BAME Labour is pointless – because Labour’s leadership can’t be bothered with minority communities

by Atul Hatwal

If BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) Labour mattered it would be a headline writer’s dream. “Who’s to BAME”? “BAME blame game begins”; “Labour mess: BAME to blame”. The list of blame-based headlines would give a ready top line for each new problem to afflict Labour’s gaffe-prone successor to the black socialist societies (BSS).

But, unfortunately, BAME Labour barely merits reporting. It has been in existence for three years and under-performed even the low expectations that greeted its birth.

A quick look at the website shows an organisation ossified in the past. There’s an announcement about the formation of BAME Labour (presumably dating back to 2007), a plea to back Gordon in the wake of the MPs expenses furore (that’s summer 2009) and the “Obama scholarship free training course for aspiring BAME candidates”, upcoming in April 2009.  Whether president Obama managed to send a supportive message to recipients of the scholarship in his name remains unclear.

The training course epitomises BAME Labour. Helping overcome the barriers faced by minorities to representation is not a trivial cause. The successes of Labour’s women’s networks and growth in women’s representation have shown what is possible if people are organised and committed. But the paragraph describing the course gives the game away:

“To educate, train, inspire and motivate our BAME young people so as to bring them to a level whereby they may have no difficulty to compete fairly with other candidates in order to increase BAME representation in the Parliament”.

Candidates drilled in this kind of Sir-Humphrey-as-a-second-language gobbledegook might help explain why the PLP still does not look like the country it’s meant to represent.

Even more worrying are the internal ructions within BAME Labour. Reports of the July meeting of the BAME executive paint a picture of a miniature version of the Arab conference at Aqba in the film, Lawrence of Arabia. Personal animosities were played out, people shouted over each other and representatives jabbered in Punjabi as the meeting became more and more heated.

Punjabi is a minority language for the Asian community in this country, let alone something understandable to all. The internal party report into what happened at the meeting might have absolved those present, but an executive where there isn’t enough discipline to stick to the one language everyone can understand tells its own tale.

But, worst of all from BAME Labour, was what happened during the leadership election. As Sunder Katwala flagged on Uncut, turnout amongst BAME Labour’s membership was 11.7%. These aren’t union members surprised to learn they have a vote in Labour’s leadership; they are meant to be Labour party members. Out of 3363 ballots distributed, just 392 votes were cast, and of these 137 were spoilt ballots. Just 255 votes for leadership candidates were registered with David Miliband emerging as BAME’s dear and beloved leader with a pluralistic 78% of the vote.

The leadership election lifted the veil on BAME Labour’s reality. On paper, it has a lot of members. It’s the third largest affiliate, behind the fabians and Labour students. But paper is all it is. The membership figures are a testament to the ability of BAME Labour’s power brokers successfully to move around forms with peoples’ signatures to post nominal membership levels. The vote is an accurate reflection of who participates and how.

BAME Labour is more a federation of minor community bosses than a true membership organisation. As a trade body for these local power brokers, it gives them access to party leadership mechanisms and in return they bestow the blessing of equalities on the central machine. All boxes marked inclusion and minorities successfully ticked.

In any other organisation, a result as wildly anomalous as that in the leadership election would have prompted a serious inquiry. Either there are staggering levels of disengagement within BAME Labour or some of those members don’t know that they are part of BAME Labour. But, surprise, surprise, nothing happened. The minorities were left to keep playing in their sand box.

The thread that links both BAME Labour and its previous incarnation, the black socialist societies, is the abject lack of interest of the leadership. Anyone who has been to any minority event will have seen the wonderfully awkward turns from shadow cabinet members, all rictus grins and platitudes about the importance of diversity as they are shuffled between unknown community dignitaries for a never ending round of Kremlin-style handshakes.

The first thirty seconds of this Youtube clip accurately capture the disconnect, with a fidgeting David Miliband doing a lower key impression of John Redwood singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

Having to attend this type of function is a chore for front rank politicians. But they bring it on themselves. Minority politics suffers from the Kissinger’s oft repeated observation on university politics: it’s so vicious because there’s so little at stake.

If anyone with any power in the Labour party bothered to engage with the minority communities, rather than outsource it to the likes of Keith Vaz, they might find these events less of a bind and more of an opportunity.

There are people eager to participate and businessmen and women able to donate.  People with something to say that might help explain why thirteen years of Labour government and unprecedented spending have had a minimal impact across estates in places like Tower Hamlets or Bradford.

But as long as Labour’s leaders can’t be bothered to build their own relationships within the minority communities, then the troubles of BAME Labour will continue and the party will keep on letting down its minority members.

Atul Hatwal is a social and community affairs consultant.

