Black leadership: New and old generations

Graham Campbell discusses the crisis of Black leadership, and the new generation that is emerging.

Photo: Steve Eason
Photo: Steve Eason

After this year’s general election, a record number of Black Labour and Tory MPs will walk down Westminster’s corridors. Black faces have never been more visible in the establishment and in Parliament. Meanwhile Black working class people, who make up the vast majority of the Black, Asian, African, Muslim and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in Britain, languish in the greatest social exclusion from labour markets, benefits and welfare systems. They also have the lowest relative wages, the highest relative unemployment levels and the greatest levels of social deprivation and police and state racism that they have ever faced.

We know the Tories will accelerate the deportation of immigrants and continue attacking Black NHS and public sector workers’ jobs as part of the cuts, which will have the deepest impact on BAME, LGBTQ, and disabled communities. Yet much of the old Black left leadership, seen in organisations like the Monitoring Group, Southall Black Sisters, Racial Attacks Monitoring Unit in Birmingham, the Institute of Race Relations and Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC), have by and large failed to build any mass movement of those in the BAME community against either cuts, police attacks, or heightened xenophobia.

Crisis of Black leadership

This crisis of Black radicalism in Britain has to be located in the failed strategy of the Labour Party Black Sections, which Darcus Howe famously described in 1985 as “Black sections for the Black middle classes”. The advance of these politicians within the party hierarchy, culminating in the record numbers of Black MPs, has not advanced the cause of Black working class people. For most BAME communities across Britain traditional communalist strategies for BAME community development can no longer work or maintain credibility with activists from younger generations.

The municipal socialism period of the 1980s saw a ‘Town Hall tikka masala” politics develop a dependency culture of funded BAME groups. This was replaced in the 1990s by New Labour divide and rule tactics, operated by white middle class controlled party machines in alliance with traditional small ‘c’ conservative community leaders. That cross-community class alliance has been the bedrock of Labour administrations across the UK. It has been breaking down in stages since the Afghan and Iraq wars. This has deepened in step with the overall disillusionment of millions of ex-Labour voters of all ethnicities.

This partial break from Labourism took the form of Respect between 2004-2010 in England, but in Scotland that movement has been towards the SNP after the Iraq war and in the run up the 2007 Holyrood election where the SNP became the largest party – in part down to Muslims voting for Nicola Sturgeon in Glasgow Southside. This was consolidated during the referendum campaign with Scottish Asians for Independence (SAFI) once again assuming a prominent role – albeit exhibiting signs of the patriarchal limits to political development also noticeable in the temporary growth of Respect.

However most BAME communities have proven to be more loyal to Labour in England and Wales than white workers – especially Africans, Pakistani and Bangladeshis who make up the consistently poorest sections of the working class. This apparent loyalty masks a fracturing and widening class divide within different BAME community social structures, reflecting the phenomenon of affluent BAME business leaders supporting Muslims for Labour, while their BAME employees voted Respect and Galloway, and then Rahman and Tower Hamlets First in East London, for example.

Black trade union caucus organisations, which developed in the 1980s and 1990s, exist in every trade union, and coordinate in the form of Black Workers Committees in each TUC region and in the Scottish and Welsh TUCs only represent an ever more declining layer of older Black activists. Very few new union members are recruited or organised by BWCs or by union BAME sections, so grassroots BWC structures fail to develop.  Reserved BAME seats on the union executive elections mean most Black trade union leadership officials are elected by their white colleagues as part of left or right slates, not by self organised rank and file Black trade unionists. This lack of accountability makes union organising more ineffective and irrelevant to grassroots BAME communities then they have ever been.

New leaderships emerging

This crisis has created a space for new leaderships to emerge. One recent response to the rise of official and unofficial anti migrant racism has been the Movement Against Xenophobia (MAX), a new alliance of 113 local organisations which involves the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Migrant Voice UK, Just West Yorkshire, the Ethnic Minority Civic Congress Scotland and the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities. MAX’s very successful ‘I am an Immigrant’ poster campaign saw giant yellow background profiles of multinational immigrant workers doing normal jobs appear with a positive message on billboards, in train stations and bus shelters across the UK.

