Sunday, 13 November 2011

“I don’t give a monkey’s”, Boris tells black conference - by Lester Holloway

“I don’t give a monkey’s about the name of the conference”, Boris Johnson told his education conference today, following controversy over the dropping of the word ‘black’ from the title. Attendance was massively down on previous years, with large blocks of empty seats.

The London mayor said he just wanted the conference to go ahead after Labour MP Diane Abbott had left the project she began nine years ago in disgust at City Hall’s desire to fill the platform with Right-wing speakers. Friends of the MP said she wanted nothing to do with the event.

Using the word ‘monkey’ was at best thoughtless on the part of a mayor who has previously referred to Africans having “watermelon smiles”. Some audience members took offence at the monkey remark.
Campaigner Lee Jasper accused Johnson of “hijacking” what used to be the London Schools and the Black Child conference, which the mayor renamed London Schools and Our Children.

Speaking this morning to an audience of barely over 200 people – well down on the high of 3,500 that used to attend Abbott’s black child conferences – Johnson appeared unconcerned by accusations that he was “culturally cleansing” the capital of race-specific initiatives.

But one attendee said black Londoners had “voted with their feet” by staying away in droves. Bizarrely, education secretary Michael Gove opened his speech by proclaiming “The fact that so many have come here is an inspiration.” Audience members glanced around at the empty seats around them.

Eleven protesters, including myself, held placards outside the conference centre as attendees arrived.
Speaking into a megaphone Jasper joked about ‘tumble-weed’ as there were so few people going into the central London venue.

As the conference got underway Ray Lewis, Johnson’s controversial former deputy mayor made a hash of a joke, calling Gove “a black man”, adding: “Maybe not, just honorary.”
Lewis was attempting to lavish praise on the cabinet minister for his education policies, but the joke fell flat in the audience. One audience member, Patricia Lamour, said she was gob-smacked at the comment. “I can’t believe there was praise for Free Schools in the conference when all eight black-led organisations who applied to set up Free Schools have been turned down.”

Gove delivered a highly patronising speech, appearing to lecture the majority-black audience on how to raise their children. “You should wear a school uniform properly”, he said. “And when the bell goes… you should get learning now!” A woman sitting behind me groaned.
Gove appeared to take his cue on school discipline from his greatest fan, Katherine Birbalsingh, who has been granted permission to start a Free School.

“It’s cool to be smart”, the education secretary intoned earnestly. “What would he know about being cool?”, my neighbour quipped to me.

Boris Johnson  talked up the value of cubs and scouts, and boasted that he backed an education scheme in Feltham Young Offenders prison. Muttering in the audience, and a heckler who shouted “why wait ’til they get in jail?”, forced the mayor to respond and defend his plan as worthwhile.

Audience applause for the keynote speakers was lukewarm at best, a stark contrast to rapturous standing ovations in previous years when Abbott ran the event.
The mayor’s youth adviser announced that ime-constraints meant there was no time for audience questions, the first time this has happened since the MP for Hackney and Stoke Newington began the conference in 2002.

Other highlights included educationalist Tony Sewell sharing the mayor’s enthusiasm for cubs and scouts. Sewell did get a round of support from one segment of the auditorium when he claimed that Nigerian discipline was superior to that administered by Jamaica families.
One peeved audience member grumbled: “If you look at the youth who are killing each other, many have African surnames.” Sewell’s remarks were ill-judged and had the effect of diving the audience.

I had had enough – it was time to head to the death in custody march in memory of Demetre Fraser. “Oi!”, I heard as I left the venue. It was Ray Lewis. “Take that shit off your website”, he told me, referring to an earlier blog post about the mayor’s mentoring scheme.
“I’m not a board member of London Action Trust”, he said forcefully. “That’s libellous.”
I’ll have to check that out tomorrow, but given that BBC reporter Kurt Barling reported that he was associated with LAT – which was awarded the £1.3m mentoring grant before going into Administration – and the fact that members of the London Assembly had suggested that Lewis was indeed linked to LAT, this point will need further investigation.
More of this later…

By Lester Holloway
(First published at: