Dawn Butler: As a female, working-class, Afro-Caribbean, trade unionist MP I want to smooth the way for those who follow

20th December, 2016 9:32 am

Dawn Butler

The Outsiders report released today by the Fabian Society on improving BAME representation in the Labour party deserves our attention. This is an issue of vital importance, as people from diverse communities remain highly underrepresented in our politics. This report provides some valuable ideas on diversity and we must take it seriously if we are to make progress on diversity in the Labour party.

We as a party are rightly holding the Tories to account on diversity. Whether it is regarding equal representation on corporate boards, the impact of austerity on diverse communities, or the unequal impact of tribunal fees we are challenging the Tories and exposing their lack of commitment. But this means we have to get our own house in order and make real progress.

The Labour party rightly holds itself to a much higher standard than any other party or organisation on issues of fairness, equal opportunity and fighting discrimination. As an African-Caribbean woman there is a lot in this report that I recognise and have in fact suffered from. So even if we acknowledge that aspects of this report do not apply everywhere, and recognise that some parts of the Labour party have made real progress, there is no doubt it is a report we must take seriously and act on with determination.

The report contains a package of recommendations, centred on increasing the supply of candidates from diverse communities, tackling the barriers that hold people back, and showing leadership from the centre of the party. We must come together to think about how we can implement them.

When reading Outsiders I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers which offers the important insight that people’s success doesn’t depend solely on their own merits. He says that the stories of extremely successful people usually focus on their intelligence and ambition. Gladwell argues, however, that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them – at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date.

This is acutely true when it comes to politics. Within the political elite a person’s colour, class, background and friendships are hugely important. For example the intersectionality of being a black woman is often not recognised in the feminist struggle, or a working class black man in the class struggle, and if you add in disability and age the potential to be ignored increases.

Although I am very sceptical about whether Theresa May and her government will deliver meaningful change in this area I understand that she is reaching out to communities whose natural home is in the Labour party. We have lost support in recent elections and unless we see and act on the warning signs we may continue to do so.

Reports like those from the Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust released following the Autumn Statement show that individuals in the poorest households lose most from tax and benefit changes, but in every income group Black and Asian women will lose the greatest proportion of their individual income. This highlights that it is imperative that Labour gets its act together and engages with everyone in a positive way.

In 2006 I relaunched the BSS (Black Socialist Society) against much push back, it has gone through some changes and is now named BAME Labour. Outsiders mentions a community outreach programme and structures for the friends of Labour groups of which there are many. I am pleased to say that this is in hand and we hope to have the first meeting of the chairs and secretaries of all groups very soon.

In recent times we have seen many insightful reports on the issue of the underrepresentation of diverse people. And indeed early next year the Labour party’s Race Equality Consultation will also report its recommendations. But what we must now do is take action. We need to put together the various great ideas and policies and build a better, more diverse party.

I feel in general there are enough reports that focus on the problems and not enough on the solutions. As an outsider, a female working-class African-Caribbean, trade unionist I want to do what I can to smooth the road for those coming after me. That is why one of the actions I’ve taken is launching Bernie’s List which I hope will be an important vehicle for encouraging, promoting and opening the doors to the outsiders, because after all the Labour party is the party that has and always will do make this country greater and fairer.

And to put this all in context, even on Labour’s worst day we are still better than all the other parties on their best day.

Outsiders: Ideas to improve BAME representation in the Labour party is published today part of the Fabian Society’s diversity series. The report is written by Adebusuyi Adeyemi and Olivia Bailey

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