Black Lives Matter: What’s Next for the Labour Movement?

By Huda Elmi and Jabu Nala-Hartley

With the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement on the streets in recent weeks, everyone’s asking the big question – what happens next?

In the Labour movement, the answer seems bleak. Keir Starmer’s personal role in setting up the night courts in 2011 – in an unprecedented move to speed up the sentencing of young, Black working class ‘rioters’ in Tottenham protesting the police killing of Mark Duggan – is all too reminiscent in his approach to today’s struggle. As one comrade powerfully put it – Kneeling is not enough (link to https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/06/kneeling-is-not-enough).

With Momentum’s elections underway, candidates and slates are grappling with the question of how to organise BAME members to build power and win much-needed change in the Party and in our society. Worryingly, however, very little of that discussion appears to engage with the reality of what already exists – much of which was won by BAME activists in Momentum over the past 5 years, including the establishment of a members-led BAME organisation within the Labour Party itself.

As activists who played a part in organising for those successes, we were particularly concerned by the ill-thought out proposal from the Forward Momentum candidates that commits to:

Develop a democratically-run Momentum BAME members network to support BAME self-organisation, build BAME power and promote BAME leadership. Provide training, skill-sharing and political education for BAME members.

Sounds good, right? Except that BAME Momentum activists have already begun this process in earnest, through one of the most long-lasting and significant constitutional reforms the left has ever achieved in Labour – introduced as part of the Democracy Review.

Not only is this work already underway, it has also been strategically focused on building autonomous power for BAME activists and inside Labour, where the power to materially improve the lives of working class people lies and where we therefore need focus our organising efforts. With the gains in democratisation in the Party made by the left in recent years now at risk in the hands of the new leadership, it’s crucial that we redouble our efforts to protect and extend them within the Party. Not seek to replicate them through funnelling our energies into building parallel organising spaces.

We are seriously concerned that Forward Momentum’s proposals to set up yet another front group for left BAME activists threaten to drag BAME self-organisation back several years into internal warfare, as competing Black groups tore chunks out of each other leaving the corrupt power-structures of Labour untouched and unrepresentative of BAME struggles and experiences.

The history of Black self-organised groups in Momentum is a difficult one, wrought with splits and struggles to be the legitimate voice of members. Momentum Black Connexions was the first group set up to be the Black collective voice of members in Momentum, but it soon split into various splinters including Grassroots Black Left and Momentum Black Caucus (the latter of which is formally affiliated to Momentum and has representation rights on the NCG). Many other left BAME groups have sprung up in recent years, including Socialists of Colour and the 1987 Caucus alongside many more.

Without a structure that can unite all these groupings and focus BAME members on organising along political lines to win positions of power and policy positions, these attempts to build collective BAME power often remained isolated and divided with tiny memberships. Despite their best intentions, these groupings have fallen short of their mission to represent and organise BAME members in the Party and successfully build power. BAME self-organisation remained a myth and a pipe dream. Jeremy Corbyn’s Democracy Review, launched at Conference 2017, provided a serious opportunity to change that – and Momentum seized it with both hands.

BAME activists like ourselves and many others helped to initiate a massive online democratic consultation in Momentum, where all BAME members were invited to feed in their experiences of organising in the Party and their demands for change. Thousands participated in this exercise, with meetings called across the country of BAME activists on the left to agree collective demands. Through this process, we put forward and negotiated clear demands to create a brand new section to provide space and resources for all BAME members to organise ourselves and hold our representatives at every level of the Party accountable, equal to those of the Young Labour and Women’s Labour structures. We won commitment to the adoption of a National Committee, representation at regional level and the ability to form local groups that have formal connections to CLPs.

Within the review, we also won BAME members of the Party a free and equal vote for our NEC representative, reforms to reduce the bureaucracy of local Ethnic Minority Forums and the promotion of BAME Officers in CLPs to give them full voting rights.

We fought this campaign in the way we believe Momentum must continue to build BAME power and self-organisation – through enabling the participation and empowerment of thousands of BAME members across the country, and focusing our efforts on winning power within the Party.

When it came to the election, our work was also essential in helping to select fantastic BAME candidates like Zarah Sultana, Apsana Begum and Bell Ribiero Addy. This came not through organising within Momentum itself, but through working within the Party and negotiating with the unions to support and campaign for our brightest and best to take positions of power.

Momentum’s work in BAME Labour has arguably been the most effective element of our grassroots organising strategy. Now, instead of splitting hairs over which of the many BAME and Black groupings on the left get to be seen as the legitimate representative of BAME members, many of our BAME activists are embedded into the structures and workings of the Labour Party proper – empowering BAME members and fighting for change. But neither knowledge of nor interest in this is reflected in Forward Momentum’s detailed documents on strategy.

The priorities for BAME momentum members should not be reinventing the wheel and encouraging more introspection through tokenistic vanity projects – but engaging with the monumental structural overhaul of the Party’s own BAME spaces and seeing them successfully through to their implementation. Then organising to win socialists on the committees and radical policy positions that have the power to make significant material improvements to the lives of those in our communities. This should include developing BAME branches in CLPs, winning BAME seats on RECs, holding these positions ahead of upcoming national elections and making sure we win a majority on the NEC to continue to hold this Party to account on the issues that matter most to our communities.

If elected, that’s exactly what we will be doing as your representatives on Momentum’s NCG. Continuing the crucial work of the past few years, and seeing in the historic creation of a BAME section of the Labour Party where members are empowered to organise to win power and make a real difference to the lives of deprived and oppressed communities.

Huda Elmi and Jabu Nala-Hartley are candidates for Momentum’s NCG, standing on the Momentum Renewal slate. 

These ideas will be discussed at a Momentum Renewal zoom meeting on Friday (26 June ) on the theme Black Lives Matter: What’s Next in the Labour Movement