The Fight for Labour Party Black Sections

By Jeremy Dewar

IT is fitting to mark Black History Month this year by focusing on a battle fought largely inside the Labour Party between 1983 and 1993 for two reasons.

First, Black History Month was initiated by groups of mainly black Caribbean and Asian members of the Labour Party, who fought to make the Labour Party recognise anti-black racism as a central issue in British politics and demand it opened its doors to black representation in councils, parliament and across public life in general.

Second, the opposition to the Black Sections, the name of the organisation that black and minority ethnic Labour members gave to their caucuses inside the party, shows many similarities both to the bureaucratic obstacles placed in front of those who demand more democracy and democratic representation in today’s Labour Party and to the continuing expulsions of leading black activists from the party.

Thirty-five years ago, a small group of black and Asian Labour Party members formed the Black Sections.

According to the Monitoring Group:

“Among its founding members were Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Marc Wadsworth and Sharon Atkin. They had some success and, in 1983, a resolution setting out a framework for the National Executive Committee met with warm words, and within a few year the Black Sections had 35 branches, including 4 in London.”

The situation by October 1983, when the conference was held, was dire. Extreme forms of racism and systematic discrimination against both the post-1948 “Windrush Generation” and Asians from the sub-continent, Kenya and Uganda who came in the 1960s and ‘70s, were still common. Despite the fact that the vast majority were working class and, by and large, Labour voters, there had not been a black MP since Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea North, 1922-29).

Britain’s black and Asian youth, many of them second generation, UK-born, had weathered a storm of street violence stretching from Notting Hill in late 1950s, through Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, to the National Front marches in the late ’70s. They still faced discrimination in education, housing, jobs, and pay, plus stop-and-search harassment and killings at the hands of a police force that, like today, targeted them and brutalised them.

On top of this, Margaret Thatcher’s slump economics hit the black working class hardest, especially the youth. The uprisings in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, St Paul’s and elsewhere showed that the black community, especially the youth, would not lie down under this but would rise up and fight.

The Black Sections demanded that the concerns of this generation of black activists be heard and that there had to be changes in the party itself. Najma Hafeez, a recently elected black councillor from Birmingham, explained what sort of party she wanted:

“We should be a mass party [that] recruited people and educated people and told them what socialism was about… the sort of recruitment that’s going on isn’t a campaigning recruitment, it is simply for voting and for support for certain candidates… That is actually preventing those people who are serious about politics, serious about political involvement and serious about change, it’s preventing them from getting involved. They see it as just, well, if you want to put it strongly, a corrupt game.”

Sadly, her statement still rings true for much Labour activity today.

As you would expect from a group of activists whose families came from Britain’s former colonies, there was also a strong emphasis on foreign policy. Much of Labour’s history, even in its left phases, mixed social reforms at home with brazen imperialist exploitation and war abroad.

Nor was this only a vice of the right in the party. On 20 August, 1948, Tribune, the paper of the Labour left, carried an article entitled “Let’s Stay in Africa”. The reason given is breath taking: “Africa offers huge material resources which can be exploited for the good of Britain and the world.”

The Black Sections challenged the sort of imperialism that had succeeded colonialism, organising meetings of up to 700-strong on issues like the Nicaraguan revolution, Pakistani democracy and South African anti-apartheid. Their impact was dramatic. Their first national chair, Narendra Makendra, summed up their strategy as the “Three R’s”: Registration, Recruitment, Representation. In the first two of these their success was instant.

In 1980, 19 percent of Nottingham East was black or Asian, 5 percent of the party membership was black and only 2 percent of its constituency party delegates were black. There were no black officers or councillors. In Streatham, an even larger black population confronted a local party with just one black member.

A scandal exposed the fact that Labour were simply recruiting Asians in Sparkbrook and Southall by granting political favours to their supposed community (or rather, communal) leaders – without the “members” even knowing or paying any subs. Right winger Roy Hattersley in particular resorted to these pork-barrel politics.

So, when the Black Sections took politics into these communities and connected with pre-existing social movements, hundreds of blacks and Asians joined… joined to become active in the party.

By 1986, Tottenham Black Section had grown from 10 to over 80; Nottingham East Black Section recruited 200 people in two years. In Haringey, 20,000 new voters were registered in a campaign drive.

Clampdown

As the 1987 election approached, party leader Neil Kinnock moved from initial welcoming of the Black Sections to outright opposition. More members, more voters, even more councillors, from oppressed minorities was one thing, more black MPs quite another.

He wanted a Labour government and to win that, he calculated, he needed the votes of the (white) middle class. So he proceeded to purge the party and its candidates of anyone who gave another message: the left, independent thinkers, and too many black faces, women’s faces, openly lesbian and gay faces.

At conference after conference, motions in support of Black Sections, while gaining 1.6 million votes from constituency delegates and some unions, were defeated, courtesy of the bloc vote. Bernie Grant’s motion in 1984 simply asked the party to “allow black sections to be formed, where black members so desire” and for parity with women’s sections and the Young Socialists. But even this was too much for Kinnock and Hattersley.

