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Labour Is Failing Black People

Labour’s deplorable treatment of Diane Abbott and Kate Osamor shows that anti-black racism within the party isn’t only tolerated, it’s being actively exploited to quash the left.

(Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

The rich and powerful tradition of anti-racist struggles against white power structures in the Caribbean is something the Windrush generation — people like my grandfather, and the community around him — brought with them when they migrated to Britain after World War Two. When they arrived, many of those communities found a political home in the Labour Party. Labour benefited from their numbers and was also enriched by their talents and experience. African, Caribbean, and also Asian communities began to form a significant and loyal voter base for Labour. It has remained ever since.

That relationship, of course, has not been without its challenges. In the post-war period, black people were also facing hostility from all corners of society, and elements of the Labour Party were no exception. Later, in the 1980s, a series of insurrections and uprisings — dubbed ‘race riots’ by some — gripped London, Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester, and Leeds when black people mobilised against the racist policing and widespread unemployment that blighted their lives. Some of those involved in those movements looked at Labour, a party which claimed to be anti-racist, but which had produced no black MPs, and set about organising Labour Black Sections (LBS), a national movement to address the absence of black representation in Labour.

LBS achieved considerable success in increasing the presence of Black and Asian representatives in council and leadership positions. 1987 proved historic, with four black MPs elected to Parliament, all of them Labour. They were the late great Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, and Keith Vaz. Abbott made history by becoming the first black woman MP elected to parliament. The previous year, Bill Morris had become the first black general secretary of a major trade union.

While achieving these victories, the LBS also struggled with opposition from within Labour itself. Leader Neil Kinnock, who many believed was a friend of LBS, wanted to see its demise, as did his deputy Roy Hattersley. In 1989, Kinnock infamously prevented Martha Osamor, the mother of Kate Osamor, from becoming the parliamentary candidate in Vauxhall. Osamor was Deputy leader of Haringey Council at the time and had been democratically elected as the party’s candidate by the local membership. 

Despite receiving the most nominations, the NEC refused to shortlist Osamor, opening the door instead for Kate Hoey, who remained the MP for Vauxhall until 2019. Then as now, Labour’s leadership was involved in an effort to quash the party’s left — and then as now, it recognised that black voters formed an essential part of that group.

Today’s Labour Party has revived this assault with new tactics. The treatment of Diane Abbott, who was at the heart of LBS in the 1980s, is the clearest indicator of its intentions. Factional manoeuvring is transparent in the notion that Abbott’s words in the Observer last year warrant a year-long suspension from the party while figures on the party’s right — largely white men — have been quickly returned to the fold following comparable or indeed worse infractions. Darren Rodwell, Neil Coyle, Steve Reed, and Barry Sheerman are cases in point. Racism is acceptable, the Labour Party seems to believe, as long as it’s committed by the right people.

Kate Osamor, another black female MP, is the most recently casualty of Starmer’s campaign. Officially, her suspension is due to her acknowledgement of the fact that Palestinians are experiencing genocide on this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, despite the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s website making clear that the day is intended to honour the victims of many genocides, and despite the ICJ recently finding the case for Israel committing genocide against the Palestinians entirely plausible. For Starmer’s Labour, none of that matters; Osamor, like Abbott, is disposable.

The Labour leadership seems to believe it can continue in this fashion without compromising the loyalty of black voters — but signs indicate that’s not the case. As I recently reported in the Voice, more and more of those with direct experience with Labour are saying what growing numbers of us feel: Keir Starmer doesn’t care about black people.

This impression was dramatically worsened by Labour’s car-crash launch of its almost non-existent race equality act, from which the Voice and other black media outlets were excluded. The act itself offers no substance on the main issues that concern black people in Britain today, including police brutality and black underachievement in schools. That it arrives in this state four years after its announcement only increases the sense that Labour is making a display of its casual disregard for issues of race. Voters have not forgotten the findings of the Forde Report, which revealed a deep culture of anti-black racism within the party and an unwillingness to tackle it.

There are steps Labour could take to improve things, if it chose. Abbott and Osamor could be reinstated. The farcical race equality act plans could be replaced with a concrete plan to tackle the issues that matter to the black community. Above all, Labour could engage seriously with black voters and their demands. If those demands consistently align with the policies of the party’s left, Labour should take that guidance seriously, rather than disregarding it because it does not fit with its factional goals.

The only alternative is serious damage to that black-Labour link that has remained, in stronger and weaker forms, consistent since the Windrush days. Starmer thinks that black voters need him, but the Labour Party on its present trajectory seems to offer little to no deviation from the unjust status quo black people in Britain are already experiencing each day. He can change course now, or he can pay the price on the ballot. Either way, it will eventually become undeniable: it’s Labour that needs us.