Racism: what Labour should do

Submitted by martin on 30 June, 2020 - 2:57 Author: Kas Witana
Washington DC BLM

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

We don’t know to what extent the Black Lives Matter protests will continue; but for sure Labour and union activists need, to a far greater extent, to join them and engage with the mainly young people taking part.

We need real debate in the party and unions about what policies are needed to live up to our responsibilities in this moment. It’s fine to express general sympathy, but what should we campaign for and how would a Labour government make a difference?

I think the drive behind the protests comes not only from outrage at the murder of George Floyd, and similar here, but a much wider landscape of racism and inequality which needs radical change to even start to address.

The recent Public Health England report on Covid-19 and ethnic minorities summarises how the pandemic has battered black and brown people, due to pre-existing and deepening inequalities in UK society. It advocates “large scale and transformative change to structural and societal environments such as homes, neighbourhoods and workplaces”. However, its recommendations fall short.

What should the labour movement demand? I haven’t got long, so a few ideas.

First, about Brexit. As the current deadline for extending the transition passes, Labour has been silent. Yet the disastrous double-whammy of a No Deal or hard Brexit in the midst of the Covid-19 fallout will be a double-double-whammy for many BAME people. For the NHS, and particularly BAME NHS workers. We need to break the silence – to speak out about what the Tories’ plans will mean and start a serious discussion about how we can block them.

We must fight unambiguously for migrants’ rights and free movement. Labour must campaign for the entire pro-migrant policy passed at last year’s conference. We should be shouting loud to abolish ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ and the NHS surcharge – which will benefit many BAME people and make everyone safer.

Secondly, what do we say about the immediate issues raised by the protests?

We need to change the entrenched position that more police is an answer to society’s problems. We need to develop clear demands to curb their powers to harass BAME, poor and young people, and to make them more accountable to democratic scrutiny and control. We should demand a dramatic reduction of the prison population, and an end to damaging policies like criminalisation of drugs, which feed the prison system.

More broadly, we need to reshape not just criminal justice but the whole of society.

Genuine democratic community policing can only exist in a society of democratic community economics – socialism. But at present society is moving fast in the wrong direction.

Labour is not campaigning for even for the most obvious and basic demands to help the working class, and particular BAME workers, defend ourselves. Why aren’t we calling for a publicly-run track-and-trace system? Why aren’t we campaigning to stop a new wave of council cuts, and restore the desperately needed funding councils have lost? Why aren’t we campaigning for all workers to be able to isolate on full pay, and radically better sick pay? Why aren’t we demanding public ownership of social care?

That is just to start. We need a comprehensive program for rebuilding and expanding our public sector, our youth services, our mental health services, our refuges – and providing the jobs, homes and support people will need in the coming crisis. That means a major assertion of public ownership. Demands like this are also, in the existing conditions, anti-racist ones.

There is a lot more – for instance about the school curriculum – but I’m out of time.

The last thing I’ll say is that we must free our trade unions from anti-union laws – all anti-union laws – so we can defend ourselves and fight for change.

Labour needs to reorient, radicalise our policies and actually start campaigning. That means ending the lockdown on party democracy and asserting members’ right to start discussing, taking decisions and deciding the way forward. As part of that, we need a vibrant, democratic BAME section in the party.

• Kas was speaking at a meeting on Black Lives Matter and Brexit organised by Labour for a European Future and Labour for a Socialist Europe.

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