Almost four years ago, I became a Labour councillor in Leicester, serving my home ward of Stoneygate. My experiences have evidenced how unwelcoming and closed off the party is for young people, people of colour, and women—certainly if you dare to speak your mind.
This was reaffirmed to me last week when the party barred 19 city councillors from re-standing without so much as a discussion.
After telephone conversations with 15 to 20 overwhelmingly white Leicester political figures, the party formed a ‘campaign improvement board’. Comprising three individuals from outside of Leicester, the board decided that the city’s councillor selection process would be taken over by the National Executive Committee (NEC)—a process that wasn’t deemed necessary for mayoral or parliamentary selections.
In essence, this meant that a panel comprising NEC and East Midlands Regional Board members would be interviewing—and imposing—candidates. To the local party, the final list was shocking: the entirety of Hindu councillors, over half the Muslim councillors, the only Jewish councillor and almost all the Left were barred from standing.
All these councillors had been outspoken on the failures of local political leaders during the riots in Leicester last year, which saw civil unrest between the city’s Muslim and Hindu residents. They had been vocal opponents of the council’s plans to raise gas bills for council tenants, some the city’s poorest residents, by around 300-500 percent, and most had also voted to abolish Leicester’s mayoral system.
Most of these councillors came from wards with the largest minority populations, such as Stoneygate, home to 12,500 Muslims, and Belgrave, with its 14,300-strong Hindu population. In both wards, all six councillors were barred from standing. The message was clear: ethnic minority candidates are dispensable and interchangeable, and political integrity is punishable.
Of the excluded councillors, 58 percent were from the city’s ethnic minority groups, compared to 19 percent of white councillors. There have been assurances that candidates will be replaced by other black and brown faces, as if that is all minority voters want. This assumption itself is manifestly racist and is glaring in what is Europe’s first minority-majority city.
The party’s behaviour undermines the agency of ethnic minority members. This attitude is magnified by the fact that every single senior leader on the council is white, as are the MPs, the City Mayor and the party’s Regional Director. This coincides with the news that Labour has failed to engage with Martin Forde KC on his report, which found that the party is failing to take Islamophobia and anti-Black racism seriously.
Sadly, this is not a one-off. As a new councillor, I proposed the Labour Muslim Network model motion on Islamophobia. Subsequently, I received a barrage of repeated requests from powerful people within Labour to withdraw or dilute my motion. I felt bullied and intimidated, but at the same time, I also felt heartbroken for a community that faithfully voted for Labour for years with no knowledge of the hidden Islamophobia within its ranks. I could not understand why a basic motion on Islamophobia was deemed so offensive. I persevered and won, but the experience shattered the naive conception I came into politics with. Labour was not the beacon of equality I presumed it to be.
Aside from the issues of racism in the Labour Party raised by this process, the party’s commitment to democracy and basic political freedoms is called into doubt. Local members—some of whom have paid their subs for decades—have been silenced.
Earlier this month, when councillors were preparing to vote on whether to scrap Leicester’s mayoral system to replace it with a committee, Labour Party bureaucrats informed us that decisions on council selections would be delayed until after the vote. The party’s Group Chair issued a three-line whip to keep the mayoral system, unbeknownst to the Chief Whip. Councillors were denied a group meeting to privately discuss the motion, as was the usual process before any full council meeting.
On the day of the vote, the fear in the room was palpable. Every councillor asked, ‘will I still have a job after this?’ How strange that in such an important constitutional matter, members were denied a private discussion about what view the party should have. How ironic that in a week where senior Labour figures in Leicester were rushing to support Gary Lineker’s right to speak his mind, they were doing their level best to essentially gag their own members over vital affairs in our city. This undemocratic behaviour is an affront not just to us councillors but to the residents of Leicester, who elected us to best serve their interests.
The decision taken by Labour’s regional and national leadership to trample over local democracy has already caused ripples in Leicester. It has created new divisions and damage in a city that is still trying to heal from the aftermath of last year’s violence, and it has fundamentally damaged the party’s reputation in the city.
There is a window of opportunity for the party to right these wrongs if they wish—but my suspicion is that the political will to do so simply does not exist.