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Dispute over Blacks Embarrasses Labor as Election Looms

May 4, 1987

LONDON (AP) _ Demands by black activists for separate sections in the opposition Labor Party have boiled over into a public dispute, embarrassing the socialist movement as it gears up for a general election expected June 11.

Labor leader Neil Kinnock bluntly told protesting blacks and their white sympathizers to ″shut up″ after the party last week stripped a black candidate of her parliamentary nomination for calling the party racist.

″This is a party, not as go-as-you-please competition,″ Kinnock said after Labor’s 28-member national executive committee, all whites, voted to replace Sharon Atkin as the parliamentary candidate for Nottingham East in central England.

As the influence of non-whites has grown in the Labor Party, there have been demands for separate black organizations - or sections - within the party at the local and national levels and for representatives of non-whites on the party’s executive committee.

The demands have gained left-wing support and the confict has been widely publicized in pro-conservative newspapers.

A white, left-wing member of Parliament, Clare Short, who is a Labor spokeswoman on employment, on Monday demanded an inquiry into the the treatment of Ms. Atkin and Phil Murphy, another black activist. Murphy, a member of the Birmingham City Council, was suspended from the Labor Party this month for backing Ms. Atkin.

Kinnock’s angry reaction reflected anxiety within the Labor mainstream that emphasis on single issues, including support for gays and lesbians, will fuel charges by critics that the party is extremist.

Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, averaging a seven-point lead in polls through April, is expected to call a general election next month. That would be a year before the end of her second five-year term.

Polls show about 80 percent of the non-whites, who total 2.4 million or 4 percent of the population, traditionally vote Labor.

The influence of non-white leaders, particularly blacks of West Indian descent, has grown within the party this decade.

The Labor hierarchy and successive annual party conferences, which have a key influence on policy, have consistently rejected the idea of separate black organizations on grounds it would be a sort of self-imposed apartheid.

Activists point to Labor’s longstanding women’s section which has the right to nominate five members of the party executive committee and argue that only similar special treatment for blacks and Asians will get non-whites named to the executive.

Labor is running 14 black or Asian candidates in the next election, a record number. At least four of them are sure to get elected from secure Labor districts. The current 650-member House of Commons is likely to be the last all-white one.

To the embarrassment of party moderates, Ms. Atkin, 35, regularly appears on TV newscasts denouncing the Labor leadership in flamboyant terms.

The present dispute broke out after Ms. Atkin appeared at a Labor rally in Nottingham.

On a platform draped with a red banner, she raised her fist in a black power salute and declared, ″I don’t give a damn about Neil Kinnock and a racist Labor Party.″

Ms. Short said Ms. Atkin’s remarks were ″over the top.″

″However, she has been very harshly treated,″ added Ms. Short. ″But I don’t want to fight with Neil. I want to win the election.″

Ms. Short, who demanded the inquiry after attending a meeting of some 70 blacks and Asian Laborites in her Birmingham district on Sunday, said she would not lead a public campaign to get Ms. Atkin and Murphy reinstated.

Labor nominated an Asian-descended attorney of moderate views, Mohammed Aslam, to replace Ms. Atkin as the candidate in Nottingham East. It is a marginal district of 68,000 votes which the governing Conservative Party holds with a narrow majority.

″The party must expect huge repercussions,″ Ms. Atkin was quoted as saying in London’s Sunday Times this week. ″You don’t need many black voters to stay away for Labor to lose seats.″

The Sunday Times listed 30 high-immigrant Labor parliamentary districts which would be lost by a non-white stayaway.

However, a non-white boycott appeared unlikely. Other leading black candidates who have joined demands for black sections in the past have distanced themselves from Ms. Atkin in the current dispute, heeding Kinnock’s warnings about the cost of disunity.

Said Kinnock, ″It would be nice ... to ignore the inanities and to tolerate the zealotry would be accommodating and pleasant. It would also be reckless and stupid.″

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