Why everyone needs to stop talking about BAME Labour reform

Recent weeks have seen confusion and misinformation spread across social media about current BAME reforms in the Labour Party. Strength of feeling, however, has never been more resolute – things have to change.

A clear mandate for this change was given in 2017-18, when thousands of BAME members contributed to Labour’s democracy review to lambast the party’s structural neglect of ethnic minority members. But the new shadow cabinet team appears still to be mixing up key terms, revealing that the party has failed to communicate clearly or effectively with members and key stakeholders about these reforms. 

Let’s try to bring some clarity to this discussion. The reform that is taking place involves the creation of a brand new BAME structure (name to be confirmed!) that is entirely separate from the old socialist society called ‘BAME Labour’. BAME Labour is not being reformed, and will presumably continue with all of the same deficiencies

In practice, this means that the party’s substantial BAME membership has no democratic oversight in the internal governance of BAME Labour. This is because the party has no constitutional authority to force socialist societies to do anything – otherwise Labour’s national executive committee would have intervened eight years ago when BAME Labour was taken to court. BAME Labour, as with all socialist societies, is accountable only to itself.

Carol Sewell, the newly-elected BAME representative on the NEC, does not represent BAME Labour. The NEC place belongs to the new BAME structure. And now – with the changes BAME members won through the democracy review – the BAME NEC representative is directly accountable to BAME members of the Labour Party, for the first time in its history.

To make matters even more confusing, little beyond automatic membership of the structure to all self-identifying BAME members and representation on the NEC has been agreed so far. The structure itself has not been ratified by annual conference, and so does not exist. This leaves us in a type of purgatory, with one foot on the NEC and the other in the yet-to-be-agreed democracy review papers.

What will the new BAME structure look like? July’s NEC is set to determine this. BAME members of the NEC have met to create parameters to be discussed at this crucial meeting, with the following demands:

  • A stand alone, policy-making annual conference
  • A set funding formula to ensure the structure is well resourced to run campaigns
  • A dedicated member of staff to service the committee
  • A gender-balanced committee comprised of:
    • Chair (elected via one-member-one-vote)
    • Regional reps (elected via OMOV)
    • Trade union reps (appointed via their trade unions)
    • Equality reps (election method to be determined)
    • International officer (elected via OMOV to build links with global solidarity movements)
    • NEC rep (already elected via electoral college)

With the change in leadership and the balance of the NEC, the above demands – and the possibility of a radical and democratic BAME structure – are under threat. It is now all too easy to imagine that this new structure be ratified with little member representation or power. It seems almost certain that cost will be used to argue that neither a stand alone policy-making conference nor OMOV elections are possible. In practice, this will be a cynical ploy to lessen the potential of a radical BAME self-organisation force in our party.

This structure needs to be a continuation of the incredible legacy of the Labour Party’s Black sections, which tore down great institutional barriers to meaningful representation. This potential explains much of why these reforms are being hidden, distorted or purposely miscommunicated. It is much easier to pull the teeth from this structure behind closed doors.

My advice? Leave the socialist society BAME Labour alone. The fight for BAME representation within our party has moved on. Our time is better spent writing to NEC representatives and your unions to ensure that the new BAME structure agreed in July reflects the demands put forward by BAME members. And if it doesn’t? Stand to be a delegate to this annual conference and vote on the proposals yourself.

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