Doing politics differently: Kingsley Abrams in Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Graham Campbell interviews Kingsley Abrams, who left the Labour party at the beginning of this year, about his departure from Labour and the history of autonomous Black sections movement of which he is and was a key figure. A shortened version of this interview appeared in Issue 3 of rs21 magazine.

picture from Southwark TUSC

picture from Southwark TUSC

More people ought to know of the record and reputation of Kingsley Abrams, one of the organisers of the Black sections movement and a stalwart in the voluntary sector workers group section within Unite. Kingsley served on the executive of Unite from 2011-2014 and is a member of the national leadership of the United Left (UL) faction. His dramatic resignation from the Labour party in late January 2015 accompanied by fellow anti-austerity Warrington Labour councillor Kevin Bennett, sent shock waves through the trade union movement and within the ‘Reclaim Labour’ union left. More people would have known of Kingsley’s record as a fighter for working people had he been elected along with the 1987 cohort of Black Labour MPs. He is an important and representative voice.

Graham: Can I ask you about your background, how you came to be involved in the Labour Party, and how you have come to leave it after three decades of membership?

Kevin: I joined over 30 years ago – I’m a democratic socialist and the Labour Party seemed the best place to join and so I become active in LP Young Socialists, which was then dominated by Militant tendency.  We had some interesting debate and discussion. At the time I became the youth organiser of the LP Black Sections (LPBS) and so I immediately became an automatic member of LPBS National Committee.  I stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate in the 1992 general election, when I took Labour from a distant third place (behind Tories and LibDems) to a close second place in Wimbledon. I was then a Merton borough councillor for 16 years and during that time I chaired the Finance committee and was Deputy Council leader, and also Chief Whip.  It was the 1980s under Thatcher at the height of the Lambeth and Liverpool council struggles, and in those days I was actually voting for cuts because there seemed little alternative but I knew it was hurting people. When I left Merton for Lambeth I vowed never to go back there and not to make any future cuts – hence my difficulties with the Lambeth Council Labour leadership.

What did you find tough about it?

I found that making cuts it is extremely difficult: closing down youth clubs, libraries and community centres, slashing jobs and services knowing you are creating misery basically for working people. I became Lambeth councillor in 2006 when Labour was re-elected, kicking out the LibDems with big majority, but then Labour asked me to make millions of cuts. From my experience in Merton I decided I wasn’t going to vote for cuts. But every time I opposed them, I was suspended. It seemed as if I was suspended every other week from the Labour group. I would get back in with the help of my union Unite and then I’d vote against cuts again and be suspended again. The response from the local community of Vassall ward (his council constituency) was very positive. Local groups were very active and lobbied the council, but there was no support for them from the Labour group. I couldn’t even get a seconder for anti-cuts motions, so in terms of Labour group politics it was not a good place to be. It was quite inspirational to see the level of community resistance and fightback against the cuts.

Can you explain your general stance on the cuts and say why you didn’t resign in 2012/2013? Many have since criticised you for staying in the party and dropping your formal opposition to cuts. Can you explain what actually happened?  

I suppose at first I felt I could fight it out within Labour. I was then on the Unite Executive, and I was hoping with backing of the union we’d be able to fight the cuts agenda. I’m afraid that it didn’t work out. Why not? Because people who opposed the cuts got immediately suspended. Even though my union is anti-cuts and anti-austerity both myself & Kevin Bennett we were still being suspended. Eventually my GS wanted me to stand for Westminster as a Unite sponsored MP, but because I was suspended I was unable to stand. Unite used its influence to get a special meeting of the Lambeth Labour group to lift the suspension so that I could contest the selection for the Brent Central seat. But the Labour group unanimously voted to keep me suspended, including the Black councillors in the meeting. They just didn’t want an anti-austerity, anti-cuts candidate in their council group. The end result was that in order to contest Brent Central the advice from Unite was to resign from Lambeth Council and thus get unsuspended, which I did in October 2013. There was a point in early 2013 that I decided I was resigning from Labour Party because of all the suspensions. In fact I asked for a meeting with the General Secretary in order to get backing as an independent candidate in the 2014 council elections, but I was talked out of resigning from Labour by Len McCluskey.