The development of Respect in 2004-2008 briefly offered the prospect of a new generation of more working class leadership emerging and coming to the fore. In Respect’s strongest area, Tower Hamlets in East London, this legacy was continued by the Independent Mayor Lutfur Rahman and his party Tower Hamlets First. Key local leaders like ex-Respect Cllr Oliur Rahman, who briefly returned to Labour, found themselves in the midst of a civil war in the party between Blairites and rival Bangladeshi community leaderships, resulting in Labour’s removal of Lutfur Rahman as Labour candidate for Tower Hamlets mayor. His election as an independent in 2010 was an echo of Ken Livingstone’s first term as London Mayor in 2000-2004, which he won as a left independent. Rahman echoed previous opposition to council house privatisation and adopted progressive measures akin to those in Scotland – Educational Maintenance Allowances were restored, council houses and libraries built and kept open, services not slashed or privatised, and no compulsory redundancies. He was suspended by local Government secretary Eric Pickles and removed from office by a legal ruling. This was not just an act of institutionalised racism, but also a strategic attack on councils and mayors – a warning not to resist the cuts to the fullest.

Rabina Khan, a young, confident Muslim woman councillor was recently only narrowly defeated in the by‑election to replace Rahman by the Labour mayoral candidate John Biggs in a campaign marred by racist smears and innuendo. This is a blow to the Towers Hamlets BAME communities’ proud record as communities of resistance, but it is to be hoped that given the 37% share of first preference votes, just 1500 behind a nationally organised Labour campaign, the networks around her campaign can continue to organise against racism and austerity.

The past year has also seen the growth of a new movement of young Black people on the streets, inspired in particular by events in the United States. Ferguson provided a rallying point for building a significant alliance around the Black Lives Matter speaking tour, which held meetings across the UK. This brought together socialists and others in the Defend the Right to Protest campaign, with longstanding campaigns by families of those who have died in police custody, the Justice for Mark Duggan campaign, and a new leadership in the NUS Black Students Campaign and the Federation of Islamic Students Societies (FOSIS). Its success has partially shifted the grounds for a renewed anti-racism with the student movement and in the BAME communities more generally.

The tour also exposed faultlines between the new and old leaderships – with some of the older generation reacting negatively to attempts to connect struggles around race to those of gender and sexuality, which is common sense among younger generations.

The NUS Black Students’ campaign has developed greater prominence as an activist force on campuses. Nonetheless, many of these new leaderships are riddled with contradictions and limitations: many of them use a racial as opposed to political definition of what it means to be Black. Black Students’ leaders are not moving to a more overtly class-orientated Marxist politics.

Another force to recently burst onto the scene is London Black Revs (LBR). They organised a number of street based actions on homelessness and the daring die-in at Westfield Shopping Centre Stratford, close to the Olympic Stadium in East London. The ability of LBR to mobilise large numbers at short notice showed the potential to organise people around anti-racist politics, and also the gap in existing leadership on these questions. Nonetheless, LBR struggled to maintain organisation and has suffered from damaging internal arguments.

Feminism and intersectional politics

One notable feature of the new movements has been a focus on the connections with other groups of oppressed people. On many campuses Black leadership is expressing itself not necessarily through the prism of organised Black politics, but through feminist/queer politics. There has been a massive rise in interest in Black feminism – something demonstrated by the multitude of Black feminist conferences this year already. It is important to be alive to the growth of Black leadership in previously unexpected places – feminist societies, LGBT societies etc.

There is evidence that a growing intra and inter-communal awareness of this kind – laced with a strongly intersectional approach to gender, race, sexuality and class – is developing among an important layer of NUS Black Student activists. It is much less pronounced among some of the older BAME community leadership. The young are fed-up with banging heads against glass ceilings and brick walls and slowly moving leftwards in frustration that existing equalities strategies are not working.

A crystallisation of these connections was the recent protest at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, the biggest protest at a detention centre in UK history. Around 400 women are incarcerated there, most of them failed asylum seekers who have committed no crime. The protest highlighted the toxic combination of racism and sexism in the centre that has led to widespread allegations of sexual abuse. The protest was led by women, who stormed the fences and occupied the grounds.

