A young black Fabian activist on the challenges ahead
Every year, the under-31 section of the Fabian Society – The Young Fabians – hosts a summer boat party on the River Thames.
During my first boat party, a few of us Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people found ourselves together for a brief moment, discussing the paucity of our ranks and the need to address this.
While my experience of the summer boat party was pleasant enough to prelude a lengthy service in the Young Fabians, it disappointed me to see that BAME members of the party at large continued to feel excluded and disadvantaged at many levels of the Labour party.
Over the past 60 years, Labour’s political offering to Black and minority ethnic communities has gone a long way to reduce rates of overt racial discrimination and prejudice. However, the party should not rest on its laurels.
Association is important in politics. While the Conservative Party may have been associated with the fear-mongering and divisive politics of Enoch Powell and Norman Tebbit in the 1980s, this is not so true today.
For previous BAME generations, voting Labour was socially and economically strongly in their interests. On many issues, Labour stood clearly on the side of ethnic minority voters.
Our new Fabian Society report, Outsiders, shows this at risk.
It proposes a number of solutions for the Labour Party to eradicate discrimination in its ranks – including collecting diversity data, reforming local government and parliamentary selection processes, and setting public targets for the number of BAME Labour MPs at the next election.
There is little point in having policies that resonate with marginal groups if they do not get a chance to hear about them.
The party therefore needs to consider a more nuanced and targeted approach when delivering these messages and one of them might be the way it frames the discussion. More pertinently, the phrase BAME.
Critics of the BAME term point to its unwieldiness, lack of nuance and seemingly lazy way of organizing people who do not have ‘white skin’ into one category.
While it may have been easier and sensible to group non-white people as one in the 1960s, the differences between minority communities has grown so much, it is no longer sensible to do so. What may have once been homogeneous is now mixed.
The term has always had its limitations and the increasing need to combat discrimination is quickening the requirement to update our language. Changing terms for sake of political correctness will not solve issues overnight.
However, it does begin to uncover the real disadvantages suffered by some ethnic groups and takes the conversation out of the Westminster bubble and closer to real people and communities who are unlikely to call themselves ‘BAME’ in everyday conversation.
Improving BAME representation in the Labour party starts with widening the pool of BAME activists at Labour’s grassroots, and encouraging more BAME people to come forward to stand for selection.
But our research has revealed a number of barriers in the way of full participation, barriers deeper than just which term is used: a sense of being an outsider, a lack of information, and a lack of support and encouragement.
If Labour’s failure to attract BAME voters in the 2015 general election was a nasty shock, then its failure to attract BAME women was a damning indictment of the election campaign.
Research shows that BAME women are the group most disproportionately affected by government austerity measures. Almost 75 per cent of austerity measures since 2010 primarily affect women, including changes to tax credits, child benefits and public sector pensions.
This percentage is even higher for BAME women, largely as a result of the representation of BAME workers within the public sector, where they make up 45 per cent of the workforce.
Public sector workers are more likely than workers in the private sector to receive an income from working age benefits or tax credits.
The party should consult widely about the use of the term ‘BAME’, which many raised with us as a barrier to widespread engagement from BAME communities.
The Labour Party has led the way on race equality but the Conservative party has done more to improve BAME representation in the last two electoral cycles than Labour has done in more than two decades.
Labour must take urgent action to eradicate any discrimination in its ranks, and work with BAME members to improve support structures and networks, reform the selection process and set public targets for BAME representation.
Ignoring BAME voters’ concerns does a disservice to the very people the Labour Party seeks to represent. It is time to act with urgency and purpose before many BAME voters, with some justification, turn away from Labour.
Adebusuyi Adeyemi is a membership officer on the Young Fabians ExecutiveSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.