I was asked to write a short article on why Keith Vaz beat Asghar Khan in the BAME Labour NEC election. The honest answer is I don’t know but there are lessons to be learnt. I suffer racial intolerance in the Labour Party and because of my ‘cultural’ straight talking I am deemed the ‘Aggressive Black Woman’. A white counterpart saying exactly the same things and raising the exact same issues would be deemed as assertive: this assertiveness is encouraged in the Labour Party. Can BAME Labour support me in defeating this stereotype in our movement? Who knows, I have no idea how it operates which is why a large number of BAME members see it as a moribund organisation.
As a Black member of the Labour Party I have never been asked to join by fellow Black members before now. When I joined the party a couple of years back, a white member told me that I should join. I found this hugely patronizing and my response at the time was “I’m Black, do I have to join another organisation to prove it?"
I corresponded with Asghar in the run up to the election and I liked what he represented but this was my personal opinion. There was no real caucusing done by BAME members in London which is a big problem. I have no idea how he came to be supported by the trade unions, to be honest. Was it the unions Black members' network that voted to decide? Or was it the unions' mainly white NECs? If it is the latter, that is another problem. Organisations on the left don’t yet have any meaningful BAME networks so meetings of mainly white members felt they should support a left candidate, even though they had not networked with BAME members. Whilst the intention was good, this is also part of the problem which is why the emails and Facebook posts made no gains and Keith Vaz won 69% of the vote. Blogs and videos were posted on social media by non-BAME members in disappointment at the election of Keith Vaz with explanations of why this result was no surprise. Not one of them mentioned the fact that they had not met with or spoken to actual BAME members for comment or analysis and my immediate thought was “n whose behalf are they speaking?” I found this bizarre. I hope it is now clear that the BAME vote cannot be taken for granted and that for BAME Labour to become an effective organisation, it needs more than just a left NEC member, much much more.
I have never met Keith Vaz and have never had any communication from him. We are clearly from different wings of the party but that is not an important issue to me in terms of racial equality. The fact is, it is not well publicised and members like myself are not encouraged to join so how on earth does it expect to empower BAME members? The twitter account profile states “We seek to empower BAME members within the Labour Party and campaign for greater representation in public life”. This is such a broad statement so the questions I have regarding BAME Labour are: What is its purpose? What are its objectives? How are those objectives measured? Can Keith Vaz justify his record? What is his record? The issues facing BAME inequality around the globe are as prominent now as they were in the '50s and '60s civil rights movement era. BAME Labour could have a key role in challenging the racism we are experiencing on a daily basis. We know that austerity disproportionately affects BAME households. Black Youth are four times more likely to be permanently excluded from schools than their white counterparts. Black people make up 13% of London’s population but 36% are subjected to use of force by the Met police which has ended in loss of life. The list goes on…
Keith Vaz has been elected to a position of great responsibility, and these are just a few of the issues he must address and challenge. I would gladly support him in any of these campaigns. BAME Labour also has a responsibility to reach out to Black, Asian and minority ethnic Labour Party members to encourage us to join and build it into what it should be, not a secret organisation that charges a fee but refuses to communicate with its members.
I do hope that BAME Labour can finally offer some much needed support to its members and we can campaign together on the issues that are important to us. I’m informed that the next elections are in two years time and I hope we will have lots of successes to celebrate.
If you are a BAME member of the Labour Party please consider joining BAME Labour http://www.bamelabour.org.uk/join_bame_labour_online and follow @LabourBAME on twitter.