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The changing, more assertive Caribbean diaspora

Published:Sunday | October 26, 2014 | 10:00 AM
Businesswoman Khami Alexander poses a question for the panel at the JNBS-sponsored forum, Caribbean Question Time UK, in London.-Photo by Rod Leon

David Jessop THIS WEEK IN EUROPE

About 10 days ago some 600 invited participants from the United Kingdom's Caribbean diaspora gathered at a venue near the British Parliament.

The occasion was the latest in series of Caribbean Question Time events that the Jamaica National Building Society has been organising since 2009 through its money transfer business.

While diaspora interest in such events has grown steadily, previously this has not been matched by any deep interest on the part of the UK's three main political parties, leading to a feeling that in comparison to Britain's also large Asian community, many politicians previously saw those of Caribbean ancestry who had been living in the UK since the 1940s, with something close to indifference.

This event, however, appeared to mark a sea change in the way that the political parties will in future respond to voters of Caribbean heritage.

Gone was the struggle to encourage MPs to participate or have those involved from the main party organisations attend.

Not only were there three senior members of parliament present, happy and prepared to answer challenging questions for more than two hours, but there were also a number of prospective parliamentary candidates who will be standing in marginal seats, and representatives from each of the three main party organisations.

To a significant extent, this reflected the fact that Britain's May 2015 election is likely to be close and the parties know that every vote will count.

However, speaking to the representatives present from the party organisations, it was clear that for sometime now they have been trying to find ways to achieve a longer-term engagement with Britain's often disorganised Caribbean diaspora which traditionally has voted for the Labour Party.

What now seems to be the case is that this newfound interest is about more than short-term political opportunism or high-level political concern about voting intentions in marginal seats and is a reflection of the diversity of opinion that became apparent at the event.

As the evening went on, it became apparent from the questions being asked of the panel that there was probably a longer term reason for their interest. The Caribbean community was no longer homogenous socially or politically. There was now an aspirational younger generation supporting all three parties and interested in political activism, and there were many more broadly, who were trying to understand how to engage with the political process.

At the event, the political representatives seemed surprised by the size of the gathering - it was a sell out and people had to be turned away - with one MP on the panel noting how rare it was to see such large numbers in the UK at a political gathering.

The concept of the meeting was simple, and based on a BBC model used by the UK's domestic television and radio services for its weekly Question Time events.

A moderator took presubmitted questions, called on the individuals concerned to put them to the politicians and other guests on the panel, and then encouraged them to answer and debate the issues, with additional questions sometimes being taken from the floor.

The themes had partly been taken from a manifesto that the Black Churches had published, suggesting how they and the political parties might become more closely engaged in political and social issues.

Surprisingly however, some of those representing the Church, which has become an essential element in voter registration and social and political activism, seemed unclear as to how they intended promoting their own manifesto and seemingly failed to realise that the dynamic of political dialogue within a part of the Caribbean diaspora was undergoing a significant change.

That said, the exchanges were frank, challenging and sometimes funny, and covered a wide range of issues.

Tellingly, one lady asked why when the Caribbean diaspora was innately conservative, valued family and church, Britain's Conservative Party was more closely engaged.

Another from the President of University College London's Caribbean Society, in itself an interesting development, asked the senior Liberal Democrat MP, Simon Hughes, why the Caribbean community was not "recognised" and taken as much notice of as the Asian community.

In a particularly frank response, MP Hughes noted: "As somebody who's been around a while and been there with people trying to lobby us, the Caribbean community has almost never put pressure on MPs."

"Every year we are lobbied by the Sikh community in Parliament. On a regular basis we are lobbied by the Muslim community. I represent many people from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ghana and when the Sierra Leone civil war was happening there was huge engagement with the Sierra Leone community. ... I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of occasions when I've had Caribbean groups coming to seek to influence Parliament," he said.

Increasingly, the Caribbean overseas community no longer has the same distinctive identity. In the UK it is no longer overwhelmingly dominated by those employed in the public sector.

Moreover,. as people of Caribbean origin have prospered there, they have moved into more affluent areas, intermarried, and been joined by professionals from the Caribbean.

None of which is of course to seek to underplay the social problems that many in the diaspora face, nor to set aside continuing issues with policing, marginalisation or discrimination, but to indicate the increasing diversity of thought within the UK's Caribbean community.

As for the Caribbean's understanding of this relatively new phenomenon, most nations have yet to work out a coherent strategy to address or seek the support of an overseas community set to become ever more socially and politically diverse, and eventually remote.

To their credit, politicians of both political parties in Jamaica have recognised the need to engage with newer generations knowing that if they do not do so now, the value of such engagement will be lost forever.

However, a coherent strategy remains elusive, and the same cannot be said of the rest of the region.

All of which begs the question: why if Britain's politicians are beginning to understand the significance of the Caribbean overseas community, plans for new forms of engagement are not high on the agenda of Caricom Heads of Government.

David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council.david.jessop@caribbean-council.org