50 Years of Blackness in the House of Lords


It is with great elation that we congratulate Simon Woolley, Baron Woolley of Woodford and Director at Operation Black Vote on his ennoblement last Monday. There is no doubt that the House of Lords can and should be more diverse. Even though there has been a steady increase in the number of ethnic minority members who now make up 5.8 percent of the House, it is still disproportionately white. More inclusion is necessary to provide a House that is truly representative of the 13 percent of the British population who are from minority ethnic backgrounds. On Monday 21st October, fifty years after the first black peer was ennobled, we stepped a little closer to achieving this equitable representation.

The 1969 New Year’s Honours List saw an important addition to the House, the naming of Learie Constantine as one of four new life peers. There had only been three peers of colour since the first Lord Sinha in 1919. On appointment, Lord Constantine became the first person of non-European descent to be awarded life peerage. According to a 2014 House of Lords Report, only three further life peerages were awarded to individuals of non-European descent between 1970 and 1990. For decades, the appointments of minority ethnic representatives were a mere trickle, speaking to the lack of inclusion of BAME individuals in British society at large.   

Born on the 21st of September 1901 in my native Trinidad, Learie came from a family of cricket legends. His parents were themselves descendants of slaves and he grew up on a cocoa estate in the North western part of the country. Being from a lower-class family, Learie pursued a career in cricket as there were many socio-economic and racial barriers to his success in the professional realm. He went on to represent the Trinidad, Lancashire and West Indies cricket teams before his entrance into political life during the Second World War. During that time he was employed as a Welfare Officer in the Ministry of Labour and became responsible for the West Indian factory workers who had come to England to fill deficiencies in the wartime labour force. It was then that he truly began to engage with the struggles of black persons living in England, advocating for their rights and assuaging their fears.

As a black advocate he went on to win the landmark case against racial discrimination in hotels (Constantine vs Imperial London Hotels Ltd). In 1954, he published his book Colour Bar which looked critically at racism and discrimination globally. As High Commissioner for Trinidad from 1961 to 1964 he continued to be a booming political voice for West Indian immigrants. In 1966 he was appointed to the Race Relations Board which was formed through the Race Relations Act 1965 to investigate and resolve individual cases of racial discrimination.

Fast forward a few decades to 2017 when the first report of the Race Disparity Audit was released – the brainchild of Simon Woolley and OBV, and other influential political actors including then Home Secretary, Theresa May. Both the 1960s project and this one had the same goal – exposing and reducing racial discrimination in this country. As is evidenced by the ongoing discrimination against black people in the United Kingdom, this is no easy feat, but we can continue to rely on our leaders to pass the baton of freedom until there is equality for all in this nation.

Lord Woolley has dedicated his life to the cause. Much like Constantine, he came from humble beginnings to then take the political world by storm. From Charter 88 and Operation Black Vote to the Colour of Power and the Power of the Black Vote reports, he can be described as nothing short of a freedom fighter.

It is a momentous achievement for the black community to see one of its main political leaders ennobled during Black History Month. It is a fitting honour for Simon Woolley’s life’s work. Surely, Lord Constantine would be proud to see this day. For decades to come, the community will look back on this moment as the recognition of one of the greats.

Congratulations to Lord Woolley!


Thais Thomas


Caption: "OBV Co-Founder, Lee Jasper and OBV Board Member, David Weaver."