openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Why it’s time for a democratic and organised BAME Labour voice

Black and Minority Ethnic MPs can show how a community with common cause can tackle some of the most divisive and difficult issues.

Clive Lewis
15 May 2020
Clive Lewis MP
|
Norwich Labour

“The machinery of justice won’t serve you here. It is slow and cold, and it is theirs.” Altered Carbon.

A passionate debate is going on amongst Parliament’s BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) Labour MPs at present. Should we “self-organise” in parliament, and if so, how? The decisions reached could have far reaching implications, and possibly offer a template for improving BAME self-organisation across the wider party membership too.

Now more than ever BAME MPs and members need to have their voices heard. There is dismay at the revelations of the leaked Labour Party report and the casual use of racism at the heart of our Party’s organisational structures. And whilst our alarm bells ring continuously at opaque references to Labour ‘heartlands’, ‘patriotism’ or what it is to be ‘British’.

These issues of race and identity cut across left and right. They go to the very heart of the narrative our party must construct to offer a modern, unifying, 21st century vision about who we are as a country. But instead it’s never really dealt with. We skirt around, we avoid, we evade – watching in dismay as it flares up periodically in distorted newspaper headlines

Is it any wonder then white MPs and party members would rather side-step the complex issues of race and identity? Talk about something else, anything else? Indeed, as I’ll come onto later, some BAME MPs feel the same way. I empathise with them. Being Black or Asian doesn’t mean you automatically want to raise these difficult and potentially divisive issues. Why would you when it’s already hard enough to be heard? Why enter this quagmire? Why open yourself up to having others define you by those difficult issues alone?

Alas sometimes we have little choice. As we approach a pandemic induced global recession, reel from the onset of ecological collapse and the rise of populist nationalism, we need to be aware the social fault lines of race and class will be aggravated once more. It’s not an outlandish worry, looking at the last comparable recession of 1929 and what came after. But before we can face these threats with confidence, prepare for them, and deal with them, BAME MPs and members have to lead those difficult conversations and help our party find an equilibrium as quickly as possible.

So, let’s be open about it.

Racism in our party is nothing new. Before the leaks, before the toxic Brexit debate, before the immigration mugs, before Labour’s own ‘hostile environment’ and appallingly divisive language, it was there. Of course, it didn’t arise out of thin air. When a country gets high on the global enslavement of black and brown people, ‘the least you can expect is a stinking colonial hangover’. That hangover is structural racism. A long lineage of injustice that is to this day a part and parcel of British political life. The Labour Party is no exception. Why would it be? Racism is about power – who wields it and why.

The ongoing phenomenon of racism in the party itself helps explain why so many BAME members are frustrated at the lack of political progress we as a party have made on this issue. The new intake of BAME MPs, question why more hasn’t been done before now. It’s a valid question.

Black sections and self-organisation

To answer it you have to go back and look at what happened after Black Sections were defeated by the soft-left under Neil Kinnock. By preventing the permanent establishment, within party structures, of black led anti-racism, the party effectively silenced one of the few organised groupings that could question the coming New Labour orthodoxy. That new orthodoxy maintained that race and class, just like history, were no longer of interest to the Labour Party, or anyone else. As John Prescott said in 1987, “We’re all middle class now.” Presumably, some concluded he meant white as well. Unfortunately, Stephen Lawrence’s killers, the Met, the jobs market, the Home Office, the judiciary, football clubs, and just about every other facet of social and economic life, missed the memo.

But the defeat of the Black Sections wasn’t complete. Although it withered as a force within the Party, a few BAME senior trade unionists and MPs managed to squeeze through before the end came: Bill Morris, Keith Vaz, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant. But they were effectively isolated from any structural support. As for rekindling the struggle, after 18 years of Thatcherism and political division, the Party, including many BAME members, saw ‘unity’ and government as the greater immediate prize. And who could blame them?

Thereafter there were broadly two types of BAME MP: The ‘survivors’ — those who effectively tried to carry the torch of Black Sections. And the ‘pragmatists’ — those who embraced New Labour and set out to prove that being BAME was no obstacle to political success.

But from 2015 to 2019 the Party made a decisive break from the politics of New Labour. What followed, namely Corbynism, was a mixed bag for BAME Politics. Jeremy, a supporter of Black Sections in the 1980s, cultivated BAME community groups and activists: many of whom he had come to know through his anti-war and anti-racism campaigning before becoming leader. Indeed 2019 saw a large surge in the number of BAME candidates selected, who then entered Parliament. This is something the left should be given credit for. But Corbynism delivered little in the way of structural reform when it came to BAME representation in the party. BAME Labour was never fully reformed, despite the fact it was opaque, undemocratic and clearly a ‘rotten borough’. But as long as it delivered its NEC vote when called upon, no one really cared.

To understand why this was, we have to understand that although Corbynism was a decisive ideological break from New Labour, culturally it was much the same as the faction it replaced. The prevailing culture of our party on both the orthodox left and the right is one of factionalism, bureaucracy and a command and control mentality. BAME political autonomy is completely alien to such a controlling, toxic culture: be it NEC fixes, parliamentary candidate stitch-ups or the alleged culture of abuse and bullying that the leaked report purports to have uncovered. Pluralism, transparency and democracy are concepts to bleat on about when your faction is in opposition.

And so, we come full-circle. When the ‘soft-left’ were in power under Neil Kinnock, they closed the door on effective BAME self-organisation, seemingly for good. Thirty-five years later, with almost 40 BAME MPs in his party, Keir Starmer has an opportunity to make good on that decision: to not stand in the way of reform of the half-hearted travesty the current BAME self-organisation within our party has become. It’s an opportunity that will signify whether he wants to genuinely shift from the destructive political culture that’s dominated our party for too long and replace it with something better.

It’s also an opportunity for him to reach out, through BAME MPs, to a sizeable component of the so called “new working class” – a concept his new head of policy, Claire Ainsley, has promoted in her recent book. Low paid, younger and more ethnically diverse compared to the traditional working class, around a fifth are from a minority ethnic group. What better way to reach out to this new and important group than harnessing the diversity of the PLP and wider party to do so?

But the choice isn’t just the leader’s. It’s also ours. I know some BAME colleagues are concerned about a formal BAME MP structure. Some prefer BAME organisation as it currently is. As one colleague said recently ‘don’t fix something if it isn’t broken.’ They believe the best way to avoid open division and factionalism, something genuinely feared, is to accept those differences but operate predominantly as a low-key support network for one another. Thus, avoiding a public platform for division.

For me, I think open debate, organising and speaking up is a responsibility I have as a BAME Member of Parliament. But I also understand how each BAME MP may have a different view of our responsibilities. Such choices should be respected. If we accept BAME is a self-defining concept, then it logically follows that BAME colleagues should not lecture one another on how they opt to broach these often-difficult issues. There is room for both approaches: behind the scenes and low profile or in the open and formal. Both are valid, both should be respected. We should be able to do our jobs in a supportive environment.

But that shouldn’t exclude the fact some of us believe we’re also here to represent those who rely on us for their voice — our constituents and wider BAME communities. We know injustice and discrimination are universal. The ability to speak out against it, is not. We therefore have an obligation to organise collectively and lead the fight against racism. Because whilst empathy is a powerful political motivator, lived experience hones and sharpens like no other.

We don’t have to operate within the same political culture that currently plagues the wider party. We can show how a community of MPs, with common cause, can tackle some of the most divisive and difficult issues, global and domestic, in a spirit of tolerance and compassion.

It will not be easy. But then nothing worthwhile ever is.

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