The noisy controversy over Rachel Dolezal’s self-defining ethnicity in the last few days reminded me of the furore about black sections in the Labour Party in the mid-1980s. This is an extract from my book Rejoice! Rejoice!:
The conflict between the new identity politics and the Labour leadership was evident in the issue of black sections that arose in the middle of the decade. Black activists, particularly in London, began to call in 1983 for separate sections to be organized within constituency Labour parties, based on the model of the existing women’s sections.
They met with immediate opposition, both from the left – Eric Heffer and Militant were opposed in their own ways – and from above: ‘It would create significant problems of racial definition which could lead only too easily to endless unproductive acrimony,’ pronounced Neil Kinnock in 1984.
The following year, two of the leading campaigners, Sharon Atkin and Diane Abbott, met Kinnock to press their case, but again found themselves rebuffed. He asked who would be eligible to join, and was told that the sections would be open to anyone who considered themselves black. ‘Can I consider myself black?’ he asked, and they replied: ‘Patently not, because you’re so obviously white.’ He later told the press: ‘I consider, and so do most other people, the idea of a segregated section on the basis of colour or racial origin to be repellent.’
Despite the opposition, several local parties did set up unofficial black sections, starting with Vauxhall and Lewisham East in London, though their contribution didn’t always seem to be characterized by compromise and comradeship.
‘The Labour Party itself perpetuates racism,’ claimed a booklet produced by the Vauxhall branch for the 1984 conference. ‘It is an institution rooted in a racist society and its own routine practices, customs and forms of organization exclude black people from the structures of power as effectively as if they were barred from membership.’ A conference resolution that year to set up official black sections was rejected by the union block votes.
It was a contentious issue and one that produced a series of anomalies. The Enfield and Barnet branch of the far-right National Front passed a resolution welcoming the idea ‘as the first stage in the realignment of British politics on racial lines,’ adding that: ‘These sections clearly indicate both the inability and unwillingness of blacks to integrate into British society.’
Meanwhile a selection meeting in the Brent South constituency chose Paul Boateng as its parliamentary candidate, but was faced by a demonstration led by Sharon Atkin because the local party didn’t have a black section, even though all those on the shortlist were themselves black.
The controversy died down almost as swiftly as it had arisen. The gradual adoption of leading black figures as parliamentary candidates – Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz, Russell Profitt (who had been the party’s only black candidate in 1979) – took much of the steam out of the campaign, leading some to conclude that all along it had been, in Roy Hattersley’s words, ‘really a vehicle for promoting the parliamentary ambitions of metropolitan, middle-class professionals’.