“And Labour’s top baron is…Keith Vaz”, by Sunder Katwala

The votes in the affiliates section of Labour’s electoral college are cast by the individual members of the unions and socialist societies, not as “block votes” by their leaders.

But who is Labour’s top baron? Which organisation proved most successful in persuading its members of the wisdom of its leadership, getting closest to a bloc vote pattern of voting for the chosen candidate?

No. It wasn’t Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley of Unite, nor Paul Kenny of the GMB, and not Dave Prentis of Unison either.

Both Unite and GMB voters split 2:1 for Ed over David Miliband, and Unison by 3:2. That is not nearly enough to prevent them falling a long way behind a rival party baron, as the full breakdown of affiliate voting shows.

So step forward Keith Vaz, chair of BAME Labour, who emerges from leadership 2010 with the title of the “great persuader” among the Labour chieftains.

That can be seen in the BAME Labour first preference vote:

David Miliband 200 78%
Ed Miliband 29 11%
Diane Abbott 20 8%
Ed Balls 4 2%
Andy Burnham 2 1%

The BAME Labour 7:1 split between the leading candidates is unmatched anywhere else in the Labour party, reflecting an enormous amount of activity on Mr Vaz’s part to seek to “deliver” the ethnic vote to his favoured candidate. Only David Miliband’s home constituency of South Shields, where he won 79.5%, can compete to be regarded as MiliD heartland territory.

The scale of this pro-MiliD mobilising achievement was all the greater given two things.

Strikingly, it was achieved in the first ever Labour leadership election in which a black candidate, Diane Abbott, was standing. Second, as far as I am aware, BAME Labour did not formally issue a supporting nomination for David Miliband.

Of course, nobody should think that black and Asian members should be expected to vote for Diane Abbott if they agree more with somebody else. Still, it seems reasonable to hypothesise that she might have anticipated at least a better than average showing among the minority of BME party members and supporters who have chosen to join a BME group to campaign primarily on increasing ethnic representation at all levels in the party.

Despite not getting the leader they wanted, BAME Labour is already working hard for party unity and will have no problem whatsoever in getting just as loyally behind the new man, as Keith Vaz told the Hindustan Times yesterday.

Keith Vaz, the longest-serving Indian-origin MP in Britain who was part of the David Miliband camp, told HT: “The British Asian party members fully support the leadership of Ed Miliband. I believe that both the Miliband brothers in their campaigns acknowledged the importance of the British Indo-Asian community. Ed has got what it takes.”

The other distinctive feature of the BAME Labour result is that its turnout figure was much the lowest in the socialist societies. At 11.7%, this much more resembled trade union turnout than that of its affiliated society peers, who were four to six times more likely to vote.

It is easy to see why affiliated union turnout is generally much lower. Members join the organisation for reasons which have nothing to do with its Labour party link, and many are unaware that they get a party vote as levy-payers. By contrast, members of socialist societies have actively chosen to engage in their political advocacy. There is no obvious reason to expect BAME Labour to break this pattern – the small Labour Jewish and Irish groups had over 70% turnouts – except that its membership numbers are so high compared to the other societies.

The three-year old organisation is already, on paper, the third largest of the affiliated socialist societies, after the fabians and Labour students. So it issued more than twice as many ballot papers (3363) as the Christian socialist movement (1370) but returned only half as many votes (392 to 761) because the ballots were five times less likely to be returned. Having achieved such impressive membership growth so quickly, there may be much more to be done to engage members with the party.

BAME Labour was reconstituted in 2007, to end a long period in which the black socialist societies were defunct for over a decade. (Despite the lack of organised black pressure politics in this particular form in the decade before 2007, this had, happily, been a very positive period for black representation in the Labour party. The proportion of BME candidates accelerated sharply, as the party made an unheralded advance to become the first party anywhere in Europe to defeat any aggregate “ethnic penalty” in Parliamentary candidate selections. As Fabian research has shown: just 2% of the new Labour MPs were non-white in the 1997 landslide, but this had increased to 7.5% and over 10% in the Parliamentary intakes of 2005 and 2010).

The organisation holds a guaranteed place on Labour’s governing national executive committee (NEC) – currently occupied by Mr Vaz himself – and three places on the party’s national policy forum (NPF), matching and mirroring the NEC place and NPF representation shared by the other 15 socialist societies. (Fortunately, nobody has suggested developing that logic, by creating a black fabian society, black Christian socialist movement, black socialist health association etc as parallel partner organisations within this BAME pillar).

In principle, it would make considerably more sense to bring those places together – on the basis of rules insisting on strong gender and ethnic representation across them – particularly if the intention were to integrate and mainstream BME participation rather than to pigeon-hole it. But I think it is unlikely that anything will ever be done to reform that, now that the black sections are no longer defunct.

If the generosity of the current constitutional arrangements for one party pressure group reflect a previous generation of thinking about race and representation, at least they do signal the scale of Labour’s intention to be an “institutionally anti-racist” party.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the fabian society.


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4 Responses to ““And Labour’s top baron is…Keith Vaz”, by Sunder Katwala”

  1. Quite apart apart from the low turnout, the membership of BAME Labour is disappointingly low – far lower I presume than the BAME membership of the party. I cannot agree, however, that it would make sense to combine the representation of BAME members and other socialist societies:

    Far better to directly elect the NEC member by all BAME party members at the same time as other CLP representatives. More representative and at no extra cost! And do the same with the youth representative while you’re at it.

  2. Sunder Katwala says:

    I don’t think there are up-to-date stats on party membership – and it would be very useful to have them. But BAME Labour is a fairly new organisation, as the piece explains. I have seen party membership estimates of 15,000 – 20,000, but don’t know their source. That would be around/over 10%.

    The NPF places could, I think, usefully be integrated, though I think it unlikely to happen.

    I agree that makes less sense re the NEC. think the idea of an election by all party members who self-identify as BME is a good one, if there is a specific NEC seat. Indeed, a case could be made that the post could simply be elected by all party members who want to vote, restricted to BME candidates, since I personally think its important that race and gender equality need to be a cause for the whole party, not only specific groups within it.

  3. kp says:

    Sunder another thing that I don’t think you mention is the fact that as Foreign Secretary, DMiliband was going to get a lot more recognition amongst the BAME members (and I am one too). He had a fairly high profile trip to India, where although he upset the Foriegn Minister, he at least made a friend in Rahul Gandhi, surely a future Indian prime minister himself. D Miliband was active and condemning of Sri Lanka’s actions during the Civil War over there, which also won fans and I could go on!

  4. Far from nominating David Miliband for the nomination, BAME Labour nominated Diane Abbott for the leadership.

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