What do the latest NEC results say about Black male representation in Labour?

Sienna Rodgers

Labour’s new ruling body met for the first time this week, following internal party contests that concluded earlier this month and gave rise to a fresh national executive committee. With the election of a new NEC chair and 13 members staging a walk-out, attentions were drawn – as they typically are – to factional infighting. But for many members of the party, the under-told story of the NEC results was that of a key opportunity missed.

As revealed by a collective of young Black men called The 1987 Caucus Movement earlier this year, there has never once been Black male representation on the ruling body – and that is still the case after Labour’s 2020 NEC elections. This is despite two Black men running on different factional slates: Jermain Jackman backed by soft left Open Labour and Terry Paul from the pro-leadership Labour to Win platform. I spoke to them to find out more about their experiences of the election and their views on what must be done to address this problem.

Both Jermain and Terry are positive about their experiences running for Labour’s NEC as local party representative candidates. “I was pleasantly surprised by the positive nature of the campaign,” Terry told me. “As a Black man, it allowed me to not only have personal views on what’s happened this year, but also to put them in a context of Labour Party politics. So for me, personally, I found it a very, very positive experience.”

Similarly, Jermain said: “I really enjoyed running in this campaign. The year 2020 has been the year of Jermain trying to get onto the NEC and just missing out by my fingernails!” He ran earlier in the year for the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) rep post, but missed out due to lack of trade union support. Jermain is particularly pleased about the breadth of support he secured this time, though, highlighting that someone messaged him to say, “I don’t know any member who can get the endorsement of Diane Abbott and Wes Streeting in the same day”.

This compliment touches on the key bit of context in which Labour’s lack of Black male representation must be seen: factionalism. As Jermain summarises: “You had two Black men on either side of the party, both running to be on the NEC, and neither of them got elected.” This suggests the problem can be found across the party. But is factionalism itself a driver? Jermain thinks so: “People are so entrenched in factionalism that it blinds the fight for representation and equality. And that goes for the right and the left of the party.”

Although Jermain is positive about his experience of running, the 2014 winner of The Voice UK does tell me: “I’ve been called every name underneath the sun. I’ve been called a Trot, a crank, a witch-hunter. Names that I have never even heard of before in my life because I come from the entertainment industry. And I thought that was brutal. Politics is brutal. But the Labour Party is a whole other level.” This name-calling “didn’t really affect me”, he says, “but it just felt so strange having adults behave like children”.

Jermain is worried that people “don’t understand their internalised racism”, and says: “I do question whether or not we really want to go on that journey to be in a Labour government, because right now we are setting ourselves back time and time again.” He is clearly exhausted by the infighting and how it distracts from the original reasons that people become politically active. And this is part of why he believes racism isn’t just a problem with members as individuals but with “institutional slates and institutional cliques”.

Jermain ran as an Open Labour candidate, but had also applied for Momentum’s endorsement. His name was raised in the meeting that determined the slate but not ultimately included. He does not complain about this outcome in our interview, yet outlines how he was perceived and treated. “People still call you careerist, rather than ambitious. People still called me a member of the right of the party, rather than actually having a conversation with me. Lies were created about ‘Oh, Jermain was mentored by Lisa Nandy, Jermain stood up and supported Keir Starmer in his local CLP meeting.’ No, that was another Black man. I had to battle all of these things.”

After the NEC results were announced, Jermain was contacted by people from other slates seeking to pick his brain for policies. “If you like my ideas so much, you should have had me on your slate!” he tells me. “I’m tired of hearing about and seeing backroom deals and ‘okay, I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’.” His solution? “We formalise the factions within the Labour Party. Just like how they do it in Australia.” He promises to send over a comment piece outlining in more detail how he would propose to reform the party in this way.

In the meantime, he hints that people simply need to grow up. Speaking of veteran NEC member Ann Black, who was also on the Open Labour slate and was elected this year, we laugh as Jermain recounts: “She said there was one time she was in a meeting for six hours, and a decision wasn’t made. And that broke my heart, to hear you were in a meeting for six whole hours. That’s a trip to New York, you’re in a meeting for a whole trip to New York! And a decision was not made. I would have left after the first 30 minutes.”

Terry and I talk more broadly about Black representation and anti-Black racism in the party. LabourList reported in September that he told an event Labour does not “have the back” of the Black community, so I ask him to expand on those thoughts. “Does the [Parliamentary Labour Party] look representative of the Black community, male and female? No, it doesn’t. Did the Labour Party talk enough about issues of concern to the Black community? No. If you look at issues around policing, we’re still thrashing around in the dark, trying to come up with an acceptable answer of how we deal with stop and search and underrepresentation.”

