Kneeling Is Not Enough

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A Black Lives Matter movement in Britain was desperately needed. But, as a BAME Labour member, I feel deeply let down by my party”.

Aneesa Akbar, a Labour councillor for Central Ward in Hull and a member of Tribune’s advisory board, in June 2020 wrote about Black Lives Matter and the Labour Party:

“As hundreds of thousands hit the streets in protest against the extra-judicial  killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in America, BAME Labour activists in Britain are feeling ever more exposed. 

The vicious killing of George Floyd has laid bare the brutal hierarchy of violence meted out to black people in the United States, in a way which has reverberated around the world in every country where BAME people are marginalised. 

In Britain, you are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by police if you are black. Almost half of the youths in custody are from BAME backgrounds. 137 BAME people died in police custody between 1991 and 2014, 39 of them as a result of force. 

A Black Lives Matter movement in Britain was desperately needed. But, as a BAME Labour member, I feel deeply let down by my party. 

It is now two months since the content of the leaked Labour report into the party’s handling of antisemitism. That report produced clear evidence of racism at the highest level of party staff, including truly abhorrent behaviour directed at black MPs Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler and Clive Lewis. To date, there has been not one suspension – not even pending investigation. 

The leaked Labour dossier has created a huge crisis of confidence among BAME communities, a crisis of confidence in the party and all those associated with it. Keir Starmer’s decision to take a knee today against anti- black racism was simply not enough while he is failing to take decisive action against those guilty of it in his own party. 

The behaviour of full-time, senior Labour staff in the report is so shocking it has lead to 26 graduates from the Bernie Grant Leadership Programme – an initiative designed to develop new BAME leaders in Labour – to write an open letter condemning the “disturbing culture of patronage, side-lining and gaslighting” revealed to exist in the party. In the letter, they add that the treatment of Abbott, Butler and Lewis is “stomach churning”. 

But potentially worse than the report itself has been the response. In the absence of a principled leadership, it seems more and more likely that the outcome of the pending investigation is to be a whitewash. Not only have factional opponents of the Labour Left, with records of supporting Iain McNicol and others named in the report, been placed in charge of the investigation but senior staff accused of appalling conduct in the report remain in place. 

Incoming General Secretary David Evans – Keir Starmer’s preferred choice – has a history not only on the Labour Right but also as one of the key organisers for Margaret Hodge’s disgraceful campaign in 2010, where Labour suggested creating an ethnic hierarchy of access to local council houses, privileging those Hodge referred to as “indigenous families”. Hodge claims credit for defeating the BNP in this way, but it was grassroots anti- racists who organised to secure a Labour victory and prevent the fascists taking a seat – and they did so despite Hodge’s racism. 

With all of this playing out, it’s sadly no surprise that increasing numbers of BAME Labour members and voters feel the party is taking them for granted, expecting them to give their time and votes during elections and dropping them in between. My own experience suggests that BAME members are beginning to leave the party. This is a catastrophe not just for Labour but also for social justice. 

At this time more than any other – after 10 years of austerity and with BAME people suffering disproportionately from the coronavirus pandemic – we need a Labour Party that looks out for our interests. But as Starmer’s Labour seems to steer further and further away from providing this representation and support, it’s clear that this cause will fall to the Labour Left. 

It’s time for BAME Labour members to demand justice within the party and to send a message that no amount of kneeling will make us forget about the contents of that report. This will mean building BAME organisations and a Labour Left capable of holding those in the party hierarchy to account. 

While the Labour leadership equivocates over the tearing down of Colston’s statue in Bristol – even going so far as to suggest that those responsible should face criminal charges – the Labour Left must be unequivocal in supporting the activist movement which brought this beautiful and seminal moment in anti-racist history to pass. Thankfully, MPs like Zarah Sultana are showing us what that kind of support looks like in the halls of power. 

We must fight to uphold Labour’s commitment to teach the real history of colonialism in our schools. Tony Blair’s much-vaunted focus on reforming education failed to seriously address these limitations in our national curriculum, and has been followed by a Tory culture war over education which has often sought to glorify the British Empire. Only well-organised BAME and socialist groupings within the Labour Party will keep this issue on the agenda. 

And finally, the Labour Left must organise to ensure that the progress in our party’s foreign policy positions under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership are not reversed. You cannot believe ‘Black Lives Matter’ while supporting the systematic impoverishment of the Global South to the benefit of Western corporations – nor can you do so while supporting wars which maim and A murder black and brown people across the world. 

As with many BAME Labour activists, I have been inspired to see masses of people take to the streets across Britain and the world to oppose racism. Now is a time for courage in pursuit of justice – inside the Labour Party as well.” 

This article first appeared in Tribune 9/6/2020