Report from Labour Party Conference 2017 – Leonie Barua
As well as speeches, discussion and voting on policies most relevant to people from BAME communities, I was interested in how Conference would address ways of increasing democracy in the party, for all its members, but especially regarding the inclusion and empowerment of BAME members. Who gets to speak, with what authority? Whose votes are valued? To what extent is Labour addressing the importance of representation: to use Lenny Henry’s words, ‘if we can’t see it, we can’t be it’.
Who gets to speak, the impact of their voices and their personal stories
Women’s Conference began promisingly with two BAME women taking the platform. Saima Ashraf, Deputy Leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, introduced Dawn Butler, Shadow Minister for Equalities. Saima spoke of her own journey, arriving in the UK from France, as a refugee with three children, and with no English. As a hijab-wearing woman, she emphasised what she owed to our Labour Party and its equality laws, enabling her to achieve politically in the UK in a way that would have been so much more difficult in France. Dawn Butler chose directly to empower the audience, adapting a poem by Maya Angelou, ‘Phenomenal Woman’. She spoke of the triple intersectional barriers she had had to overcome, as a black, working-class, woman. Emily Thornberry recalled the white male MP at Westminster who assumed Dawn was a cleaner.
Dawn emphasised austerity cuts had hit women hardest, BAME women in particular. Her strong policy statement was the Labour Party’s commitment to end period poverty by pledging 10 million pounds for secondary schools, and food banks to offer free sanitary products. Jeremy Corbyn, received with enormous warmth and support, confirmed this was the largest Women’s Conference to date, that 45% of the Labour PLP are women but the Party’s target is for 50% of all LP members and MPs to be female. He stated 61% of marginal seats have women candidates. He condemned the appalling abuse of women on social media and committed to a vote in the House to support WASPI women. These targets and policies are potentially very supportive of BAME women. However, as with much of the Conference, uplifting and exciting speeches based on socialist principles need more explicit detail re. implementation and how they will make a positive difference to BAME people. Discussion of the impact of policy on BAME communities is still at the margins of Conference.
At the rally on Saturday, two black women held the platform. A young Eritrean refugee spoke boldly about why she had come to support the Labour Party, believing it had come to represent something genuinely different. Martha Osamor, the next speaker, spoke movingly about coming in the sixties from Nigeria, with three children, finding herself in difficulties after losing her husband in an accident and being supported by a young man in his twenties, Jeremy Corbyn, who encouraged her to become an activist and inspired her daughter, Kate, now Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. The symbolism was important. It was about a leadership that has always accorded status and dignity to refugees and women from minority ethnic backgrounds, supporting them to overcome barriers and achieve political change; enabling younger and older black women to have a voice; a leader who keeps in touch over decades and has integrity. Just as Saima Ashraf acknowledged the critical difference Margaret Hodge had made in mentoring her, so Martha acknowledged the encouragement she’d needed from Jeremy. These inspirational moments, BAME women telling their personal stories, are important, but no substitute for policies that really will make a difference to BAME communities or effective, inclusive, democratic structures. It was also important that a member of the NEC talked at the rally to a huge audience about the significance of rule changes!
It was good to see some individual BAME delegates speak, including Darryl Telles, a BAME delegate from Hove & Portslade, with an impassioned speech attacking the protest outside Conference against Brexit, as undermining the leader. We need to hear more BAME delegates speak in future.
Fringe: BAME Representation and the Transformative Agenda. Monday 5.45- 7.45pm Fabrica
This was a meeting organised by Momentum about increasing BAME representation within the Labour Party. Diane Abbott spoke, followed by Claudia Webbe, a black Islington Councillor elected to the NEC and who chaired Tuesday morning’s session so well. Some of the main points Diane made to the audience:
- Increasing BAME representation ‘isn’t about being nice…. It’s that your progressive policy will be so much stronger if you’re involved and engaged in BAME communities.’
- Jeremy has historically had so much support from BAME communities, even when the media weren’t supporting him. He has always been committed to racial justice and issues important to BAME communities. Labour’s share of the BAME vote went up by 6 points in the recent General Election compared to 2015 and Labour took 72% of the BAME vote, whereas the Conservative vote among BAME voters fell by 4 points.
- It’s about having a strong ideological base rooted in the economic and social realities of BAME communities. It’s not just about representation, not just about wanting to be a councillor or an MP.
- The Tories may have the occasional BAME MP but the impact of their policies on BAME communities has been dire. For example:
– Poverty is twice as likely amongst ethnic minorities as amongst the white majority. The number of long term unemployed amongst BAME communities has almost doubled since Tories took office in 2010.
– Young BAME people face 50% increase in unemployment since the Tories took power.
– Skilled ‘blue-collar’ employment and manufacturing that traditionally supported people of Diane’s parents’ generation has collapsed, especially affecting BAME communities.
– BAME graduates face higher unemployment than white graduates and earn 23% less when working.
- If you have an ethnic minority sounding name, you will be likely to find it harder to get an interview or get recruited.
- All women shortlists have successfully enabled women to become MPs, but not BAME women MPs.
Panellists argued for the need to reach out and engage with BAME members at ward and constituency level beyond community leaders, not to rule out anyone’s vote and for grass roots politics to be more exciting and relevant to those from BAME communities.
Discussion confirmed all the concerns BAME Labour members have had for years, especially the lack of information about BAME members in wards or constituencies. Gloria Rigueros and I added our concerns to those of others in the audience regarding lack of response from national BAME Labour to our Forum’s repeated requests. I said the Party needed more fully to meet its obligations under the Equality Act in surveying ethnicity and other protected characteristics. Claudia Webbe stated she had been told the Party had data on 45,000 members, but that is a very small number out of nearly 600,000 members. She explained how the Party could mirror best practice in equalities in certain public sector organisations. It could set a target of, say, 85% data capture of membership and monitor membership in an ongoing fashion, for example, using the opportunity of this Conference. Information needed to be shared with national BAME Labour as appropriate. Claudia was clear there was no need to regard the Data Protection act as a complete barrier to data collection. We needed both top down collection by the Party and grassroots surveys like Pavilion’s own.
There was particular concern about the process of selecting a BAME Labour representative to the NEC recently. Claudia Webbe was definite that the responsibility of national BAME Labour lies with the Labour Party. It is important we contribute to the Review that Jeremy is undertaking into democratic structures. BAME Labour will be included in that review.
The impact of austerity has hit women most of all and BAME women and children in particular. Policies on Housing, the NHS and Social care, Education, are particularly significant to people from BAME communities, but often overlooked is the importance also of foreign policy to these same communities. Emily Thornberry’s statement of the Party’s commitment to an ethical foreign policy, with monitoring of licenses for the arms trade and Jeremy’s commitment to justice for Palestine were amongst the highlights of Conference.
Naomi Klein’s speech was outstanding in its political analysis of the global situation. She explained her Shock Doctrine in relation to Trump’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the Tories’ exploitation of Brexit, in both cases pushing through corporate deals without debate. She saw Puerto Rico as ‘a microcosm of a much larger global crisis, one that contains many of the same overlapping elements: accelerating climate chaos; militarism; histories of colonialism; a weak and neglected public sphere; a totally dysfunctional democracy.
And overlapping it all: the seemingly bottomless capacity to discount the lives of huge numbers of Black and brown people’.
But she gave us hope. She placed Labour’s Manifesto and its ‘bold winning strategy’ in an international context, urging us to see that ‘the more ambitious, consistent and holistic you can be in painting a picture of the world transformed, the more credible a Labour government will become…. Now you have to win’.
Other speeches which I found uplifting were Jeremy’s and Jonathan Ashworth’s. Jeremy’s in his complete commitment to ‘transforming the economy with a new and dynamic role for the public sector’, new policy to challenge regeneration ‘when it often means forced gentrification and social cleansing’ and the creation of a National Education Service, ‘from the cradle to the grave’. Jonathan was inspiring in his commitment to rebuilding a ‘comprehensive, reintegrated, public NHS, free at the point of use, there for all who need it.’
It was the united nature of Conference which was so positive and liberating and the increased time given to ordinary delegates, many of whom spoke very movingly and gave the most passionate and memorable speeches, none more so than the BAME delegate who spoke about Grenfell Tower.
I will focus in more detail here on Education Policy.
Early Years, Education and Skills
Angela Rayner’s speech, like so much of this Conference, was inspiring because of her own personal story. Angela spoke of leaving school at sixteen as a working class, expectant mother, without qualifications. It was the Labour Party’s Sure Start Policy and her role in a union that provided her and her son with life-changing opportunities. This experience drives her commitment to the principles of lifelong education as a right. Policies from her speech likely to support all groups, but especially BAME groups are:
. Create a National Education Service, cradle-to-grave. Start in the early years. Outline today the principles of the NES in a draft charter starting a conversation on how to continue to build it moving forward.
. Free, high quality education, universally available for every 2-4 year old and extra affordable care for every family, so children will be school ready
. £500 million a year directly to Sure Start, reversing Tory cuts in full
. Invest £8 billion in new school buildings and not neglect existing schools to do it.
. Provide the full £13 billion pounds for the existing school estate. Instead of investing in free schools, fund safe school buildings, ensure flammable cladding can be removed, sprinklers installed and asbestos cleared.
. Allocate £10 million from departmental budget to end period poverty in schools
. End public sector pay cap to pay teachers properly and also teaching assistants and support staff
Some key policies in the Manifesto, not in the National Policy Forum booklet or in Angela’s speech, but very relevant to people from BAME backgrounds:
. Replace Advanced Learner Loans and upfront course fees with direct funding, making FE courses free at the point of use, including English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses.
. Extend schools-based counselling to all schools to improve children’s mental health, at £90 million a year.
. Restore the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16 to 18-year-olds from lower and middle income backgrounds
Gaps in the National Policy Forum Report and Referencing Back
Reference Back was a new rule change agreed at last year’s conference. It allowed delegates to send back part of a Policy report for further consideration and re-writing, specifying the reason for not accepting a particular section. No-one was sure how it would play out at this year’s Conference. It was regarded as important in principle, for increasing democratic powers for delegates, but also as crucial regarding the Education and International Policy Reports, as they in particular lacked detail.
Tuesday morning turned out to be a democratic breakthrough for delegates as they used ‘Reference Back’ to challenge key gaps in Policy or where there was a watering down of the Manifesto. A delegate ‘referenced back’ a key section from the Education Policy Report in that there was nothing regarding Local Authorities taking back control of schools or in relation to academisation. This will be particularly important for BAME students and staff. There are concerns about social and even ethnic segregation experienced through free schools and certain types of academies, with lack of evidence that the convertor academies have driven up standards.
See: Understanding School Segregation in England: 2011 to 2016
Other gaps in NPF Reports related to the disproportionate exclusions of black students from schools and under-achievement of different ethnic groups. Academies are no longer obliged to report race hate crime to the Local Authorities, increasing risks to safeguarding children and young people. Cuts to school counselling services affect the capacity to deal with child mental health, including the impact of race hate crime.
Overall the Early Years, Education and Skills Policy Report needed far more detail on implementation.
The passing of the rule change lowering the threshold of MPs needed to nominate a leadership candidate from 15% to 10% is a positive democratic step forward, as is the change to the Constitution bringing the Party more in line with the Equality Act. We need to continue to push for democratic accountability in relation to suspensions of Party members and the implementation of the Chakrabarti recommendations across the Party.
We need to press for change at the top and at the grassroots.
Where possible, we need to contribute to reviews such as that into democratic process, headed by Jeremy Corbyn; for democratic structures for electing the National BAME Executive; for all BAME members of the Labour Party to be members of BAME Labour; for anti-democratic processes to be held to account.
In working groups, at Branch and CLP level, we need to capitalise on our areas of expertise as members in holding regular discussion to contribute to progressive Policy, and feed in to consultation processes and policy forums. BAME members should be contributing.
We should monitor Labour Party policy to check that what was referenced back or remitted has been satisfactorily re-written. Next August we should download and scrutinise the NPF Reports in our branches and Forums and, in light of discussions, take comments forward to our constituencies to inform further debate. We should then recommend parts for delegates to reference back where policy is watered down or falls short, with clear reasons to give to Conference.