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9 Responses to “BAME Labour is pointless – because Labour’s leadership can’t be bothered with minority communities”

  1. Imran Ahmed says:

    BAME Labour doesn’t appear to exist in any coordinated sense or for any purpose. It is an insult to all BAME members that Labour would hand over this important function to a bunch of, let’s call them as we see them, clueless factionalist muppets.

  2. MG says:

    This article is spot on.

  3. Taiye Akinsanmi (London. UK) says:


    There is nothing new in this article, it’s merely highlighting well known problem within BAME, we always see what is wrong but we never brought forward any solutions, Labour party decisions are always taken in pub over drinks not in any meeting rooms, that culture is what need changing & our members need to understand that , our involvement in those groups is not merely to seek high officer office (with intention of dying in office) but to serve all to the best of our capability. We now need thinking outside of tick boxes. We can only do that by our-self, we have the votes, we have the feet on ground. Time to use it.

  4. Speedy says:

    To be fair. Many of Labour’s internal organisations are dysfunctional. Young Labour hasn’t been properly organised since I have been a party member. Labour Students is controlled by a cliquey group of careerists who frequently cause individual university clubs to have votes on whether they should remain affiliated.

    More importantly some CLPs aren’t even worth calling organisations.

    We simply have a massive organisational problem at a grassroots level because we have a top-heavy party structure.

  5. Sunder Katwala says:

    Thanks for the link to my earlier article.

    I am not persuaded by the conclusion – “because Labour’s leadership can’t be bothered with minority communities”.

    The Labour party rules give an enormously strong presence to BAME Labour – particularly given the levels of participation. It has an NEC seat, 3 NPF seats – mirroring the representation of all. Yet clearly, only a very small minority of Labour BME members engage with BAME Labour.

    One hypothesis is this reflects failures of leadership, inclusion, etc among BAME Labour itself. I don’t have any furher information on this: I am not a member of the group. But there is clearly a very plausible case that it needs to be a lot broader to play the role it currently has under the party rules, so I am sympathetic to the general thrust of this.

    However, the piece itself feels to me as if it takes for granted that a black sections group will be a primary route of engagement for many or most BME party members. We don’t have any hard info on the number of members overall (which is something the party should sort out) – but it seems to me obvious this will be true of some people and not others. At present, many more BME members who are engaged with the party engage through CLPS, trade unions, and some of the other socialist societies – Christian Socialists, Fabians, SERA, etc depending on what their interests are.

    Looking at the history, it seems to me there is a very good case that (though it was very contentious) black sections were needed to make the 1987 breakthrough possible, in a very different political context. The role of a BAME group today would almost certainly be somewhat different, but I am not clear if there is a clear sense of how or why. Given the current levels of participation, many people might be rather concerned if the party leadership saw a BAME group (and the burgeoning number of Labour Friends of X groups) as the primary way to engage with “minority communities”, These no doubt have a significant role to play in out-reach, but there is a potentially rather marginalising dynamic to this approach having primacy.

    Finally, the argument is often put that BME members could and should learn from more effective pressure from Labour women on gender equality issues. Probably, there is something in this, but the cases are very different, And an evidence-based approach also suggests that the reverse should also be considered – where there has been greater progress on BME than gender equality on one high-profile issue at least: candidate selection.

    In particular, in candidate selection, the party has now successfully got to the point where there is no aggregate ethnic penalty in new selections – in that over 10% of new candidates and 10% of new cohort of MPs are BME. There is still a considerable ‘gender penalty” even with AWS, because we remain short of 50% of candidates being women.

    There are certainly many remaining issues about the pattern of chances – but these can only now be tackled by attempting a cohesive analysis of class, race and gender barriers. We have (happily) reached the end of the road if the concern was just to get a proportionate chance for non-white candidates in general. This is why I think the case for all-black shortlists now lacks any evidence base similar to that which persuaded most of the party on all-women shortlists. But BAME Labour’s advocacy, which has focused on all black shortlists as a necessary measure, and tended to assume an evidence base rather than attempt to constuct one. To me it suggests that advocates of both race equality and broader equality issues also need to broaden and update the content of their advocacy if they wish to influence future debates – and that it is important to do so in a way which links equality causes rather than competing between them, which is always a potential risk of “strand-based” equality campaigning, whether on gender, race, sexuality, class, disability or any other dimension.

  6. Atul Hatwal says:

    Hi Sunder,

    The purpose of the piece is not so much about BAME shortlists, but to highlight how poor BAME Labour is, and suggest a reason why. The comments say something about peoples’ experience with BAME Labour. They’re not alone.

    My contention is the reason its so poor is that noone of any seniority has bothered to spend 5 minutes thinking about what the party wants to achieve with this organisation, and that’s because noone really cares about engaging minority communities – other than to cash in vote banks or donations.

