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New level of CARICOM activism emerges in the UK

Published:Sunday | March 28, 2010 | 12:00 AM


On or around May 6, the United Kingdom will have a general election.

Its outcome is far from certain.

The opinion polls suggest that the gap between the two main parties is narrowing in the key marginal constituencies that the opposition Conservative Party must win if it is to take gover-ment from the ruling Labour Party.

There are also signs that the third party, the Liberal Democrats, is gaining support and that large numbers of voters, disillusioned with the political class, could skew the outcome by voting for fringe parties, independent candidates, or not at all.

The consequence, some believe, is that Britain is heading for a hung Parliament, which might result in a Conservative or Labour coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a minority government, or a tiny absolute Labour or Conservative majority.

All of this may matter little to a Caribbean that is steadily diversifying its international relations and which, for the most part, has come to perceive its ties with Britain as significantly less special than they once were.

However, the United Kingdom still has weight and is a significant and moderating global influence.

In a Caribbean context, it continues to play a role in the European Union as a friend of the region; it provides significant levels of security assistance to many Caribbean nations; its Overseas Territories lock it into the region; and there is a substantial if largely dormant Caribbean Diaspora living in Britain.

If the government in London does change, there is a greater likelihood of a more sympathetic hearing from the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats, but as senior figures in both parties indicate, to be heard, the Anglophone part of the region will need to choose carefully its concerns given the UK's many other pressing foreign-policy priorities and budgetary constraints.

What this suggests is that the key for CARICOM nations, if the relationship with the UK is not to go into terminal decline, is to ensure that its community is professionally organised and its activists become engaged in UK politics as, for instance, have others from the Indian or Pakistani diaspora.

Interestingly, and in contrast to decades in which there was little or no Caribbean-community activism at a national level, the last 12 months has seen CARICOM's diaspora in the UK and Caribbean governments begin to join up their concerns.

The issue that has triggered this is the UK's Air Passenger Duty, which touches the community in the UK financially, negatively affects tourism, and demonstrably discriminates in favour of the US over the Caribbean.

Recently, there have been other developments pointing perhaps to a new and more active role for the Caribbean community in the UK. In the last weeks, there have been a series of community-wide political events.

Air-Passenger Duty

These include political panel meetings organised by the Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS); the first of a number of events to mobilise the community on Air-Passenger Duty during the UK election; and the creation of the Labour Friends of the Caribbean group, a development suggesting that the Labour Party has recognised it can no longer take Caribbean-community votes for granted.

In the case of the JNBS events, 'Question Time' style meetings had MPs and parliamentary candidates from the three main parties participate on panels with community activists to answer questions from the diaspora.

What emerged at these meetings - all private sector sponsored - was interesting and warrants attention by the Caribbean and British

governments and their diplomatic representatives.

At these
events, there was a strong sense that there is no longer a special
relationship between the UK and the Caribbean, that the UK took the
Caribbean for granted and there was now a need to determine what the
region and its diaspora wanted the relationship to be.

It was felt
that the community needed to become more engaged in UK politics at both
the local and national level if its voice was to be heard and there was
a need for greater representation in all of the mainstream political
parties, and in Parliament.

It was clear, too, that beyond issues
like the UK-Caribbean relationship and Air-Passenger Duty, there were
other often deep concerns: fears about migration policy; a sense that
the UK government needed to do more to foster trade ties between
community business and the region; concern about institutional racism
within the British system; and an interest in finding ways to ensure
community concerns were put to and heard by the main political parties.

years now, Caribbean overnments have been talking about a role for the
diaspora, with some nations regularly organising meetings at home to
bring their extended community together.

But what is missing is
the critical mass that can only comes if such meetings, wherever they
are held, leap national boundaries and lead to a manifesto that brings
together the Caribbean and its community's concerns in a manner that
enables the hundreds of Caribbean national and political associations in
the UK to support.

obtaining positive results

What has
happened so far is encouraging but requires more focus, resources and a
much clearer analysis, and leadership from regional Governments.

also requires understanding of what it takes to create groups within
the UK Parliament; how they need to be supported with accurate
information; how this can be linked to community cells of activists; and
how it all relates to obtaining positive results.

This is not
rocket science nor is it interference in the domestic affairs of another
nation. Evidence abounds as to how nations from Israel through India to
Cuba have all established strong lobbies that ensure that the interests
of their nation or extended community are fully taken into account.

the Caribbean expects to be taken seriously in London and, by
extension, in the US and Canada, it needs a coordinated and well
delivered regional strategy for its worldwide diaspora.

Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council. Email: