For the Tories, racism goes with the territory, but the Labour Party should speak for all of the oppressed. How racism is tackled inside the party, however, is not straightforward, and the anti-racist left is itself divided, to the benefit of the party apparatus. Some activist members speak out, stand with comrades who have been subject to exclusion and abuse. The case of Marcia Hutchinson in Manchester gives focus to this in a clear way, and it raises broader questions about what we speak about, when and why.
A case and a pattern
Marcia Hutchinson, a respected black activist with a 2010 MBE for ‘cultural diversity’, who was elected in May last year as a councillor for Ancoats and Beswick ward, resigned after six months. The ward is in Manchester Central, a constituency represented in parliament by Lucy Powell. Marcia complained of a toxic culture in the Labour group on council, saying she has suffered racism and bullying. Marcia had already dared to speak out publicly last September about how the group was run.
There are black councillors who are obedient, who side with the right, and the way that racism operates in cases like this is intersectional, as any resistance to it should be. For instance, the right inside the Labour Party expects their black councillors who stay in line and are very keen to have such councillors representing areas with ‘minority’ communities, as are the Tories. And this unleashes all the more anger against those they assume should be loyal when they speak out about racism, or anything else.
The first public disclosure about the way the Labour group was run came after two women councillors were on the edge of being prevented from standing for any Labour group roles after attending a vigil for Sarah Everard; sanctions against these women were fortunately not possible after they spoke out in council about male violence.
Skwawkbox carried details of Marcia’s resignation on 23 December after she was subject to a concerted campaign to replace her with a white male candidate. This drew attention to what she claimed was a pattern of racism, institutional racism that implicates many leading members of the local party administration, councillors and other aspiring party members keen to show obedience and loyalty to the apparatus.
Very few councillors had spoken out in support of Marcia, but among those who did speak out was Ekua Bayunu, one of the councillors for Hulme, which is also part of Manchester Central constituency. Ekua is on the left of the party and has been actively involved in Labour Black Socialists and in support meetings bringing together BAME and Jewish Voice for Labour activists who are under attack from the Starmer national party apparatus.
Ekua herself faced an internal investigation for allegedly breaking the rules when she challenged Richard Leese, and stood for the leadership of the city council when he stepped down. She was then attacked by the right, and some of the left, for launching this challenge only a few days after she was elected, and in that challenge, she was backed by Marcia Hutchinson. So, it is as if you have to do your time and show your loyalty to the party as a councillor before you dare to speak out against the leadership of the council. These matters have been noticed by the black community press, but the question inside Manchester Labour Party is what the rest of the left will do about it.
A very simple basic statement of solidarity with Marcia Hutchinson is circulating now among Labour Party members in Manchester, with most first signatures from within the Withington Labour Left group in Manchester Withington Constituency Labour Party (a Corbynite left caucus that always operated independently of Momentum and including, for example, members of Jewish Voice for Labour). The statement reads ‘We are Labour Party members in Manchester shamed by reports of racism in the party, and the accounts given by Marcia Hutchinson. We call for a full investigation and solidarity with Marcia.’ More names are now slowly, too slowly, being added from other Manchester CLPs.
The solidarity statement is prefaced by one basic link to an article in Manchester Evening News which has full details and further links for Labour Party members to read for themselves what this is about. Even so, the responses from different members who are refusing to sign the statement are indicative of the problem. We checked before we sent out the statement with Marcia, who is still a member of the Labour Party, and with Ekua, who both agreed that we should go ahead with it. Ekua, who is still a councillor, has signed it.
There is a problem around calculations of what the consequences will be. The antisemitic purge of Jewish members of the Labour Party who stand with Palestine has led many left-wing members to leave the party if they have not already been expelled. Anti-racist activists like Marc Wadsworth were thrown under the bus by some of the left during the early stages of that purge. While some who remain do speak out, others protect themselves, downplaying accusations, pretending that it is better to not be sidetracked from what they see as the more important overriding issues that will unite the oppressed in struggle.
I had face-to-face discussions in the week after the statement was circulated with some of those on the left, during which I tried to persuade them to sign the statement. Even after they had the link, these comrades had still said they wanted to know more what this was all about and, it turned out, explain to me why they would not sign. This is about political positions not about individuals. This case is, among other things, a window onto torn loyalties. When loyalty to the Labour Party wins out, we really are in trouble.
The branch secretary
A branch secretary weighed it up and decided, on balance, that it would be better not to sign. Another local branch secretary in Manchester had done so, but this one I spoke to, who is on the left, was more cautious. Why? They said that if they knew Marcia personally, then they may know enough about the case to sign. Not knowing enough was one side of the argument. For others I spoke to, they knew too much, and that was gossip.
