“You see our problem is that Black people are not a priority in the Labour Party and trade union movement at the moment.” You would be forgiven for assuming that this comment was made in the last week. But these were the words of the late Bernie Grant during the 1984 Labour Party annual conference, when he talked about the treatment of black people and the issues they face within the Labour Party.
20 years after Grant’s death, his words still ring true. We have recently learnt of allegations concerning the abuse and disgusting treatment – drenched in racism – of black MPs Diane Abbott, Clive Lewis and Dawn Butler. As a movement, it begs the question: how can we call ourselves an anti-racist party that fights for equality and justice when we have have racism, inequality and injustice within our own movement? And as young black men, the question is: how are we supposed to stand by and represent a party that doesn’t represent, nor stand by, us?
Neither the Labour Party nor the trade union movement is doing enough to support, encourage and represent black men – and that needs to improve. The numbers are pretty damning: since 1987, only four black men have been elected as Labour MPs and currently there are just three black male MPs across the whole Parliamentary Labour Party – representing a measly 1.49% of the current members. There are just two black male Labour members of the House of Lords: Lord Bill Morris, and Lord Paul Boateng.
Ahead of the 2017 general election, Labour selected no black men as new candidates. This led to a formal complaint to the then general secretary, Iain McNicol, but no action was taken. On a local government level, according to an audit carried out last year by Operation Black Vote, just 81 of 1,026 BAME councillors are black men of African/Caribbean descent. And the last time a black man was a Labour representative on the Greater London Assembly, or sat on Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), was over 20 years ago.
Alongside such depressing statistics, internal representation is equally as important as external representation. In a 2017 BuzzFeed article, director of Operation Black Vote Simon Woolley said: “The trouble is Labour has so many internal problems and no black people, no [black] senior policy people in the Labour Party central office.”
The 1987 Caucus Movement believes it is crucial to ensure that our voices are heard at the decision-making table. But why does it matter? What will black representation achieve at the end of the day?
Young black men are more likely to be stopped and searched, and three and a half times more likely to be arrested, charged and jailed for harsher and longer sentences than their white counterparts for the same crime. Similar disparities are seen across education, employment, health and housing. You only have to look at the way prominent black male figures such as Raheem Sterling, Stormzy and Dave have been treated by the media. These observations only scratch the surface of the problem, but they reveal uncomfortable truths about institutional racism and a clear racial bias in our country.
Several articles have been written, and complaints submitted to the party, on its failure to address the lack of black male representation. But here we are – in 2020 – having to create the 1987 Caucus Movement because, as a community, we have felt so voiceless. We believe black men within the party have been marginalised, sidelined and ignored. This needs to change.
The new organisation is a collective and network of young black men in the Labour Party, inspired by the historic election of 1987 that saw the first black men elected to parliament. Our aim is to improve black male representation at all levels of the party, to campaign to tackle racism, injustice and inequality, and to ensure that black issues are at the forefront of the Labour’s agenda. It will be a safe space for young black men to express their concerns and discuss the issues we face. We aim to contribute to policy development, but ultimately to empower and support our young black men to apply, run and put themselves forward for positions.
Many Labour members have understandably questioned their membership recently. The party has been criticised for not being robust enough in its response to the leaked report, being too slow to call for an investigation into coronavirus BAME deaths, being hesitant to implement Labour’s democracy review recommendations and changes to Chapter 14 of the rulebook (rules for ethnic minorities forums), and handling NEC BAME elections poorly. At the 1987 Caucus, we decided to use this anger to organise!
Our appeal is directed towards any and every young black man who is a member of the Labour Party. Our movement is growing. Join us, and let’s build the network to ensure that our voices are heard. Our second appeal is to the new party leadership: work with us to ensure that we improve representation and campaign on the issues that black communities face – or risk losing them forever.
We demand that Labour:
- looks into all-BAME parliamentary selection lists;
- expands the successful Bernie Grant Leadership Programme, which helps organise, encourage and support BAME activists across the party;
- reviews the process for recommendations to the House of Lords to ensure that more BAME members are appointed;
- implements the changes to Chapter 14 in the rule book and all recommendations in the democracy review;
- develop a complaints procedure that recognises structural racism and Afrophobia;
- entirely reform and democratise BAME Labour;
- improves the way that it collects data on new party members from ethnic minorities;
- sees Labour HQ put forward a plan of action to improve representation in the workforce, especially at senior management level;
- allows all internal BAME elections to allow only BAME members to vote under a one-member-one-vote system;
- and that the wider labour movement diversifies the top level positions in trade unions, and does more to encourage and empower black workers within the movement.