As a young, black woman, I've naturally felt like the Labour party represented me. It's always been the party of equality, social democracy and justice for all. Historically, it has fought against racial inequality and in 2015, I was glad to see a BAME manifesto released. It included ‘closing the BAME pay gap’, ‘taking robust action against hate crime’ and ‘strengthening representation in public life and in politics’. Unfortunately, Labour didn’t win in 2015 and right now, as a party we need to focus on winning a general election so we can work with the BAME community and make sure these changes actually happen.
Last week, Owen Smith hosted a BAME roundtable discussion and it is clear to me that he is open and willing to listen to our concerns. It was attended by Seema Malhotra MP, several councillors and members who came ready with questions and were more than willing to voice their concerns. He said ‘I want to listen more than I’ll speak’ and that was incredibly moving to hear. Unfortunately, liberation issues are often used as a token in politics and end up being ignored and pushed aside but Smith made it clear that he wanted to change this stating that “As a party, we’re not taking these issues seriously enough”. Several topics came up but a constant was representation.
Labour currently has the most BAME MP’s and it’s something we as a party should be so proud of but it is still not reflective of the multicultural society we live in. Having accurate representation is more than just having more members of parliament. One councillor, made a fantastic point about the lack of BAME representation at a European level stating that they are “often the only one at the European committee of the regions, where issues affecting our community are brought up”. Even at local levels, in areas with large populations of minorities, local councils are not entirely representative of their community. And in the party itself, advisors and parliamentary assistants are overwhelmingly white and this is something we need to change. We need to work with communities and encourage people from BAME backgrounds to stand for positions. Labour must do more than just state this, they need to actively change it. If we don’t we are at risk of being supplanted by the Tories as the most popular Party in a lot of ethnic communities. This is not just a concern in terms of winning elections but minorities are losing their innate allegiance and loyalty they have always had with the Labour party.
“As a party, we’re not taking these issues seriously enough”
- Owen Smith
I will openly admit that I did not vote for Corbyn in the last leadership election but I respected the clear mandate he had and was willing to support him as Labour leader. Unfortunately, he continued to disappoint me and his lacklustre performance during the EU referendum was the final straw. Even before the last general election, the atmosphere in the UK changed. The rise of groups like Britain First and the success of UKIP in the last general election has been harrowing and after the result of Brexit, there has been a huge surge in hate crime and racism. Islamophobia has gotten even worse and anti-Semitism is on the rise. We need a leader who will not just address these problems but act on it. I’m very aware of Corbyn’s history and his support for ethnic minorities in this country and it is something I am very grateful for but we need a leader who will speak for all. His response to the rise of anti-Semitism we have seen in recent months has been extremely disappointing and the Jewish Labour Movement’s overwhelming support for Smith shows that a Labour party lead by Corbyn will not be a party that welcomes everyone. It is not acceptable that many of my Jewish friends, who once felt proud to call themselves Labour party members have left because they no longer feel welcome. These are issues that we need to tackle and true change cannot happen unless we have an electable Labour party.
The outcome of the review by the Equality and Human Rights Commission was frankly shocking. Figures like ‘black graduates earn 23.1% less than white graduates’ and ‘Ethnic minorities unemployment rates (12.9%) were twice as high than the white community (6.3%)’ are incredibly concerning but it’s a constant reality for ethnic minorities in this country and it's clear we need a government to address and more importantly act on the BAME community's concerns. Smith has shown me that he can do that and the Labour Party is the only party that can deliver that. That is why I'll be voting for Owen Smith in the leadership race. He is the only one who can deliver the nation the Labour government it so desperately needs.
Lydia is a young Labour activist and BAME Officer for Leeds Labour Students. You can follow her on @LydiaOkoibhole