On 8 November, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interview with the chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips. His comments wove their way into many discussions, broadcasts, editorials and blogs. Just a few days later, the 22-year-old Lewis Iwu, who in June 2008 became the first black president of the Oxford University Student Union, addressed both Barack Obama's election and the prospect of a black prime minister in Britain raised by Phillips. British newspapers put these two men together, with the Daily Mail noting that: "Iwu was contradicting the head of the Equality Commission, Trevor Phillips, who believes institutionalised racism would not allow the rise of a British Barack Obama."
Phillips had said: "This is not just about race, this is a wider point that our leadership class is really basically white, male and professional." He believes that if Obama had been British, "I would be very surprised if even somebody as brilliant as him would have been able to break through the institutional stranglehold on power within the Labour Party."
For Phillips, this demonstrated that "the problem is not the electorate, [but] the machine". He said while he believed the British public would "embrace" a black prime minister, institutionalised racism within the political system would prevent a British contemporary emulating Obama. The Conservative MP for Windsor, Adam Afriyie, supported Phillips's views, and said he did not foresee a black premier in Britain in his lifetime. Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, commented chat the current British Parliament was "too white and male" to reflect the broad spectrum of issues and people within Britain.
Lewis Iwu disagreed. At the launch of a mentoring scheme called "Debate Mate", a programme recruiting university students to help inner-city school pupils develop their debating skills, Iwu responded to questions shaped around the comments of Trevor Phillips.
Iwu won his Oxford election by a majority of 39% against three other candidates. He said: "A black British prime minister would bridge a huge gap and help young people realise that they can achieve success in public life." His refreshingly hopeful response was balanced with reality, as he added: "There are barriers but that should not stop you from going for it."
Iwu commented on the emotional impact Obama's election had generated in the UK, and said such an election in Britain would "give the country a massive boost for generations to come". …