Labour’s BAME Members Won’t Accept a Whitewash

This weekend, hundreds of BAME members of the Labour Party – including Diane Abbott MP – came together to discuss the contents of the leaked report and the urgent need to act against the racism it revealed.

Labour’s defeat in December’s general election means yet more years of a Tory government committed to policies that result in disproportionate harm towards Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. The need for an anti-racist parliamentary opposition has rarely been clearer.

Unfortunately, however, the Labour Party has too often been unwilling to recognise its own role in upholding institutional racism. The recently leaked Labour Party report was riddled with racist remarks, allegedly from staff employed by the party, and demonstrated again the extent to which racism has been allowed to fester internally. 

This weekend, over 400 people attended a Zoom call chaired by NEC CLP representative, Huda Elmi, with panellists ranging from former Chingford and Woodford Green PPC and CLASS director Faiza Shaheen to the first black woman MP Diane Abbott. The call mapped out a route to build an anti-racist and internationalist agenda in the Labour Party. Its participants were united by the demand that Labour must listen to BAME activists and MPs moving forward, and the recognition that our contribution is invaluable if the party is ever to genuinely call itself ‘anti-racist.’

It was only one of a number of recent initiatives along these lines. In direct response to the report’s revelations, BAME members of the Labour Party penned an open letter, urging the new leadership to take direct action to tackle racism in party structures. Another group, named Socialists of Colour, also launched – including BAME activists both inside and outside the Labour Party.

The 1987 Caucus, spearheaded by former NEC BAME Representative candidate, Jermain Jackman, announced its formation in a recent LabourList article. Jackman argued that the party is not “doing enough to support, encourage and represent black men – and that needs to improve.” Similar sentiments were echoed by Socialists of Colour, who have also called for a shift from “neoliberal identity politics that tells us that ‘brown faces in high places’ will solve our problems.” 

There is a growing appetite for improved BAME self-organisation in the party. And it wasn’t only sparked by the recent report – this conversation has been reignited by the recent NEC BAME elections and the party’s opaque relationship with socialist societies that represent BAME members. As an affiliate, the party cannot intervene with BAME Labour’s internal democratic structures; however, the conversation generated from BAME Labour’s failings must be acknowledged in order to engage with BAME members as a whole. 

Calls from BAME collectives, the ongoing EHRC investigation into antisemitism, and even the demonisation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities by elected officials epitomise the issue of Labour’s understanding of representation and anti-racism. Much of the surface-level discourse surrounding race in Labour is neoliberal at best, and at worst symptomatic of wider racist and colonial attitudes in society.

Frankly, the comments which emerged in the leaked report were not unsurprising to a lot of BAME readers. They are conversations we picture ourselves being embroiled in across workplaces and institutions. Often, in order to break down structural racism or defend ourselves, we are forced to prioritise privileged voices who hold positions of power in the workplace. Labour is no exception to this rule, sadly.

Reni Eddo-Lodge summarised this notion in a blog that later became the book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: “the journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings.”

As panellists on Sunday’s Zoom call made clear, Labour cannot present itself as a party leading the fight for equality and fair practice at work if BAME members of staff feel unsafe and unsupported. This report, therefore, poses a challenge to the newly elected leadership. They must transform not only workplace practices, but the colonial and neoliberal ideas of race that Labour has represented for decades – forcing its BAME members and MPs to fight oppression inside the party as well as outside of it. This was reinforced by Diane Abbott, who raised the point that “the structures of the Labour Party are almost all white” in 1987 and that remains the case to this day. 

In recent history, the policies enacted by the New Labour government demonstrate Labour’s failure to prioritise BAME communities. Under Tony Blair in 2003, we saw the arrival of Prevent – a Labour-led counter-terrorism initiative. Prevent developed the idea of ‘suspect communities,’ a means of collectively incriminating Muslims across the country.

The 2015 Labour manifesto under the leadership of Ed Miliband drew links between the Prevent programme and its intention to target Muslim communities, saying that to “defeat the threats of Islamist terrorism” a Labour government must look into the “personal, cultural and wider factors” of why people become radicalised. The following year, the British Muslim Council provided the Labour Party with a briefing on how the Prevent strategy disproportionately impacts Muslim communities. 

Time and time again, it is the same voices in Labour challenging the racist policies. Under Miliband’s tenure, the Labour Party’s official store sold ‘controls on immigration’ mugs. Diane Abbott criticised this, tweeting that “This shameful mug is an embarrassment. But the real problem is that immigration controls are one of our five pledges at all.” The immigration mugs in many ways encapsulate Labour’s relationship with the BAME community and migrants.

While the Labour Party has never truly been anti-racist, it has provided space for anti-racist organising. This came in the form of black sections – an autonomous collective of black socialists running for parliamentary and council elections. It was only in the 1990s that the Black Socialist Society was allowed to form, although this later went defunct and representation was absent until 2007 when BAME Labour was formed.

On Sunday’s Zoom call it was pointed out that Brent Central MP, Dawn Butler – another of those slandered in the report – tried to push for another Black Socialist Society in 2005. Its aim was to focus on black socialism and its history in the party. The emergence of BAME Labour two years later largely neglected this struggle and the broader history of anti-racist organising. It focused on a neoliberal notion of representation that was more concerned with winning votes by offering a seat at the table than with fighting institutional racism itself.

1987 marked a turning point in Labour history with the election of the first Black and Asian MPs, Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz. In 2020, the makeup of the Commons could not be further from those days. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, forty-one Labour MPs from minority backgrounds were elected in December, including Liverpool’s first black MP Kim Johnson. But while representation in the party may have grown, the challenges persist.

Keir Starmer’s Shadow Home Office appointments, replacing Diane Abbott and her team, were widely criticised for lacking BAME voices. Bell Ribeiro-Addy was the previous Immigration Minister and had longstanding experience dealing with the Home Office and its racist policies. Like Abbott, she was replaced by a team that did not include one BAME MP. Not all positions require lived experiences – but when battling a government that oversaw the Windrush scandal, you might imagine it was important.

The Labour Party needs to learn lessons from its turbulent relationship with anti-racism. The party could begin this process by enacting the changes required to meet the principles laid down in chapter 14 of its own rulebook, which focuses on understanding the needs and demands of BAME members. Bringing in an ethnic minorities forum under Labour Party structures will give BAME members a greater say in shaping the party than BAME Labour currently allows. The party should also take a no tolerance approach towards members, staff and MPs engaging in racism, and offer training workshops that go beyond corporate diversity and inclusion by educating members on systemic racism and the history of colonialism. 

As architects of oppressive policies in government, the Labour Party’s record is far from that of an anti-racist party. But the current leadership have an opportunity to engage with BAME members and move beyond an anti-racist that sees mere representation as good enough in itself. It’s time for the party to honour the fight put up by black MPs from the late Bernie Grant to Diane Abbott, and commit to truly internationalist and anti-racist policies.