Most Labour voters have probably never heard of Asghar Khan, a postman from Leeds. But if Khan and his supporters win an obscure election this month, he will become part of a powerful inner circle in the Labour party.
Khan is fighting to sit on Labour’s National Executive Committee, on behalf of BAME Labour, a society made up of black and ethnic minority Labour supporters. If he wins after the election closes on 11 August 2017, it will be at the expense of Keith Vaz, the MP for Leicester, who has represented the society since it succeeded the Black Socialist Society in 2007.
A councillor and a trade union rep, Khan says he is standing “because I believe we need more grassroots BAME voices from outside Westminster on the Labour NEC”. But some of those voting for him feel there is more at stake.
Several BAME Labour members told The New Statesman that they felt shut out by an archaic election process, which they say favoured an establishment within the society.
The contest could also be symptomatic of a wider struggle in the party, between a pro-Jeremy Corbyn grassroots and the Corbynsceptic incumbents (Momentum, the pro-Corbyn movement, has made a video in support of Khan).
“The election process is designed to be extremely difficult for new, ‘non-establishment’ and grassroots members to get involved,” said Becky Boumelha, who wanted to stand as a candidate.
The nominations process remains paper-based, with candidates required to find 20 supporting nominations from individual members, which must be collected in the form of signatures on the paper. Photocopied or scanned signatures are not allowed.
“This makes it incredibly difficult for working people to gather 20 signatures in person from BAME Labour members from all over the country in the two week time period we were given,” said Boumelha.
Candidates who can attract the support of a socialist society or trade union need fewer signatures, but the same rules about how they are collected apply. And finding the trade unions can be hard in the first place – Boumelha said she was unable to find public information about which trade unions were affiliated to BAME Labour.
Boumelha managed to collect 20 signatures, but her application was rejected, ultimately because some of the signatories were “not members of BAME Labour or were not members prior to the six month freeze date” (Boumelha argues this requirement was not clear from the application papers). Josh Jackson, another aspiring candidate, was also stymied by the 20 signatures rule.
A Labour party officer is named on the application forms, so The New Statesman approached the Labour party for comment, but was told this a matter for BAME Labour.
It is not the first time BAME Labour’s electoral process has come under scrutiny. In 2010, the then-general secretary of the Fabian Society Sunder Katwala noted the low turnout in the BAME Labour election and christened Vaz Labour’s “top baron”. In 2012 the society was taken to the High Court over the question of whether Vaz was eligible since it was alleged he had not paid his membership fee (Vaz won).
As for Khan, he told The New Statesman he could not comment on the electoral process. Nevertheless, he criticised the organisation for being too London-centric: “If we want to connect with working-class people we need different people, from different areas.”