Queer/feminist Black politics, like all other politics, can have a contradictory nature, but there is significant politicisation on race happening within these groups. It is unprecedented, for example, that feminist and queer groups are made up of significant layers of Black activists, but that appears to be what is happening: Susuana Antubam, a Black woman who ran on an intersectional platform, has been re-elected for a second term as NUS Women’s Officer, and Black women make up a growing part of the leadership of feminist societies.  It has become a point of principle for feminist/queer groups to be intersectional. The effect is that anti-racist and economic justice arguments are beginning to penetrate these groups in a way that wasn’t the case only 5 years ago.

However, there is also a tendency in these groups to see class as just one more ‘oppression’, something the general crisis of the organised left has contributed to. We have to think through what this political terrain means for us as Marxists: the points of connection and the points of rupture we can use to win people to the revolutionary ideas. That has to start from a position of solidarity with their politics and experiences. They are, after all, trying to theorise to fight their own oppression.

Revolutionary current

Black socialists in various organisations, or none, should be able to find enough common ground to put across some answers for the times we live in – even if it is around what may seem like very fundamental issues. We might take some of the basic socialist politics around race and class for granted, but there are very few people putting them out there in the wider movement in an organised way. There is some urgency over the need for Black socialist organisation to start the process of developing a collective sense of purpose (what the group is for and who it is for): a fresh political analysis and perspective of Black politics through discussion and argument. It is not sufficient simply to declare we are launching another ‘revolutionary’ organisation and leave it at that. The years of experience, reflection and participation in Black and anti-racist struggles over decades shows there are useful lessons to learn from what can be called a Black Marxist-feminist perspective in all sorts of organisation.

It is the job of groups of organised Black socialists to raise the class consciousness of Black workers starting from their existing levels of consciousness of racial oppression.

Meanwhile, a multi-racial organisation must help raise sensitivity to the consciousness of the oppressed among white workers, starting from their existing levels of class consciousness. It is also important to develop an anti-racist project that is not dominated by or determined by exaggerated claims from white anti-racists or anti-fascists about the dangers of fascism threatening the white majority, but instead led by BME people concerned about how everyday economic discrimination and state racism are the main problems.

A final priority is developing a shared sense of grassroots collective community anti-racism – a new ‘political Black’ – amongst the various communities of people of colour. There is another generation of activists growing up essentialising concepts like ‘race’ and confusing class with identity. As socialists we should promote and defend a political conception of ‘Black’ as a political colour representing those oppressed by racism (i.e. inclusive of those even with ‘white’ skin colours from minority ethnic communities). This kind of solidarity is an incipient form of internationalism and we should be encouraging it. Anything that tends to separate people of African descent from others as somehow unique victims of racism needs to be pushed against (gently, and with patience and understanding).

We need forums where we can thrash these things out and think through our contribution as Marxists to a wider Black radical movement. Black and Asian members of rs21 can take a lead in networking in Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements to build coordinated Black anti-racist action. We can do so with some confidence given our record of intersectional thinking and practical solidarity with Ferguson and the UK family justice campaigns. Over the coming months we will be developing a ‘political’ Black and socialist perspective within our organisation.

For a Black working class leadership to emerge, a renewal of class struggle organising at workplaces combined with more serious interventions in the community – what US union organising activist Jane McAlevey calls ‘whole worker organising is a vital condition’. It will be a priority for Black revolutionary socialists to encourage cross-fertilisation between workplace‑based struggles of predominantly BAME workers in service sectors and struggles for decent homes and affordable rents in the cities. Marxists have tended to put an over emphasis on production, whereas non-Marxists totally ignore it. Many young Black dissidents are sharp on the question of reproduction and its relation to racist capitalism, but don’t immediately see the connection to production. It is important to reiterate a strategy of trying to tackle racial capitalist patriarchy at both ends of the rope – we organise at the point of social production and at the point of social reproduction simultaneously.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine


  1. Hello beingwoke – what we mean is this: you know how some folks say only African Caribbean people or people of Afrikan descent can be ‘Black’ whereas we use the politically Black definition – all those who are victims of racialised oppression are Black. Perhaps we should have said “many of them use a racially exclusive definition”

  2. “Nonetheless, many of these new leaderships are riddled with contradictions and limitations: many of them use a racial as opposed to political definition of what it means to be Black. ” Please explain what you mean by this.
    Great post bdw


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