The need for more BAME representation in Labour is more clear than ever

Shamik Das

Which press releases to send out? Who to put up for broadcast? Which stories to brief out? What to lead on for the week? Which outlets to appear in? What tone to adopt? What to lead on for PMQs? How these decisions come about and who is sat around the table when they are made inform the outcomes – if you’re not in the room, you’re not being heard, your experiences aren’t considered, your perspective goes unheeded.

Which brings us on to the ‘R’ rating – no, not that one. I’m talking about the Representation rating, or the ‘R²’ rating, the level of Race Representation in the Labour Party, at all levels, public-facing and behind the scenes. The fact that this level is low, and has never not been, under all leaders and general secretaries, is a secret shame of the Labour Party (are we the baddies?). Seldom has it been more important that this issue is addressed and changes made than now, with racial justice protests sweeping the world following the police murder of George Floyd, including tens of thousands taking to the streets in the UK.

There has been criticism in recent days that the Labour leadership has been too slow and too cautious in its response to events – just a few words on George Floyd (and no questions) at last week’s PMQs; only caveated support for the protests; condemnation of the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue as “completely wrong”. And it’s that initial inability to see this as a priority last week; the absence of instinctive backing for the Black Lives Matter protests; the lack of an emotional response to the Bristoric scenes on Sunday that show how important it is to have diversity of outlook in the decision-making process.

If you nor anyone in your circle of influence has walked a mile in the shoes of a black person who has had to see that statue every day, go to a school bearing that slave owner’s name, pass streets named in his honour, if nobody round that table has an understanding of the everyday lived experiences of BAME Britons, the response will inevitably be one that is slow, flat and underwhelming.

But such has been the fast pace of the story that a new approach does seem to be developing in real-time. Just in the time it has taken me to write this piece, the Shadow Communities Secretary has backed the decision by Labour councils to review all statues and commemorations in their areas, and Labour’s leader and deputy leader took a knee in solidarity with “all those opposing anti-black racism”.

In terms of the deeper problems, though, change is needed to ensure Labour responds better and faster in future. To increase representation from the present low levels, the issue of BAME-only shortlists for parliamentary selections must be looked at (and not just in ‘ethnic’ areas – the Tories seem to have no qualms fielding the likes of Rishi Sunak in Richmond (Yorks), Priti Patel in Witham, Suella Braverman in Fareham and Kemi Badenoch in Saffron Walden), and for senior staff appointments a Rooney Rule, whereby ethnic-minority candidates have to be shortlisted for interview, should be considered.

And speaking of staff, when allegations of anti-black racism and Islamophobia are made, these must be investigated. The failure to deal with complaints about antisemitism over the last few years are a stain on Labour’s reputation and the same lax approach must not recur.

Greater representation of BAME opinion and experiences will also affect policy prioritisation and development – on stop and search, drug policy, the criminal justice system, education outcomes, job opportunities – black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons overall are disproportionately disadvantaged. This is something we have seen most tragically in terms of the impact of coronavirus, with some groups up to four times more likely to die from Covid-19.

In terms of futurist policy areas, there is a BAME dimension: artificial intelligence will have racial justice implications, with the advent of facial recognition and predictive policing. Preventing discrimination against minorities through AI should be part of Labour’s agenda. And we know that globally, climate change will impact developing countries the most if it is not dealt with – this must be an absolute priority as we move forward.

Representation matters. Without equality, there can be no justice.

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