This is an exciting time to be a Labour member. The latest Survation polls puts us ahead of the Tories. Members are enthused and confident about the upcoming local elections in May 2018 and, in between all of this, Jeremy Corbyn has announced the democracy review.
The review, launched formally in November, will be a consultation to address how members can be democratically involved in the party and its structure as we prepare to form the next government.
At the very outset this is a mammoth task but its overall goals towards accountability, transparency and representation of all party members is welcome. I was recently at the launch of the BAME Labour consultation in London where I made a plea: the party has made great strides towards equality issues but we need to do much more.
As an openly gay and Asian Labour activist I have often found myself in groups where one or another part of my identity is seen as problematic. Our identities are not mutually exclusive but rather they are inextricably linked. Whilst I have faced racism in mainstream queer spaces, I have often also had to face homophobia in “safe” BAME spaces. I think the current democracy review gives the party an opportunity to shine a lens on these issues.
I propose that this can be done in four ways.
Firstly, the party already has a long established mechanism of all-women’s shortlists to address the issue of female representation in Parliament. Most recently AWS has also been used successfully in the selection of council candidates.
Positive action is useful as an affirmative action to bridging inequalities. If we are able to do this for gender, I would suggest that the party also takes into consideration race and sexuality in selections. It would be useful to point out at that this should not equate to making sure a BAME candidate is included in the longlist of parliamentary selections, as is currently done. That is simply not enough and for many CLPs it is as a tick-box exercise. I was surprised at the recent council selections for Newham in east London, where I belong, when the regional party did not even collect demographics related to sexuality.
Whilst positive action is a good thing and can open the door, the real test would be for actual training and mentorship. Trade unions have come out in support of making sure more working class voices in parliament and providing mentoring. We need similar training and mentorship for LGBT and BAME candidates. The Jo Cox women in leadership program has shown what a good training program can do. It is time for Labour to invest in similar programs. How about a Bernie Grant leadership program or a Chris Smith leadership Program?
The only way we can make our politics and political leaders truly representative is by investing. This is a good time for the party to invest in its socialist societies and liberation groups and ensure they are producing the next generation of leaders from under-represented communities. I would also suggest that this kind of training should involve bursaries and grants for working class and disabled candidates to help them participate.
The third point is to make the change at the grassroots level. The party needs to ensure that liberation groups and officers are given more power. All CLPs now have a women’s officer who is a voting member of the executive. Why are the LGBT and BAME co-ordinators not given the same status within our CLP executive and given equal voting rights?
This would increase accountability and help grow liberation groups. For many of us LGBT and/or BAME young people, we are conditioned to believe that politics is not for us. This must be challenged and it has to come from the very bottom. Socialist societies can also play an important role in this. Through affiliation with CLPs they can make sure that local parties remain progressive, inclusive and committed to equalities. Affiliation will also encourage more members of under-represented groups get involved within.
This brings me to my final point, of how to ensure grassroots engagement is beneficial for liberation groups. Let’s make it easier for people to join them when they join Labour. If members indicate they are BAME, LGBT or disabled they should automatically be made members of these groups. It took me almost five years to understand how to join BAME Labour.
This should be a turning point for us in Labour. The Tory government is in a mess, we have a very large and active membership base whose power we need to harness in the next election. For a truly democratic, progressive and transparent voice; we must embrace intersectionality and give all liberation groups that extra push to make sure our party is representative of the plurality of its membership.
Dr Rohit K Dasgupta is a lecturer at Loughborough University. He was Labour’s candidate for East Hampshire in 2017.