Still at the back of the bus?

By Maurice Mcleod

The Labour Party’s relationship with Britain’s black, Asian and minority ethnic communities has always been a complicated one.

The Party’s championing of the working classes and of marginalised groups makes it the natural home for those facing structural racism but for decades black and Asian communities have struggled to feel truly seen within the party.

Black and minority ethnic voters have always been stubbornly loyal to the Labour Party and many of the party’s staunches t red seats are in areas with large black or Asian communities. In the last election Ipso found that 64% of all Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) voters voted Labour, while 20% voted for the Conservatives and 12% for the Lib Dems.

Despite this, anti-racism activists and other black and Asian members often feel that their concerns or the issues that impact on their communities are at the bottom of Labour’s list of priorities and that their votes are considered ‘in the bag’. The message from the Labour Party sometimes feels like “Well, if they don’t vote Labour, where else will they go?”

But for many black and Asian voters, their choice isn’t Labour or someone else, it’s Labour or no one.

Last November, the Electoral Commission found that 25% of potential black voters in Great Britain are not registered. It also says that 24% of Asian voters and almost a third (31%) of eligible people with mixed ethnicity are not registered, compared to a 17% average across the population.

Even once registered, black and minority ethnic people are less likely to actually turn out and vote. Ethnic minority turnout at the 2017 election was 59%,  11% lower than for white voters.

For many black and Asian voters, the very concept of political engagement bringing anything more than minor changes to their lives seems far-fetched.

Labour often offers the most promise but the Party is just an institution, made up of humans, built in a structurally racist nation, and functioning in a world still filled with discrimination. How could Labour possibly be immune to the racism that infects the rest of modern society?

Anti-racists point to Labour’s infamous immigration mugs, the treatment of black MPs and staff, the lack of black voices in decision-making positions, apparent reticent on making stands on the criminal justice system, drug laws, education or street violence, as signs that the party is lukewarm about tackling societal inequalities.

As a black or Asian Brit, no matter which institution you engage with, the colour of your skin makes it more likely that your interaction will be less positive.

Statistically speaking, your outcomes at school will be worse, your chances of getting a job will be worse, your pay when you find work will be lower, your housing will be worse, your health will be worse, and the chances of avoiding the wrong side of the criminal justice system will be worse. At the end of all that, you die sooner too.

Politics is just another institution. Policies are produced without the true impact on marginalised communities being considered and with hardly anyone who has shared the experiences with the people being legislated upon in the room.

Political representation is about more than just MPs, but Parliament is the most high-profile political arena in the country and so when people think of representatives, they often think of the Houses of Commons.

We have a representative democracy where around 70,000 of us elect an individual who then goes to Parliament to be our voice. No individual, no matter how empathetic or worldly-wise, can have shared experiences with 70,000 other humans.

In theory, you therefore end up electing the person who is most in tune with as many of their constituents as possible. When we’re talking about minority communities, the clue is in the name. In all but a few constituencies, black and Asian, Roma Gypsy Traveller, Jewish and other communities are in the minority, so our current system means Parliament can be perfectly ‘representative’ in each individual constituency but still end up with a virtually all white cohort of MPs.

When the other barriers to political involvement, such as income requirements, expected educational attainment, conscious and unconscious bias, social and professional networks are taking into account, it is little wonder that if no deliberate action is taken, those reaching the upper echelons of public life will largely be white and middle class.

For much of Parliament’s history, this is exactly what happened. A handful of MPs before the mid-80s were from backgrounds other than white European and many black and Asian communities felt ignored.

Black self-organising in the 1980s saw four BAME MPs elected in 1987 including Diane Abbott, the first black female MP, and while BAME representation has slowly crept up in 33 years since, some groups are still languishing.

I fear we too often look at representation in a quantitative rather than a qualitative way and this leads to over-simplifications and blending. Instead of ensuring we have people with a diverse range of lived experience, we count the number of black and brown faces.

In some ways, Parliament is slowly transforming to be more representative and when it comes to both female representation and representation from some marginalised groups, Labour has led the way – although the Tories will mention they elected the first two female PMs in Britain.

At the last general election, Labour elected 41 BAME MPs (a record) and the parliamentary Labour Party now has more female MPs than male for the first time in history.

The problem with the BAME label is that it lumps groups together and thinks of everyone who isn’t white as part of a monolith. Treating issues of representation in a binary way, detail gets lost and communities get left behind.

All-women shortlists and active campaigns to encourage women into politics have seen the number of female MPs, especially on the Labour benches, rise steadily.

Parliament is now made up of a total of 220 female MPs. This is up from 120 in 1997, and 34% of politicians in the House of Commons are now women.

87 of the 365 Tories elected last week were women, compared to 104 of the 202 MPs that Labour has sent to Westminster. This represents 51% of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

While this has seen a steady stream of talented new black and Asian women becoming MPs, the number of black male MPs has hardly moved. In 1987, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng were elected alongside Diane Abbott and Keith Vaz but in the 32 years to 2019, the number of black male Labour MPs moved from two to three.

Politics is about more than identity, but experiences shape your world view and to have so few people in our nation’s main decision-making body who have experienced being male and black in Britain leads to blind spots in policymaking.

This paucity of black male representatives is even greater when you take in the next level of political decision-making, local councils. In 2018, the Local Government Association found that 96% of Councillors were white, 2% were Asian and about 1% were black.

These dire figures have hardly moved since the turn of the century but I’m not shocked by the lack of black engagement in our political systems.

The recent growth in the global Black Lives Matter movement and the countless local campaign groups that have sprung up in its shadow present a much more exciting, dynamic and welcoming home for politically engaged young black and Asian Brits.

If a young, politically engaged black person wants to campaign against anti-black racism in the criminal justice system or the way that their children are schooled, there are far more exciting prospects than a slow-moving, wrong-stepping Labour party.

All is not lost though. Labour has some incredible inbuilt resources which mean it is better placed than most other political institutions when it comes to making transformative changes. The party membership still has a large number of knowledgeable and engaged black, Asian and white anti-racists who are well connected within their local communities. There is a history of goodwill. There are structures and procedures, which if used evenly and in good faith, will provide protection for those facing discrimination.

It was black self-organising that broke Labour’s white MP monopoly in 1987, and the party needs to empower and trust its black and Asian members to show the way in the 2020s.

Some of this requires a change in outlook and a loosening of message controls. Instead of fearing that black and Asian self-organisation will cause political controversy, the party should see it is the only sensible way to build a road map to a more equal Britain.

Black and Asian members should have a conference with genuine policymaking powers and the controversial issue of all-BAME (for want of a better title) shortlists should be looked at again.

BAME officers of CLP need the tools to genuinely engage with minority communities where they already are, rather than being expected to tempt black and Asian people into dreary and overly procedural CLP meetings. Local activists should be seen as the party’s conscience, connecting us to communities and making sure we don’t ignore issues that might not energise mainstream society of the media.

When setting out a vision for the future of Britain, Labour should be talking about a bold, inclusive, fairer, kinder nation. Fighting all the bigotries and discrimination that still pollute our nation and demanding a more even spread of resources should be our bread and butter.

Labour’s black and Asian members should be front and centre as the party lays out this vision but all too often, we’re still at the back of the bus.

Maurice Mcleod is a Labour councillor in the London borough of Wandsworth and CEO of the social policy research organisation Race on the Agenda 

Image: Black Lives Matter protest, Hyde park, London, Author: Katie Crampton (WMUK), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.