You played a major role in the United Left leadership block within Unite the Union and sat on the union’s executive until 2014 – how does your leaving Labour leave those maintaining the project of reclaiming Labour – those who you’ve left behind?

Reclaiming labour has become more difficult because of the Labour position on austerity and cuts. Unite the Union has a very strong position against the cuts and against austerity. Unless the Labour Party shift to the left again and become anti-austerity/anti-cuts you will not find many Unite members joining Labour. I am still active in Unite.

I lost the automatic BAME seat on the NEC in 2014 by a manoeuvre which ruled that by less than a decimal point there were more BAME members in the Food, Drink and Tobacco (FDT) sector of Unite than in the Community Youth Workers and Not for Profit (CYNWP) sector I represented. Yet a week after the 2014 Unite EC election 6500 members were transferred into my sector. This transfer of membership should have taken place before the election! If this situation wasn’t bad enough, Bronwen Handyside) then decided to challenge me in United Left for the single CYWNP seat on Unite NEC. The leadership of Unite was putting pressure on the Socialist Party to support Bronwen, but SP resisted the pressure and continued to support me. I defeated Bronwen Handyside at the United Left hustings meeting held at the end of November 2013.  In the end I was defeated by a member of United Now for the single CYWNP seat in April 2014.

Unite has received much criticism for how it handled both the Grangemouth dispute with Ineos and the Falkirk CLP selection, which got candidate Karie Murphy and Ineos activist and secretary Stevie Deans suspended – how do you explain Unite’s record?

I thought Len’s response was adequate at Grangemouth. I think the union did everything to defend itself from Ineos. My issue is with the way Labour stepped in at Falkirk and investigated Stevie Deans and suspended Karie Murphy. Eventually our national Vice-President Mark Lyon was also forced out. I spoke and voted against the Collins Review at the Unite EC. It was unnecessary and it undermined the influence of unions in the Labour Party and deeply undermined the trade union link to Labour. Collins says we want individual membership of the Party – so the link has now largely been broken.

Do you still consider Labour a working class party?

It’s difficult to say, but under the current leadership the Labour Party could not be described as a working class party. It may change or even reverse course. For example if Cllr Neil Coyle [Labour candidate in Bermondsey and Old Southwark] opposes the £31m cuts at the full Southwark Council meeting next Wednesday Feb 25th then I will stand down.

You were one of the national officers of the Black Sections movement – can you tell me what influenced your politics then? Do you feel Labour has taken Black people for granted, how do you explain the decline of Black influence, and do people suffer institutionalised racism within the party?

I was elected as LPBS Youth organiser in 1984. It was a time of lack of representation for Black people – no Black MPs or councillors. In 1987 the first new set of Black and Asian MPs got elected since Shapurji Sakhlatvala in 1929. So I felt we had to organise collectively and do a number of things to represent the interests of the Black community within the Labour party, within parliament and within councils, so we wrote a manifesto to articulate Black interests. From 1987 to now we only have 16 Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) MPs; the so-called nasty party, the Tories, now have 11 BAME MPs. Ironically the Tories now have more of their BAME MPs in safe winnable seats compared to Labour.

In the BAME Labour Executive, which I had to resign from too when I left Labour, I took up the coordination BAME Labour member’s intervention on the issue of ‘late seats’. This is where retiring Labour MPs deliberately step down too late for the normal rules to select their replacement in the local constituency. Instead the Labour NEC gets to shortlist and impose its favoured candidates. Working class and Black candidates simply never got near these ‘selected’ lists. I moved a policy resolution so that BAME labour members could be included. As part of a strategy to win an all black shortlist I put my name forward for Edmonton. The failure by a Labour NEC selection committee chaired by Keith Vaz to longlist me triggered my resignation from Labour. My resignation from the Labour Party then forced Vaz to select an all Black women shortlist for the Edmonton seat.