Combined with this branch secretary argument for not signing was the view that devoting time to work in the branch had meant that issues in the wider party were as if they were somewhere else, out of reach. Personal acquaintance was here linked with the sense that there were restricted domains of activity; a focus on debates inside the branch and work to get councillors elected and supported. To sign, for them, would be to step beyond this local frame, local knowledge.
But at the heart of this was loyalty to the Labour Party as the only means to get the Tories out and to reverse biting austerity measures. However bad Tony Blair was, I was told, money was put into, for example, health services, and however bad Keir Starmer is, a Labour Party government would be miles better. And even if it was not? Well, they said, it is like when you support Manchester United, and this branch chair did. Whether José Mourinho was terrible or not was beside the point, you still swung behind your team.
A local council candidate told me that they were playing the long game and that though they were on the left, this – the case of Marcia Hutchinson – was ‘not the hill to die on’, and that they would not sign. This was in line with the local Momentum ‘right’ members who were putting all their bets on Salford Council showing the way forward for the left and hoping that Manchester City Council could also be swung slowly to the left if they played the game, the very long game, carefully. If you say openly that you are a ‘radical socialist’ and rant and rave publicly about it, then the Labour Party will simply pick you off, they said.
You need to be careful, pick your arguments, and notice the way that all the talk about racism and so on is being incorporated by capitalism, and emphasise instead that class is overall the most important issue. There is a real danger of being sidetracked into ‘identity politics’, they said. This candidate assured me that, although it is not necessarily the case that Marcia Hutchinson herself is playing the identity politics card, there are plenty of people who are doing so and thus weakening the real struggle.
And anyway, the argument went, they are not sure that accusations of racism being thrown around are very helpful, perhaps even divisive. The treatment of Marcia and Ekua could quite easily have been because they were seen as on the left, and yes, the old right-wing Labour Party members could have reacted as they did for that reason. I would like to see direct evidence that it really was racism before I would sign, they said. And anyway, at the same time, they continued, there is a possible shift to the left in the council, so this is not the time to create divisions. Loyalties here lay with the ‘long game’ of perhaps, they said, ‘thirty years’. This was a game the left had to win before it could really do anything very radical, and signing a statement like this could scupper that.
A councillor explained to me that the reason they would not be signing the statement of solidarity was because it would cause lots of ‘trouble’, and by lots of trouble they meant unbearable pressure and sabotage of any progressive work they might do in council. It is not only that they would be ‘told off’ but that they would suffer from the same kind of bullying that Marcia herself had complained of.
This comrade talked about the brief inconclusive inquiry there had been into the shameful events inside the City Party, the campaign forum in 2018 before either Marcia or Ekua Bayunu had been elected. There were elections for women’s officer of City Party, for which both Marcia and Ekua had stood. The voting slips had been scribbled on by some members at the meeting commenting that neither of them were suitable, that they were both ‘shite’.
One excuse for this treatment of two black women at the time in the CLP was that some members involved were drunk, and there was gossip that Marcia was not herself really on the left, as if she should be on the left to be defended against racism. Marcia was, it was said, the owner of quite a few rental properties. Some of those who were at the actual event claimed that it was probably the ‘perception’ that Marcia and Ekua were on the left that drew the attack, not because of racism. The response of many on the left was that this was racist, and that is what Marcia and Ekua claimed. The councillor agreed that there was racism, but that does not mean that it could not be something else as well. True, this is not a case of either-or.
These are comrades. I think they are wrong but can see they are torn by loyalty to the Labour Party and standing with the oppressed. I protect their identities here, sad that it is the Labour Party that triumphs. In this case, so does racism. These are contradictions of ‘Labourism’, the subordination of politics as such to the need to direct your political energies to this one party as the only progressive option.
Sign it now
It is a positive sign that Labour Party members in Manchester are signing the solidarity statement now. There should be more names, and perhaps as the statement link circulates around the left, more comrades will add their names. Whether or not the numbers will grow, and build enough pressure on the local party apparatus to actually do something, is yet to be seen. If you are in Manchester in the Labour Party you should sign the statement.
Here in this case is an instance that points to the need for us to be conditional and tactical in our support for the Labour Party. We should support activists who speak out, and only those who speak out. Whether or not this solidarity statement grows now will speak volumes, weigh heavily for those now deciding whether to stay in and fight or to conclude that the Labour Party is not an anti-racist party at all, but part of the problem.
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