“Our planet does not have time for the government to check in with Donald Trump and the fossil fuel industry about what we should do. The next generation needs real action on the climate crisis.”Bell Ribeiro-Addy
I am truly humbled and grateful to the people of Streatham for electing me as their member of parliament, as well as to my family, the hard-working members of the Streatham Labour Party who pounded the streets every day, and all those who voted for me. I do not take this job lightly, and it is a personal honour to represent the community in which I was born and raised, and in which I continue to live today.
Over the past few weeks many new members have boasted about their constituencies. I have been to many of those great places, but Streatham is undeniably the best. My constituency also covers parts of Balham, Clapham Common, Tulse Hill, and my birth place, Brixton Hill. There really is no place like it for its history of activism, community and faith. We have the longest high street in Europe, and an array of independent shops that is represented by our fantastic Streatham business improvement district. We hosted the first ever supermarket in this country. We have one of the oldest train stations, although Southern Railway is not much to go by now, and one of the last working windmills was on Brixton Hill. We also have the iconic Lambeth town hall.
Let me say a few words about my predecessor. In 2010 I was so encouraged that a young black man who, just like me, was born and bred in Streatham could soon be our MP, that I went out and campaigned for him. I was paired with a young woman that day, and she reminded me — I was quite sceptical about party politics at the time — that although I was angry about tuition fees and the war in Iraq, many party members and MPs were just like me and thought exactly the same thing. They were able to be members of the Labour Party, and I could be too. That evening I went home, opened up my laptop and joined the Labour Party, and the rest is history. I thank my predecessor, Chuka Umunna, for getting me out campaigning that day, although he may not think much of it now, and for his amazing service to the people of Streatham.
There is one member of this House who I must mention: our shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. friend the member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. I never dreamed that I would get the opportunity to work for a living legend, a trailblazer, and the first black woman to enter parliament, and for a black woman in politics there could be no better mentor. There is also no better person to put someone off wanting to get into politics, because I have seen the abuse that she faces, which has personally affected me. I see the way that some members of the House treat her. I love her; you don’t have to like her, but you will respect her. I understand that we are here because of her, and members such as Lord Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz, and I am proud to be part of the most diverse parliament in history. Indeed, there are so many of us that people are struggling to tell us apart, and we hope they fix that really quickly.
Alongside my right hon. friend the member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, my right hon. friends the members for Islington North and for Hayes and Harlington have been an inspiration. They stand for a principled, unfaltering stance on opposing war, cuts and racism over decades. They have consistently supported peace, Palestinian human rights and LGBT rights, and they have opposed austerity, racism and bigotry, regardless of whether that was popular at the time, and regardless of being hounded by the reactionary press, or whether something would win in parliament. To me, they are socialist heroes. They have always been where I aim to be: on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressor, and always on the right side of history.
I am proud to be the daughter of Ghanaian migrants, and they are even prouder that myself and my hon. friend the member for Erith and Thamesmead are jointly the first women of Ghanaian heritage to sit in this House. The support we have received from the Ghanaian community in the UK and globally has been immeasurable. Ghanaian Brits boast many notable names including Stormzy; June Sarpong; the editor of Vogue, Edward Enninful; and too many others to count. But as I am often reminded, the most important British-Ghanaian to ever walk this earth is of course my mum.
I cite my heritage not just because it is important to me, but because it underpins my experience in this country, my country, and my fear as racism and other hate crimes are on the rise. Today, we are debating global Britain. There is the saying that ‘if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going’. It strikes me that as a country we cannot begin to fulfil the idea of global Britain until we first address the historic injustices of the British empire, injustices including slavery and colonialism; first, because it is the right thing to do, but also because we may soon find ourselves out in the cold if we do not.
While we spent years debating Brexit and, as my hon. friend the member for Putney said, engaging in monumental self-harm, India surpassed the UK to become the fifth-richest economy in the world. India, a former British colony, where this country presided over a bloody partition, the Amritsar massacre and the Bengal famine. Countries in Africa, such as Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, are among the fastest-growing economies in the world; countries that Britain deliberately underdeveloped, stole resources from and brutally enslaved their people. Madam Deputy Speaker, were you aware that in the mid to late 1700s, over 50 members of this House represented slave plantations? Members of parliament just like me enslaved people that looked just like me.
