Labour Students has a race problem

By Huda Elmi / @hudacabdulaziz


Labour Students is as institutionally racist as it has always been, and this will not change under the proposal of One Member One Vote (OMOV), to be discussed today at Labour Students’ Extraordinary Conference. That realisation in itself is one that that saddens me deeply, as the entire point of OMOV was to decentralise and precipitate the involvement of members up and down the country who aren’t represented in the current and exclusive delegate system. But when the organisation is inherently rotten in its relationship with race, it is almost inevitable that any proposal targeted to engender greater BAME involvement will be disingenuous. To dangle the carrot of funding and a liberation conference, whilst crippling the opportunity for ethnic minorities to run for executive positions by imposing a 10-club nomination rule, is preposterous. Why must BAME members constantly be forced to accept appeasement as progression?
5 months ago, BAME bodies and voices were invisible in a sea of white. So much so, that I, as Labour Students BAME officer, rarely received correspondence from the committee, and never recieved a reply when I attempted to engage in the organizing structures. Symbolically, the chair-elect ran on a platform during conference of banning all-white panels, and was heralded as some kind of BAME crusader, even though BAME caucus had passed a motion against such self-serving logic.
In an organisation that is almost all-white, the focus should be increasing BAME membership rather than the offensive assumption that one brown token on a panel solves anything. This dichotomy, in which racialized bodies are objectified as commodities to be used as political currency, creates an atmosphere in which it is impossible for BAME members to speak and be heard. When conference proceedings began before BAME caucus had returned, it was emblematic of the fact that our roles were not to be active members, but to fill out the room with our non-white faces. To stroke the ego of white members for whom the accusation that their conduct upheld a system of institutional racism is an inconvenience.
Gary Younge recently spoke about his time in Labour Students, his experiences of racism a damning indictment of how little the organisation has transformed. That moment of BAME invisibility triggered a liberation consultation and a promise to place liberation at the heart of the new constitution; a promise that I am still waiting to be fulfilled.
It is maddening that very little has yet to change. I am persistently having to deal with micro-aggression on a committee organising group, in which when I make a point I am either completely ignored or often emotively challenged. The indignation to some degree stemming from that fact that I dare be vocal, the “oh no, she’s at it again” attitude of committee when I disagree being symptomatic of their inability to process that I am equal; that I am entitled to an opinion that isn’t submissive agreement. I am sick and tired of being portrayed as an angry black woman for simply attempting to represent the views of BAME members, something which I have been elected to do. An executive committee member recently stated that my role amounted to representing the interests of an almost all white committee within BAME caucus, and should prioritise “easing their concerns” about the constitution. This is incredibly evocative of how the role of BAME officer, and to a larger extent ethnic minorities within Labour Students, is to be anything but independent. Any thought that contradicts that decreed by white committee members is automatically shut down, and followed by a kangaroo trial of mock outrage and fake concern.
The ease at which committee organise without BAME members when it politically suits them is exemplified in the fact that no BAME members were offered balcony passes at NUS conference, whilst many white members were. This echoes the general fear surrounding BAME self-organisation, which inherently threatens the dominance of white structures within Labour Students. It is strikingly apparent that BAME members could not be trusted to campaign for endorsed candidates, especially as black members within the NUS were historically gaining ground in the fight against institutional racism. This fear and treatment of BAME members as suspect further manifests itself in the fact our safe space has been violated and autonomy recently brought into question after caucus passed a motion demanding amendments at this upcoming conference. No other liberation group would be subjected to such an intrusive and flippant disregard for our ability to determine our own policy.
The vote today is being promulgated as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, suggestive of the desperation to silence just criticism at how undemocratic the lack of an amendment procedure is. Everybody wants OMOV, but very few people are happy with the constitution- are the two not mutually exclusive? This constitution, which was pulled together in only a few short months, does little to challenge the pervasive and entrenched problem Labour Students has with race; if it wished to be wholly representative, it should have allowed BAME caucus a greater role in shaping content. In a political climate were brown bodies are under surveillance due to PREVENT, it is disconcerting to see that executive committee in the new constitution have the power to expel members who do not conform to the “aims and values” of Labour Students.
Considering that what values the organization claims to have are undeniably through a white lens, I refuse to see how this- and so many other problematic clauses in the constitution- will not be weaponised to silence difference of opinion and strengthen barriers already existing for BAME members.
Huda Elmi is BAME Officer for Labour Students

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