    I take Speedy’s point on Young Labour, and its certainly many years since I qualified, but I do remember back in 1996/7 when it was launched that a lot of time and effort went into getting it right. The contrast in quality of content from YL at the start compared to BAME Labour illustrates the difference that leadership engagement makes.

    On the point about representation and shortlists, I’d just make this observation – the population projections for the UK in 2011 have BME communities at 11% (Ethnic Population Projections For The UK And Local Areas, University of Leeds 2010). BME Representation in the PLP is 6%. On the evidence that matters – who actually gets in – we’re nowhere near there.

  7. Sunder Katwala says:

    Thanks for your response. Just to clarify, I was not disagreeing with or questioning the criticisms and concerns about BAME Labour, except to say I don’t have any particular knowledge. Clearly the levels of engagement and participation are strikingly low, especially given how much presence the organisation has in party decision-making forums.

    I accept you have established that as a cause for concern – but the proposal you make seems very top down. (I accept you are on stronger ground if there is misgovernance, etc) …. I do think it would have to be primarily for black and Asian party members at all levels in the party – if they want it – to work out what the point of such an organisation is, and what it wants to achieve, and to participate in it in that direction rather than a role for the leadership. One might then seek support/facilitation/engagement from senior people in the party.

    But I just can’t see it is the role of the leadership to make affiliated societies work in the way you suggest. (Whether we are talking about BAME Labour, Christian Socialists, Fabians, unions or whoever: these are supposed to be autonomous affiliate groups, so surely they have to engage and mobilise participation themselves – and the implications of “what does the leadership/senior party want from affiliates” are potentially regressive.


    On selections, I agree that 6% is the figure for the PLP. The nature of political careers means this reflects aggregate outcomes over selections over three to six Parliaments, ie the last 15-30 years to the present day.

    I was making a different point, about how we gauge progress or not on fair chances/barriers to that now. I wrote in evidence to the speakers conference that “The overall under-representation is clear evidence that it has been more difficult for black and Asian citizens to become MPs. But this does not illuminate a central issue: is the ethnic penalty is being reduced over time, or alternatively, does it remain stubbornly high so that different strategies are urgently needed?”

    If we want to know how near/far we are from “there are fair chances and no unfair barriers for candidates in selections today” we need to look at the proportion in each new cohort – the class of 2010 (10.7%), of 2005 (7.5%), of 2001 (5%), of 1997 (2.2%),so we see an acceleration of progress in eradicating any *aggregate* ethnic penalty, whereas there had been no speeding up of this kind between 1987 and 1997.

    Both perspectives (Parliament, and the cohorts of entrants) tell us something useful, but almost all advocacy and coverage has tended to ignore this distinction. This leads to groups including BAME Labour tending to make arguments which claim that the barriers remain as stubbornly high as ever. It would be important to argue that, if it were true. But it isn’t. This leads to the rather unfortunate position that several of the individuals and groups whose mission is to advocate greater participation are telling aspiring candidates that they face much steeper barriers than the data and evidence suggests is the case.

  8. annie 10 to 1 says:

    As someone very interested in the BAME Network I am at a loss for words at the lack of communication and structure that is visible. is this a reluctance to organise or a need for BAME communities to have their existance justified by a greater body after reading some of the points above what is clear to me is that untill we take control of our inclusion then we can expect little in terms of engagement
    Why would anyone wish to engege with a body that finds it so difficult to lead by example
    what is sorely lacking within many BAME communities is the beleif that we are an integral part of governance that is self defining and self pepetuating that we have a role to play in ensuring that we participate within the political shaping of this country. We may well identify what is lacking within our political structures and processes but do little to change the culture of politics, politics as we know it, is totaly alien to the needs and wants of BAME communities nationally it is unresponsive to the need for representation, and very few avenues or platforms are open for frank and open debate “if we keep doing what we do we will keep getting what we get” which is a political structure that feins a confusion and lack of understanding of what is needed and a BAME society that responds by continuously extolling the virtues of a political structure that has no need to aknowledge its faillings
    The simple truth is that in order to increase representation amongst BAME communities then that requires the existing MP’s, cllrs to relinquish their power and are you honestly going to find anyone from any background that is going to give up their seat for the greater good “never lets get real” its a cut throat world of self preservation out there and the only way we will change the political land scape is by changing the political representation so that we truly have representative councils that resemble the communities that they claim to represent.
    Come on BAME get your act together we really are not ready for another self fulfilling prophecy

  9. I am a newish member of Witham CLP but have taken no part in the business of labour.

    It seems that BAME has offered support to Keith Vaz to become a member of the National Executive Committee which saddens me greatly..

    This article is linked in a comment to an article in Labour List about his appointment.

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