The race equalities strategy is a good start – but Labour can go further

We come into politics to change the world, and right now we see so much that requires urgent and fundamental change. I want to be speaking about why people from minority communities are poorer and therefore more vulnerable to coronavirus. I want to debate why we are more likely to live in over-crowded accommodation. I want to propose solutions to tackle the ethnicity pay gap. I want to understand why so many black men have died in police custody. I want to debate entrenched inequality and structural racism. I want Labour to be the party that develops the answers and implements the solutions.

Yet we only have permission to be heard by the public on these issues if we are prepared to examine ourselves, and show we are fit for purpose. In the same way as antisemitism has been a stain on our party, we must commit to purging any form of racism.

There wasn’t much to celebrate in the December election, but I welcome the fact that 13 of the 26-strong new intake identify as BAME. They carry our hopes and dreams into public office. However, like all gains, their election was hard-won, and didn’t come without a struggle. We had to be a critical friend and share hard truths, but we developed our own answers too.

Despite recent progress, I can point to clear recent examples as to why the struggle continues to endure. An aspiring woman councillor who was told that “a white candidate will be selected this time”. Or the constituency nomination meeting for Labour’s national executive committee BAME rep, where the majority of white members decided who to nominate without consulting the BAME members in the room. Or the friend who said we must ensure that more BAME candidates stand in majority BAME seats (because we’re obviously not good enough to represent Rother Valley, Redcar or Midlothian).

When you have a problem in an organisation, you start by accepting the problem, and you commit to taking action. That’s why I applaud Keir Starmer’s announcement today that unveiled a new race equality strategy. It’s a really good start. 

After over two years of announcements, re-announcements and launches, I was pleased to see the first cohort of Bernie Grant Leadership Programme finally graduate. There is so much talent among our BAME members, these programmes must be sustained. Developing future staffers, council leaders, CLP officers and MPs requires training, coaching, peer support and mentoring. But this can’t be run from the centre – our regional teams, our affinity groups, our friends groups must be empowered to take this important work forward. And given the intersectionality some members face, we need tailored programmes for LGBT BAME members and BAME women, too.

An action plan to follow the staffing audit is crucial. It’s tough criticising your own party, but Black Lives Matter has given us an opportunity to call out situations where organisations get things fundamentally wrong, and to make us uncomfortable about the reality of our privilege. We have hired a number of political advisers, yet no equalities monitoring took place. Even these simple measures will help us understand and tackle under-representation among the party’s workforce. Our staff must be as diverse as the people who vote for us. This ambition is long overdue.

Upon his election, Keir Starmer’s first act as leader was to apologise to the Jewish community for the antisemitism in our party. Angela Rayner has appointed a diverse team to ensure inclusion, diversity and representation across all our equalities sits at the heart of her role as deputy leader. It couldn’t be any clearer that we have a leadership team with the energy and ambition to do whatever it takes to eliminate racism. But we must always go further and deeper. The answer to systemic problems is never sticking plasters and initiatives. It needs a clearly understood strategy that gets to the heart of the problem; it needs buy-in from the top; it needs ambitious implementation that is well resourced; it needs measurement. Most of all, it needs accountability and transparency. 

We can go so much further. We must set out clear expectations of zero tolerance to racist conduct and language. We must include councillor representation in the audit and develop a programme so more BAME councillors move into leadership roles. We must accelerate implementation of the BAME structures and a stand-alone BAME conference. We face elections in Scotland and Wales so need to urgently ensure BAME candidates are selected in winnable seats.

The Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO) must agree race equality and inclusion plans with affiliated trade unions. We need to take CLPs with a high BAME membership out of special measures. And making lasting change will be the measure of success for our leadership’s ambition, determination, and commitment. I know we can do it.

33 years ago, our party elected its first BAME MPs. We have such a proud commitment to demonstrable action on race equality. As we enter a bleak period we must ensure that the disparities impacting BAME people don’t get worse. Years of austerity, a broken labour market, coronavirus and Black Lives Matter have exposed why we have never needed a Labour government more. This is our opportunity to ensure we move past slogans and make a lasting difference.

More from LabourList