13 years after his death, Bernie Grant’s legacy still inspires Tottenham

When I was growing up I used to spend a lot of time in my dad’s office. It was an intriguing place with mannequins, fabrics, sewing machines and walls covered with pages from fashion magazines, sometimes of celebrities wearing his designs.

There was one wall, however, which was totally out of place. From memory it featured an eclectic mix of items including a postcard speech of Martin Luther King, a yellow ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badge, an anti-Nazi League leaflet and a newspaper clipping of Bernie Grant.

I recognised ‘Mr Grant’, as the Tottenham Labour party office was only up the road and he was often around the neighbourhood, popping in to say hi. He didn’t seem famous, he didn’t have bodyguards and at the age of seven I could not understand why he was in the newspapers: who was he?

Grant began his political journey in 1969 when he left university in protest over discrimination of black students. Shortly afterwards, he got a job as an international telephonist where he became involved in the trade union movement campaigning for rights of black workers. Living in Tottenham, he joined the local Labour party in 1973 and became a councillor in 1978.

Within the Labour movement, he set up the ‘black sections’ in 1983. These called for more black representation within the party. Parliament had never had a black MP despite generations of black people living and contributing to the nation. He addressed the Labour party conference in 1984 to gain party recognition for the ‘black sections’ which included Keith Vaz, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and chaired fellow Haringey councillor Narendra Makanji.

In his address, he said “black people have been in Britain a very, very long time and we are going to be here a long time yet”, and he called for representation on black issues, which included Parliamentary representation as MPs, an ambitious goal. The following year, he had broken a political barrier of his own by becoming the leader of Haringey Council, the first black person to ever hold a leader’s role in Europe.

For many first generation immigrants like my dad, coming to Britain was really hard. He told me of the ‘No blacks, no dogs & no Irish” posters and how he was regularly racially abused. It was virtually impossible to find work as people didn’t want to employ foreigners and when he first came he had to sleep in a house shared with three other families as the work they could get was poorly paid.

Like my dad, Grant was also an immigrant, and faced similar discrimination, yet he still made it. This for people like my dad and hundreds of thousands of immigrants across the world made Grant an inspiration. Under Grant, Haringey Council championed policies for racial, disability, gender and sexual orientation equality – he had not forgotten his purpose, now in power.

In 1985, shortly after Grant became the leader of Haringey Council, the Broadwater Farm riots occurred. Surreal images of that night still remain. I watched from my bedroom the as clouds of black smoke fill the skies of Tottenham and the melody of sirens continued throughout the night. A sense of confusion remained for some time afterwards; there was no social media or alternative news sources on the internet and the perspective of many in Tottenham would never to be heard in the wider world.

Grant challenged the perceptions pushed by the Tory propaganda machine; uncompromisingly he gave an account of the wider causes of the disturbances and the experiences of local young people.

Unemployment was high and opportunities were low. The right-wing media branded him ‘Barmy Bernie’ but locally he gained respect for standing his ground and the following year Haringey Labour won a greater majority in the local elections.

In 1987, he was selected to stand as Labour’s candidate for Tottenham: should he succeed he would be the first black MP in Britain. It is difficult to explain what the atmosphere was like in the run up to the election. Economically times were hard for everyone but with the multiple barriers in the way for many black and minority ethnic people, the financial climate hit twice as hard. So having a cause to fight for ignited a passion and sense of purpose.

The streets were full of ‘Vote Labour’ posters, leaflets found on counters in every other shop and a real sense of community developed. Although Tottenham had been a safe Labour seat for decades, racism still prevailed so the colour of Grant’s skin was likely to play a negative part in the end result and this meant people had to work extra hard to make this happen.

Finally, election night came and the television was on all night as we waited for the results, I fell asleep but was awoken by the sound of celebrations normally only heard in my house when India won the cricket. Although he had lost 8.4 per cent of the vote, Grant had an overall majority of over 4,000 and was now the new MP for Tottenham, one of the first four new black MPs in Parliament.

In true Bernie style he attended his first State Opening of Parliament in African dress and over the forthcoming elections his majority grew and he continued to represent the people of Tottenham until April 2000.

Sadly, this week marks 13 years since Bernie Grant’s death. Memories of his funeral procession driving through Tottenham, passing thousands of mourning well-wishers still give me goose-bumps.

But he leaves behind a legacy for many in Tottenham who are inspired by his tenacity to keep fighting for what he believed in; who was fearless in his conduct; who stood up for people and gave a voice to the unheard, especially to young people; who broke boundaries and challenged what was possible.

This piece was also featured in the Tottenham Journal