The following year, Lambeth Councillor and Black Sections founder Sharon Atkin confronted Kinnock and put the argument to him personally. Initially, the leader agreed, on condition that Atkin drew up a definition of what “black” was. The Black Section lawyers obliged, only for Kinnock to refuse point-blank to discuss the matter any further. Atkin wrote later, “He wasn’t interested in a legal definition. He went on about Ted Knight and the Labour Herald.”

Knight, whom Kinnock hated because of his defiance over rate-capping, supported the Black Sections. With a bureaucrat’s fear of losing control, Kinnock threw out the Black Sections’ case because he foresaw a members’ rebellion to his neoliberal, right wing trajectory for the party.

Kinnock defended his decision in an interview in the Independent:

“The definition offered for those who would be entitled to be part of the Black Sections are people of Afro-Caribbean or Asian origin or those who consider themselves to be black… Alright, can I consider myself to be black?”

To this mocking of the concept of self-definition, the interviewer asked quite simply, “I hate to make the point, but when did you last come across colour prejudice in your life?” Kinnock: “Well, you define colour prejudice to me.”

By this stage, all prospects of a sensible, indeed adult, debate, vanished. The NEC overturned Atkin’s selection as Nottingham East’s parliamentary candidate on Kinnock’s personal demand. Tony Benn quipped after the meeting, “I’ve heard of one member, one vote, but I did not know that the leader was the one member and his the only vote.”

Worse was to follow in a famous by-election in Vauxhall two years later. The sitting Labour MP resigned and in the selection process, Martha Osamor soon became the front-runner, winning nominations from three of the eight wards, the women’s section and several unions. Not only was Osamor black in a densely black populated constituency, her anti-cuts, anti-police violence, anti-nuclear weapons politics chimed with local members.

Not so with Labour’s National Executive Committee. They intervened and rejected her from the shortlist of candidates, then proceeded to select Kate Hoey, of recent Brexit infamy, who was white, was only nominated by the Cooperative Party, and garnered just five votes from Vauxhall party members. Ken Livingstone rightly called out the decision as racist.

Conclusion

Just four black MPs were elected in 1987: Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant, Diane Abbot and Paul Boateng, all Labour. Today, there are 42, 32 of whom are Labour and we have hundreds of black and minority ethnic councillors, and many unions have active black workers’ sections and conferences. In this year’s Labour conference, the Democracy Review established a policy conference for black members.

So, progress of sorts, but the Black Sections never really recovered from the setbacks of the late 1980s. In 1993, they formally folded, even though they had gained belated official recognition at the 1990 party conference.

Their problem was that, although many of the leading lights, from Diane Abbott to Marc Wadsworth, were on the left, the Black Sections as such stood aside from the left’s struggles in the party and remained focused too narrowly on “black issues”.

To be fair, the prime villain in this affair was the Militant Tendency, today’s Socialist Party. They strongly opposed Black Sections, sharing a right wing critique that they were bringing “Apartheid segregation” into the party.

This was, and is, utterly absurd. Black Sections never sought to build a ghetto for themselves in the party, but a bridge out of the ghetto they were already in. Self organisation is a necessary tool for any oppressed groups facing hostility from parts of the labour movement.

The nearest they got to producing a political platform was the production of the Black People’s Manifesto and the Black Agenda in 1987 and ’88, which contained many policies, drawn from black people’s experience, and many which went on to become mainstream party positions. But even this brought accusations of being “a party within a party” from the right.

As the name suggests, Black Sections, the organisation was neither centralised nor homogenous. It was possible, perhaps inevitable, that some careerists saw the Black Sections as a vehicle for their own aggrandisement. This drew criticism from the left and from black activists outside the party. The late Darcus Howe once labelled them, “a quest of the black professional middle class for power-sharing with its white counterparts”. A one-sided and unfair label for sure, but one that certainly fits some figures today, Chuka Umunna, for example.

The need for an openly left wing organisation for black activists in the Labour Party still exists and it is promising to see the emergence of the Grassroots Black Left, founded by Marc Wadsworth, Jackie Walker, Deborah Hobson and others. The former two have been unfairly expelled from the party on trumped-up charges of antisemitism.

Racism still exists in the Labour Party. Black people are still under-represented within party structures and the membership, even in non-white majority constituencies. Racism and discrimination are still rife in public life.
Now is the time for black members to renew the fight to make the Labour Party more receptive to the burning issues facing black and ethnic minority communities today.

For this we need vibrant BAME sections that can campaign and recruit on their own initiative, choose their own leaderships, make policy at conferences etc. Not in order to stand aside from the main body of the party but to bring the experience of the fight against racism and black oppression into the common struggle for socialism.

That can only be done in a firm alliance with the left as it battles to overcome the resistance to socialist policies and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership by the remnants of the right, who still control the main levers of power inside the party.