communities as well as they might. The front page of last week's black newspaper, The New Nation, put it more starkly. Showing pictures of four black MPs, it asked: "What have you done for us lately?"

The issue here is not whether they are performing well individually. When it comes to the balance between their careers and consciences, many of us might wish to see a shift in priorities. But any way you look at it, some are doing brilliantly and none is doing worse than any of their white colleagues. But they did not get there by themselves alone. They were carried on the shoulders of those who took to the streets during the 1980s to protest against racism. Paul Boateng may have been appointed to the cabinet on "the content of his character", but "the colour of his skin" was a crucial qualification for the all-black shortlist from which he was selected in the mid-1980s. Much of the support for David Lammy, a junior minister, in Tottenham came from those who wanted a black MP to take over the late Bernie Grant's seat.

This detracts not one iota from their personal achievements. Nelson Mandela's brilliance is beyond question. But he would be the first to tell you that he couldn't have achieved it without the collective strength of black South Africans. There is only so much anyone can achieve individually. At present, black parliamentarians have no mechanism, structure or tradition of even talking to each other, let alone trying to shape policy. In a year that has seen the rise of the far right all over Europe, including here, the intensified scapegoating of asylum seekers and Muslims, riots in the north and a home secretary who refers to Britain being "swamped", they have not once met together. We look in their direction for a coordinated response to stop the racial discourse from going into freefall. What we see is a group of isolated individuals, vulnerable before the party machines and cautious before a racially hostile press, mostly looking the other way.

It doesn't have to be like this. Not because 12 represents a critical mass that could determine policy outcome, particularly given the government's majority, but because together they could exert a moral force that would outweigh their actual number. We need a parliamentary black caucus - an organisation giving coherence to the efforts of non-white legislators in both chambers and from all parties which could intervene at all levels of the decision-making process.

We need it because while race does not determine their politics, it does inform them. They need to meet, not so they can agree but so they can discuss and disagree, force issues on to the agenda that would otherwise be ignored and help to mould policies which would otherwise be imposed. Together, they could add a black dimension to general issues and a general dimension to black issues.

For the benefits of such an arrangement we should look to Washington and the congressional black caucus (CBC). Currently 38-strong, it meets once a week for lunch to discuss policies and priorities. Its decisions are not binding, but it is able to call senior officials to account. When the treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, returned from a recent trip to Africa, he was questioned by the CBC. The CBC will soon be holding its own hearings in Inglewood, California, following the recent videotaping of police brutality there.

Attempting to replicate this in Britain would not be without its problems. Where race is concerned, black has always been a political colour - one which describes a broad commonality of experience rather than a particular hue. But over the past few decades, the experiences of Britain's various ethnic groups have increasingly fractured, particularly economically and culturally. Whether a caucus can encapsulate and express those divergences is a moot point. On key issues such as immigration, ID cards and the criminal justice system, there would probably be few problems; on Kashmir and religious education, strains might show. A caucus in parliament could also become another tool for career advancement within the system, rather than an attempt to reach outside parliament and make the system more accessible. Both potential problems suggest caution is needed; neither should be taken as an excuse not to try.

Either way, the notion of a black caucus will have to overcome the familiar mix of peevish careerism, squeamish liberalism and reactionary venom that generally greets calls for black self-organisation. Some black MPs will balk for fear of being pigeonholed. Their anxiety is understandable, but it betrays a lack of self-confidence. Whenever black people join forces to think or talk, there will always be some who refer to it as a "ghetto". When white people do the same, we refer to it as a board of directors or thinktank.

The truth remains that without collective organisation little has ever been achieved, and the accusations hold no water outside a racially distorted mindset. Membership of one caucus does not prevent you from representing other interests or people. There is a group for Scottish MPs - nobody suggests that Gordon Brown cannot be a member of this and deal with the national economy. Liberals will worry about segregation. But a caucus would be seeking autonomous space within the mainstream to push for equality, not separation in order to deny it. Reactionaries will demand the same rights for whites, wilfully ignorant that between 1929 and 1987 there was a huge parliamentary white caucus. They called it the House of Commons.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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