Terry is focused on how Black lived experiences don’t play a role in policy-making, and how Labour does not reflect well enough the communities it seeks to represent. Highlighting that Labour’s only Black male MPs are David Lammy, Clive Lewis and Mark Hendrick, he asks: “David is out there, Clive and Mark are banging the drum, but it’s only three of them, right? They can’t cover the pitch, can they?”

He doesn’t want “gestures” either, though. He wants to see “issues of concern to the Black community championed more” and “all policy portfolios handle the issues of concern to the Black community better” – but strongly warns against tokenism. “The key thing is I don’t like tokenism. I hate it. And I think there are sufficient people of colour who are eminently able to do the job on their own merits.”

Asked about the NEC election result, Terry is determined not to come across as resentful or anything like that, and of course he is not. “Members have a right not to choose you. You can’t insult people by saying, ‘hey, vote for me I’m a Black guy’. That’s ridiculous. I didn’t say that once during the campaign. I’ve never said it in my life.” But he is also clear about the problem. “The party didn’t want a Black man on the NEC. Simple as that. It didn’t vote for it. That’s it,” he concludes. “It’s people who are part of the structure. It’s not the computer saying no, it’s the person typing in the computer. Essentially, the party didn’t see fit to put either me or Jermain sufficiently high enough in the top nine slots.”

Turning to what needs to change within Labour, Terry picks up on fundamental issues of awareness and transparency – and holding the party to the standards it sets for others. “I don’t think the party could tell you how many ethnic minority members there are,” he says. “If you went to David Evans, or Keir Starmer right now, you say, how many Black men or Black members of staff do you have? They wouldn’t know, I suspect. ‘How many Black members do we have? I wouldn’t know, let me go check.’ They would probably come up with a reason why they can’t tell you. But we say to the rest of the UK, private and public sector, that’s not good enough. How many times have you heard a Labour politician haranguing an organisation for the lack of diversity at their board, their NEC?”

Terry notes, “I don’t want to use the word BAME… I hate the word, or BAME shortlist. Because now what happens? Black people get washed out either by other groups.” He stresses the need to talk about Black men explicitly, rather than BAME or ethnic minorities. And approaching the issue rather like a businessman, or perhaps a member of a governing body, he tells me: “I expect the Labour Party to do what it expects of UK civil society.” And the way that he identifies the solution is simply that the party “make use of its talent” – because it is already there, it just needs to be recognised and valued.

Which goals would he have pursued as an NEC member? “When seats come up, why is it always favoured sons and daughters, predominantly white and middle class in the trade unions, who get seats? Why is that?” he asks in response. “I would set a challenge to the Labour Party to put an end to the nonsense, where all-women shortlists seem to favour a certain type of women, where selections seem to favour the sons and daughters of the trade union barons. That’s what I wanted to do.”

And what is Terry Paul going to do next in his activism? Stand for Labour’s NEC again? “No. I’ll tell you what I’m gonna stand for. I’m gonna go into parliament, actually. I always try to be a positive individual. And I think, you know what I’m going to do? I want to stand outside of London in a seat that is predominantly white. You know why? Because I’m fed up.” He lists the majority-white seats represented by Black male Conservative MPs, and asks: “Why is it the Tories can do it?”.

Although Terry stood on the Labour to Win platform, very supportive of Keir Starmer and the current direction of the party, he does not shy away from setting challenges for the new leadership. “Something has to fix the Labour Party, and that only can be fixed by the leader, which is David Evans and Keir Starmer. No-one else. None of these special interest groups, taskforce, whatever. No. It’s a challenge that only those two can fix. And if they’re really interested in it, they should personally lead a piece of work on it… You deal with your most pressing problems with your best people.”

It is a pressing problem. Jermain tells me he has been “taking a step back from the Labour Party”, which means working at a grassroots level and with his local authority (“I’ve just had my recommendations voted on and accepted by Hackney Council”) rather than on internal elections. “Once you go into the Labour world, it’s almost like that’s the only thing that exists to you. It’s almost like your head is in a hole. It’s the only thing that you can see,” he points out, with devastating accuracy. His heart-breaking conclusion: “The level of toxicity in this movement has shown me that we’re not here for change.” Jermain tells me that after the leaked report, “I did have to look at my membership card and wonder if this was the party for me”.

Jermain and Terry adopt slightly different focuses in their analyses of Labour’s problem with Black men, but they agree that the problem exists and that it needs to be urgently addressed by the leadership. As Jermain says, “we do need to rebuild that red wall, but we need to remind ourselves that there are black and brown bricks in that wall too”. And as Terry puts plainly: “My challenge to David Evans and to Keir is, what are you doing about it?”. Jermain ends our Zoom call by saying: “Keir has my number. Let’s just say that: Keir has my number, and he can call me or text me whenever he wants.”

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