Labour still has a problem with black men (and its getting worse)

by Paul Wheeler

Writing about the Labour’s party abysmal record in selecting black men as parliamentary candidates is like ‘deja vu all over again ‘(as Woody Allen might have said……)

Way back in 2014 I wrote a comment piece for Labour list. I was criticised for an ‘unhelpful’ contribution to the debate. Well it wasn’t meant to be helpful it was a warning that without action the existing problem about black male representation in the Labour Party was likely to get worse.

Well by 2020 nothing had changed so `I wrote another  contribution to the debate- this time for Labour Uncut as Labour List didn’t want to be part of the debate by then – remarking on the continuing failure of Labour Members to elect a black man to the NEC despite excellent candidates putting themselves forward.  This time I did end on a positive note in that the dreadful General Election result in 2019 presented Labour with a unique opportunity to correct this historical discrepancy by focusing on the huge number of vacancies in winnable Parliamentary constituencies.

So how does the track record look in late 2023 as we hurtle towards the next General Election? Well, the good news is that Labour members have finally elected a black man to the NEC the excellent Abdi Duale. As for Parliamentary selections well after 150 selections not one….

It’s not as if there weren’t good candidates on offer. Marvin Rees the excellent Mayor of Bristol put himself forward the newly created seat of Bristol North East in his home city. Sadly, the members there thought otherwise and opted for a white male candidate with distant links to the city and currently serving as Mayor of Lewisham. Obviously, Labour members have a right to choose but it’s beginning to look more than strange that after 150 selections and counting not a single one of the capable black male candidates has been selected. On current trends the Labour Party will go into the next General Election with just the existing three black male MPs (David Lammy in Tottenham (still the only representative on the front bench after the recent reshuffle), Clive Lewis in Norwich South and Mark Hendrick in Preston).

It’s not a great look for a progressive party that relies on the solid support of the black community. It’s practically shameful when it means the Conservative Party will continue to have more black male MPs than the Labour Party and continues to select black male candidates in winnable seats such as Kensington and Bayswater and the imminent Mid Beds by-election. It’s not as if Labour Local Government is any better after the last two years of sweeping gains in local councils we have precisely one black male Labour leader (Royal Borough of Greenwich) and no representation at senior levels of the Local Government Association.

So what’s to he done? Well, the first step in solving a problem is recognising that you have one.

For the Labour Party there is no point hiding behind bland and frankly patronising statistics about success in recruiting from the “BAME” community. As Lester Holloway Editor of the Voice – Britain’s largest selling Black newspaper – said with regard the selection in Bristol NE selection Marvin Rees was a brilliant candidate for Labour, rooted in the city, centrist politics and a high profile, if he can’t be selected then who can?

It’s time for Labour to accept that it is a part of the wider discrimination against black men that exists right across British society. During my time as party organiser I lost count of the number of times members would said that their constituency ‘wasn’t ready’ for a black male candidate and really they should seek selection in more diverse and favourable seats in the inner city. Well take a look at the make -up of Tory seats and voters in areas like Hitchin and Windsor who have no trouble in selecting black men as their MPs

As what to do about it’s not as if there are not precedents. The Labour Womens Network has done a brilliant job in advocating for women candidates at all levels in the Labour Party both in advocating policy changes and providing practical support and advice to aspiring candidates. The newly established Bernie Grant Leadership Programme may be a way forward but may also be too late to make an impact in the current round of Parliamentary selections.

 Its time too for the Trades Unions, especially those with significant black membership such as Unite and Usdaw to take a hard look at their list of sponsored candidates and ensure that they are providing appropriate assistance to the many black capable male candidates amongst their membership. If it’s helpful I could name them.

And finally, there is one deeply significant change that the Party leadership can make before the impending General Election. At every General Election a number of Labour MPs will announce a ‘surprise decision’ tnot to stand again at the forthcoming election. It may be a surprise to members but it is generally common knowledge to the Party whips and NEC Members. This final ‘wash up’ session of selections for last minute retirements plus a number of constituencies where selections have been delayed where local parties have been suspended give the NEC unprecedented influence over the choice of candidates given the shortage of time to conduct the full selection.

Needless to say a lot of ‘highly talented individuals’ ie those with connections to the Leader’s Office or Trade Union General Secretaries will put themselves forward to serve the Party. This time for once the NEC should have a clear strategy to address the historic and shameful lack of representation of black men in the Labour Party.

Next year will mark ten years since I started writing ‘unhelpful’ contributions to this debate. Let’s hope I won’t need to be writing them in another ten years

Paul Wheeler is a former party organiser and party member for over 40 years. He tweets on politics on @paulw56

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