I am someone who believes firmly that the only way to tackle an issue is at its very root, and the racism that I and many other people in this country face on a daily basis has its root in those very injustices. Not only will this country, my country, not apologise — by apologise I mean properly apologise; not ‘expressing deep regret’ — it has not once offered a form of reparations. People see reparations as handing over large sums of money, but why could we not start today with simple things like fairer trade, simple things like returning items that do not belong to us, and simple things like cancelling debts that we have paid over and over again?
I believe the reason for that is that we only apologise to our equals. We only make amends with our equals. So I have to ask: how can I be equal to every other member in this House, when this is how this House treats people who look just like me? While billionaires and large corporates find creative ways to dodge their taxes, do you know who doesn’t? Most immigrants. They are the same immigrants who are vilified as the government enforce their hostile environment and the three million EU nationals, many of whom live in my constituency — another Windrush scandal in the making.
I recently discovered that after the slave trade, this country — our country, my country — took out a loan of the equivalent of £300bn to pay off slave owners. We only finished paying off that loan in 2015. That means that for decades the descendants of the enslaved and the colonised have been contributing to paying their oppressors. That means that members of the Windrush generation who were invited here to work paid their taxes to pay off a debt to those who brutally enslaved their ancestors. For their troubles, some lost their homes and their jobs, were separated from their families, detained, deported and dehumanised, and are now being denied the dignity of a proper civil compensation scheme.
Let us not forget the people of Grenfell Tower: 72 people dead and many more traumatised by the loss of their loved ones and the loss of their homes, a community scarred for generations. This government failed them on their promise to rehouse them in the aftermath of the catastrophe and have failed to remove flammable cladding. They all need justice as equal citizens, and that means bringing those responsible to face the law.
I could not let my maiden speech pass without touching on the scourge of knife crime, because the area of Streatham is particularly affected. I agree that we need more policing and more community policing, but we cannot arrest our way out of this situation and we cannot seem to stop it. We need real investment in youth services and real investment in preventive measures, but most of all we need to be frank with ourselves. If you live in my area and you are a young black man who is caught or arrested with drugs, it is a very different outcome for you. But apparently if you admit to taking drugs in this House, you may find yourself a candidate in the Conservative party leadership contest and nobody seems to care or places the same level of responsibility on you. Now, I am not judging. I believe we all need to look at drug reforms, but I also believe there needs to be more equality in how people in this House are treated and the people we represent are treated.
We find ourselves in historic and unprecedented times. It is clear that we cannot carry on our old ways. Half of the wealth of the world is hoarded by the top 1%. We are more connected than ever, but fake news has ended up as an ally of the powerful. We live in a world where, across the pond, there is a leader who cages migrant children. To our shame, our government this month voted down refugee children’s rights. This country welcomed Kindertransport children fleeing the mass murder of millions of Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis. I stand with Lord Dubs who was one of those children and who now opposes the heartless policy of the government. I was proud to speak on Holocaust Memorial Day against the scourge of antisemitism and all forms of racism that allow fascism to thrive. I want to make it clear that with fascism rising across Europe, we must all say, “never again” and mean it, but that charity needs to begin at home and it needs to begin in this House.
The case for being more internationalist could not be clearer. Fires are burning in the Arctic, the Amazon and Australia. In Indonesia, just like in parts of Italy and Britain, flash floods and heatwaves expose people and places to unimaginable risk. My right hon. friend the Member for Islington North led this House to declare a climate emergency, but the government have carried on as if it is business as usual. Brexit, coming tomorrow, looks set to weaken environmental protections, unless climate breakdown is confronted. What future the people on our planet have hangs in the balance.
This time of crisis is a test of the government’s leadership and our duty to protect our citizens. Good leadership will create jobs, with a green new deal tackling economic insecurity and ecological crisis in one fell swoop. What leadership is it if we allow the government to bury their heads in the sand as if the neoliberal pursuit of the profit for the 1% matters more than living within our planetary means in the interests of the 99%, citizens in constituencies like mine in Streatham? Our planet does not have time for the government to check in with Donald Trump and the fossil fuel industry about what we should do. The next generation needs real action on the climate crisis. From Britain came the industrial revolution. It is now time for us to lead the environmental revolution.
My road to parliament was not by the well-trodden route of power, privilege, connection or wealth. I was energised as a student activist to stop the fascist BNP and to help stop the deportation of one of my fellow students. So I am very proud to have been appointed shadow immigration minister and continue that fight today. My path is not the statistically trodden path of a young black girl from a council estate on Brixton Hill, and that needs to change. It needs all of us to make sure it does.
- We are pleased to reproduce Bell Ribeiro-Addy’s maiden speech above.