Like most institutions in Britain the Labour party suffers from racism too. That’s why it’s important for them to support increasing BAME representation with all-BAME shortlists just like All-Women shortlists. However it needs to be tested in law to make it legal for parties to use all-BAME shortlists to redress the imbalance. Most Black people in the Labour Party are behaving as isolated individual and that’s not in the interests of the Black community. If we don’t do it collectively we won’t win.

Black self organisation within the trade unions is very weak and while TUC and STUC Black Workers Conferences are fun social gatherings they pass quite meaningless motions, have no political clout and don’t have organising power. Austerity and cuts have affected BAME workers much more, especially women, and that leaves them less time and ability to be active in the unions. What do you think is the future for Black trade union sections? 

I would agree. It reflects the poor state of union organisation more generally. However, Unite has a rule change conference coming in July 2015. I would like to see a rule change which strengthens the equalities structures, particularly the BAME structures – which need paid support in organising, recruiting and getting more working class BAME people to become candidates for elected positions. The current structure simply does not support this kind of work. I am not aware of one Unite BAME member in a winnable parliamentary seat, although Kate Osamore could be selected as Edmonton candidate. Clive Lewis a Unite member standing in Norwich South (a three-way marginal between Labour, Lib Dem and Greens).  There was a time that it become impossible to articulate that kind of Black or radical politics within the Labour party. Bringing grassroots, community accountable, politics is not happening now in the Labour Party.

You and Kevin Bennett  have both joined the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which contains two political forces that I know you personally have been quite critical of in the past over their stance opposing Black self-organisation in the Labour party. How do you come to support TUSC now?

I decided to apply for TUSC because it is a broad-based trade union-led socialist and community group coalition coming together. I am standing in Bermondsey and Old Southwark parliamentary seat which I contested for Labour in 2001. I was inspired to join TUSC by the late Bob Crow of the RMT and so I felt that it was the best platform for articulating my anti-austerity position without the threat of being suspended and also without the need to actually join another party. Not yet. I am convinced that we need to inspire a new generation for a lifetime of anti-austerity and left politics. The way I was inspired when I went to my first LP conference and heard Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Michael Meacher and since then I been through a whole lifetime of political activism. My biggest issue is how we build an anti austerity political force – that’s what I want to be part of. This I cannot do from within the current Labour party. I stress current because although it is not impossible for Labour to change back, it is unlikely under the current trajectory.

Can you also give me your views on Left Unity and the rise of Syriza and the surge in support for the Greens and the SNP?

In Scotland there will be a Labour meltdown and I don’t think that Ed Miliband will win enough seats in England and Wales to compensate for that loss of 30 or 40 Scottish seats. Electing Jim Murphy as leader has firmly associated Scottish Labour with austerity. It is also true in England and Wales that unless Labour turns left and takes an anti-austerity/anti-cuts stance, they reduce considerably their chances of winning the election overall. There can be no progress with austerity. I launched the hashtag #austeritymustgo to illustrate this. I want to run an inclusive campaign in Bermondsey, hence I will be seeking support from the key campaign forces to the left of Labour. I will need many more people to come out and canvass for me.

As for Syriza – I am not for a minute saying TUSC is the British Syriza but it was only scoring 4% in Greek elections 10 years ago and now it’s in Government. We have to start somewhere, and Bermondsey seems to be the place for such a campaign, a place where LibDem Simon Hughes (a government minister) is implementing the cuts on for the sake of austerity. The Labour candidate is also voting for cuts on Southwark Council.  I want to engage them in a debate on the Alternatives to cuts and austerity. There is and there must be an alternative to austerity.

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